Now the No. 1 wrestler, Zahid Valencia seeks post-season success

BY TAYLOR MILLER, USA WRESTLING | FEB. 21, 2017, 7:08 P.M. (ET)

Arizona State freshman Zahid Valencia enters the Pac-12 Championships as the nation’s new No. 1 ranked wrestler at 174 pounds.

A product of St. John Bosco High School in Belleflower, Calif., Valencia came to ASU in 2015 as a top-three recruit by several publications, including Associated Wrestling Press, The Open Mat and Flowrestling.

After taking a redshirt year last season, Valencia was finally able to suit up in a Sun Devil singlet and compete for ASU.

“It’s been pretty great being able to represent my school, wearing the ASU singlet and giving back to them since they put a lot of time and work into me. I just want to give them the best results possible,” Valencia said.

A coach couldn’t ask for better results than what Valencia has produced thus far.

He holds a 31-0 record, highlighted by a 14-0 mark in dual action. Of his 31 wins, 22 came with bonus points attached, including a team-high 11 pins.

Not only has Valencia performed on the mat, he has also exceeded expectations in the wrestling room as a leader.

“He has great leadership qualities because he leads by example, puts in work every day, trains hard and stays focused. He also cares a lot about teammates and wants to be on successful team, so he does whatever he can to help,” Arizona State head coach Zeke Jones said. “He’s still young and maturing. I think learning through wisdom and experience, he’ll get better in the role. He shows what it takes to win and is an ultra-competitor.”

A two-time U.S. Junior World Team member, Valencia has been watched closely throughout the year by the wrestling world, which held high expectations for the freshman. However, he has handled it with poise and dominance. He just wants to have fun.

“I don’t feel any pressure,” he said. “I just need to continue to have fun in my wrestling. It’s been a fun year so far. If I do that and go into every match, thinking that it’s the No. 1 ranked guy in the country and I wrestle to the best of my abilities, then I should be fine.”

As is expected for anyone entering the college wrestling scene, Valencia said he did face some challenges this season, mainly mental challenges like staying calm and maintaining focus in big matches.

He identified his All-Star coaching staff as his biggest source of growth and motivation throughout the year.

Head Coach Zeke Jones, an ASU alum, was the 1991 World champion at 52 kg. Just one year later, he earned an Olympic silver medal in Barcelona, Spain. Jones was also a four-time Olympic coach, including a stint as the head Olympic coach for the 2012 London Games.

He is assisted by Lee Pritts, an All-American for Eastern Michigan, and Chris Pendleton, a two-time NCAA champion for Oklahoma State.

“I trust them 100 percent, every single one of them,” Valencia said. “They’ve all coached a lot of guys and they’ve been on the big stage before, so just to have them there with me and talking me through every situation that could happen, makes me feel like I’ve already been there even though I’m just a freshman. With their experience, I feel pretty confident putting all of my trust in them and what they have to say.”

According to Jones, Valencia’s attention to detail and thirst to learn is what will push him to becoming a great wrestler.

“He understands that he hasn’t done it all yet, so he definitely listens to and trusts what he’s taught because he hasn’t done it yet,” Jones said. “He doesn’t want to miss anything, and for that reason, he’s very coachable because he wants to get all his bases covered. He has room to improve, and that’s the beauty because he’s already having tremendous success. It’s great situation for him because he hasn’t reached his ceiling and hasn’t tapped his potential.”

This week, Valencia and the rest of the Sun Devils prepare for the Pac-12 Conference Championships, which are scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 26, at Maples Pavilion on Stanford’s campus.

Winning a Pac-12 championship would be just another stepping stone toward Valencia reaching the pinnacle of collegiate wrestling—an NCAA individual title.

“I feel completely prepared,” Valencia said. “I treat every opponent, not matter what conference they’re from, as just another guy in front of me. I have to wrestle my best against every opponent. I can’t slack off in any matches. I think my style of wrestling can win me an NCAA title. I have to make it impossible for anyone to score on me and just keep having fun and listening to my coaches.

“I’m pumped to finally be at the end of the season and compete on the big stage. I feel like I’ll be ready when I get there.”