Myles Martin, last year’s NCAA champ at 174 pounds, learned that lesson regarding Zahid Valencia this summer when the Sun Devils’ thundering freshman beat him 7-0 for the 84 kg gold medal at the UWW Junior Freestyle Nationals. Valencia defeated Martin by the same score in the 2015 finals.
“I wasn’t worried about his title,” Valencia said, referring to the national champ’s amazing run at last year’s NCAAs. “I am already 3-0 against him. I know what he does. I just feel it will get worse every time I wrestle him.”
That won’t be this year, at least not in NCAA DI action. Martin is up in the ferocious firestorm known as 184 Pounds, though the competition at 174 – Valencia’s weight — makes it one of the tougher weightclasses this year.
Valencia, ranked No. 2 nationally, is one of three wrestlers still undefeated at the weight. The other two are Ohio State’s Bo Jordan, ranked No. 3, and VT’s Zach Epperly, No. 1. Valencia has more victories than Jordan and Epperly combined. Ohio State and Virginia Tech competed in Las Vegas at the Cliff Keen, though Jordan and Epperly were absent. Valencia defeated Cornell’s Brian Realbuto 3-2 for the title in an exciting bout, with Zahid scoring a last-second takedown. Three weeks later, he won the Midlands, defeating Iowa State’s Lelund Weatherspoon 11-2 in the finals.
Valencia is unbeaten in college so far, and he’s done it the hard way. Ranked wrestlers he’s crossed off his to-do list include No. 20 David Kocer/North Dakota State, No. 11 Zac Brunson/Illinois, No. 9 Lelund Weatherspoon/Iowa State, No. 8 Ethan Ramos/NC State, No. 7 Myles Amine/Michigan, and No. 4 Brian Realbuto/Cornell. He’s the Hodge Trophy’s leading candidate in victories and has five pins this season. No college freshman has ever won the prestigious award.
Valencia has seen bumps along the way, but not many. Possibly the most devastating was his semifinal defeat in Bakersfield as a high school sophomore at the CIF, California’s state wrestling tournament. Zahid and his brother Anthony had won titles as freshmen wrestling for St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower, a suburb south of Los Angeles. There was talk about Zahid becoming California’s second 4-time state champ, a near-impossible feat considering that California has only one state champ per weight class, meaning there are no divisions denoting small, large, and private school. Only Bakersfield’s Darrell Vasquez had accomplished this. Many thought Zahid was unstoppable, though someone should have mentioned this to Lemoore’s Sean Williams. He upset the champ 3-2. Valencia went on to take third, and notable California state champs that year were Aaron Pico, Isaiah Martinez, Jeramy Sweaney, Nick Nevills, Christian Pagdilao, and Mason Pengilly.
“Zahid and his brother (Anthony) have been training as if preparing for the Olympics since their youth” said California Wrestler editor Al Fontes. “Zahid has the potential to win it all, several times.”
Valencia may have fallen short in his quest to win four CIF titles – he won three – but what he accomplished at the Ironman, high school wrestling’s most notorious and competitive tournament, has only been done by David Taylor, Both won it four times.
“Valencia has the look of a guy who can win multiple NCAA titles, very possibly starting this year,” said former Ironman director Bob Preusse. “Zahid is so very mentally tough, something we witnessed when he defeated Myles Martin in his OT ride-out to win his fourth Ironman. All the pressure was on Zahid, but it didn’t crack him.”
With Zeke Jones now coaching at Arizona State, California’s best wrestlers can stay closer to home. The Sun Devil roster features several Golden State wrestlers. Along with the Valencia brothers, there’s Nikko Villareal, who stopped Alex Cisneros from becoming California’s second four-time state champ, Christian Pagdilao, Ali Naser, Ryan Nantuna, and Anthony Anderson.
Zeke Jones is certainly a draw, and it’s his ties to freestyle wrestling that attracts recruits. Jones, former U.S. Olympic and World team coach, was hired by Arizona State in 2014. He’s a Sun Devil alum and wrestled under Bobby Douglas when Arizona State won their one and only NCAA team title in 1988.
Jones brought an Olympic training center to Tempe, and that has a tremendous influence on his wrestlers, especially first-year freshmen taking a redshirt.
“We’re seeing the long-term affects of putting the ROTC (Regional Olympic Training Center) in place,”
said assistant coach Chris Pendleton. “The younger kids are exposed to higher levels of competition sooner.”
That philosophy and opportunity has translated in how Jones prepares his redshirt freshmen for the following four years of eligibility. Instead of competing unattached in DI college events, the Sun Devil neophytes wrestle in freestyle tournaments.
“We take a different approach,” said Pendleton. “Zahid wrestled in the U.S. Open and the Dave Schultz Memorial International last year.”
Valencia did compete at the Midlands unattached his true freshman season, but at 184 pounds. He won two matches, then had the misfortune of running into David Taylor in the quarterfinals. Taylor won by TF 15-0, and Valencia ended up placing seventh. The Sun Devil coaching staff was pleased with his performance.
“It showed that he could compete,” said Pendleton.
Having Chris Pendleton in the room sure hasn’t hurt the Sun Devil wrestlers. Like Valencia, Pendleton is from California. He wrestled at Lemoore High School and won a state title his senior year.
Also in the Sun Devil wrestling room is alumni wrestler Blake Stauffer, an All American in 2015.
“Blake’s a graduate assistant,” said Pendleton. “He’s been integral in Zahid’s development.”
The flame was turned up at 174 pounds when Penn State’s Mark Hall was removed from his redshirt status to compete in the Iowa/PSU dual meet. Hall, wrestling unattached at the season’s start, won the Southern Scuffle. He defeated Lehigh’s tough Ryan Preisch and Kyle Crutchmer from Oklahoma State in the process. Valencia has yet to wrestle any of them. But that Hall and Valencia, a pair of freshmen, captured the three big holiday tournament titles, and at a heavier weight, says much. Hall lost to Alex Meyer in his coming-out party in Iowa, though that won’t diminish his smolder in March.
Valencia has a few more tests before the NCAAs. The Sun Devils wrestle Stanford and Illinois in dual meets, and both teams have men ranked nationally at Zahid’s weight (Zac Brunson and Jim Wilson.) But Valencia seems on track for a possible NCAA title.
“To win it, he has to wrestle within himself,” said Pendleton. “He has to focus on the first round and not look past anybody.”
To some, it’s not surprising that California produces more quality high school wrestlers than almost any other state. The sheer size gives it an advantage. But the rest of the country should be thankful wrestling hasn’t caught on in areas like Los Angeles or San Francisco. LA County’s population is larger than Iowa, Nebraska, and Oklahoma combined. The Golden State would dominate high school wrestling unchallenged if their dormant regions were tapped. The Valencias are proof of this, and so is their high school teammate Aaron Pico.
Beware the State of Gold.
3X CA State Champion/4x State Medalist (1, 3, 1, 1)
3x Cadet National Champion – FS/GR
2x USAW Folkstyle National Junior Champion
FLO National Champion/2x All-American
3x ASICS High School All-American – FIRST TEAM 2X
Amateur Wrestling News All-American
Wrestling USA Magazine All-American – DREAM TEAM
Dave Schultz Champion of Champions Award
4x Walsh Ironman Champion