Five Sun Devils compete Thursday-Saturday in St. Louis

Zahid Valencia understands what he is on the precipice of accomplishing.

The Arizona State wrestler can become only the third undefeated freshman national champion at the NCAA Championships, Thursday-Saturday in St. Louis. Valencia is 33-0 and the top seed at 174 pounds, a division with stiff competition, including another prize freshman, Penn State’s Mark Hall.

“It’s been a goal of mine since I was younger to have four NCAA titles and try to go undefeated,” Valencia said. “Nobody wants to lose, and winning is a lot of fun. Mostly, I just go out, trust in my coaches and believe I have all the tools necessary to go out there and win. It’d be nice to make some history and be on the top of that podium.”

Cael Sanderson was the first undefeated freshman national champion for Iowa State at 184 in 1999, on his way to four titles and a 159-0 college career. Illinois’ Isaiah Martinez joined Sanderson as an undefeated freshman champ at 157 in 2015, capping a 35-0 season with a win over Cornell’s Brian Realbuto.

Realbuto, now a senior at 174, is seeded second behind Valencia and could again be the last man in the way of perfection. In December, Valencia edged Realbuto 3-2 to win the Cliff Keen Invitational title.

MORE: ASU wrestling wins first Pac-12 title since 2006

“His schedule has been everything he would need to be prepared for the NCAA Tournament,” third-year ASU coach Zeke Jones said. “He’s battle-tested more than anybody. When you have a kid like this, you try to find people that can beat them. His job is to make sure that doesn’t happen. Sometimes the pressure to remain undefeated for a long time becomes difficult. You need to have athletes prepared to win but understanding (that) losing is part of the process. If he keeps proving us wrong, that’s a good thing.”

Valencia and ASU’s four other NCAA qualifiers off a Pac-12 championship team are members of Jones’ first recruiting class, ranked No. 1 nationally. Heavyweight Tanner Hall competed as a true freshman in 2016 and is making his second appearance at nationals as a No. 7 seed, while Josh Maruca (149), Josh Shields (157, No. 9), Anthony Valencia (165, No. 7) and his brother, Zahid, are debuting at the NCAA meet.

“Coach Zeke always calls us the first believers,” Zahid Valencia said of choosing ASU soon after Jones left as USA Wrestling national freestyle coach to return to his alma mater. “We took that leap of faith. We knew he’s one of the greatest coaches out there and we were going to be in good hands. We just trusted him, and it’s worked out so far.”

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ASU is ranked No. 11 (InterMat) and seeking its highest NCAA finish since sixth in 2011 when Anthony Robles and Bubba Jenkins won at 125 and 157. Robles went 36-0 as a senior. ASU’s other undefeated national champions were senior Eric Larkin at 149 in 2003 and junior Curley Culp at heavyweight in 1967.

Zahid Valencia could face Hall (No. 5 seed) or Virginia Tech’s Zach Epperly (No. 4) in the semifinals then Realbuto or Ohio State’s Bo Jordan (No. 3) in the final if seeding holds to form.

“I felt pretty good all year,” said Zahid Valencia, named Most Outstanding Wrestler at the Pac-12 Championships. “I’ve gotten better, and I can still continue to get better. It’s been a long season. I’ve wrestled some of the top guys in the country and proved myself a little bit. I’m just looking forward to this last tournament and being able to perform to the best of my ability.”

NCAA Wrestling

When: Thursday-Saturday

Where: Scottrade Center, St. Louis

TV: 9 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Thursday, ESPNU; 4-7:30 p.m. Thursday, ESPN; 8-11 a.m. Friday, ESPNU; 5-8 p.m. Friday, ESPN; 8-11 a.m. Saturday, ESPNU; 5-8 p.m. Saturday, ESPN.

ASU wresting NCAA champions

1967: Curley Culp, heavyweight

1985: Eddie Urbano, 150 pounds

1989: Dan St. John, 158

1990: Dan St. John, 167

1993: Markus Mollica, 158; Ray Miller, 167

1995: Markus Mollica, 167

2003: Eric Larkin, 149

2011: Anthony Robles, 125; Bubba Jenkins, 157