Two weeks ago, most of the nation’s top wrestlers were in town and a good portion of Arizona’s top high school competitors were there watching what it takes to be an elite competitor like Jordan Burroughs.
Now that the national camp has moved on from Arizona State’s Riches Wrestling Complex, Eric Larkin was back setting the tempo in the room again.
It’s not surprising to anyone who knows anything about the Arizona wrestling great as he tends to be an alpha male no matter which mat he steps on, whether it was a competitor (Tucson Sunnyside and ASU) or a coach (ASU and Seton Catholic).
The back-to-back training sessions just might have Team Arizona in a position to be mentally prepared for the Cadet and Junior National Championships in Fargo, N.D., which get underway Saturday with Greco-Roman action and closes out on July 26 with the freestyle championships.
Arizona had 35 Cadets (15-16) and 43 Juniors (16-17), along with four girls qualify in at least one discipline. The hope is to better last year’s total of 12 All-Americans, with many of the top wrestlers — other than Bridger Barker, who moved to Idaho — are back, including Tucson Ironwood Ridge’s Danny Vega, who became the state’s 11th national champion last year.
The Arizona coaching staff opened practice sessions a few days early in order to take advantage of the presence of USA Wrestling last week as they began their practices while the room was still warm from the work done by the likes of Aaron Pico, Dustin Kilgore and Burroughs.
“You got to pick up on some things, watched how they prepared and how intense they worked,” Seton Catholic sophomore state champion Quentin Hovis said. “Then you step on the mat and try to emulate what they did.”
One of the things that was clear while watching the Team USA competitors was the way they hung out after practice was over. They didn’t immediately take off their knee pads and wrestling shoes before walking out the door.
Instead they stuck around, kind of like a Major League Baseball clubhouse, to talk shop, work on something or continue working it out.
“We’ve noticed our kids doing the same thing,” Desert Vista coach David Gonzalez said. “They aren’t clocking out as soon as practice is over.”
The other aspect that has the team feeling good about the preparation is having Larkin taking a more prominent role in his second year with Team Arizona after taking a break for a few years because of a MMA career.
Larkin, a two-time Arizona state champ and one of the first Fargo champs from the state in the late 1990s, has helped getting the entire state on board when it comes to working together. It has been done in years past but with the Tucson ties, the bond is even tighter.
“Just getting all the best partners together instead of being secluded has been important,” Larkin said. “All the best states are doing that. They are having training camps and getting all the best wrestlers together. We are trying to do that, and it is what is helping the state evolve so much and so quick.
“That’s how you get better. You have to have the right partner, not only technically, but mentally. I talked to them how intense the elite training camp was and how they never let up. I tell my guys when you go in that room you find the toughest partner or it is just a waste of time.”
Hovis, who finished third in Greco last year and fifth in freestyle, has gotten the message.
“Training with him has made a huge difference, and he turns it up with the intensity, especially for Fargo,” he said. “Fargo is pretty intense and everybody shows up for that one, the best of the best in the country. I’m training like I am preparing to win a national title.”
Desert Vista’s Jeremiah Imonode, one of five Thunder wrestlers heading to Fargo, has found the right partner in his brother Samson, a former Arizona state champ who just finished up his freshman year at West Point.
“If you don’t walk into Fargo the attitude ready to beat someone tough, you might as well not go,” said Imonode, who finished fifth in Greco as a Cadet last year. “Wrestling with my brother, he is providing the energy and physicality I am going to encounter. I feel like I am preparing as much possible.
“Coaches had to get in between because we were brawling. His intensity feeds off my intensity and I feed of his, and it goes off from there. So when I get out there with someone my own age, it is a lot easier.”