Photo Courtesy Arizona State Athletics
CLEVELAND – Zahid Valencia and Mark Hall crossed paths at Quicken Loans Arena on Friday after each won their semifinals. They both extended a hand but didn’t look each other in the eye.
There was no escaping contact on Saturday.
The two competitors faced off in one of the more anticipated championships of the 10 that took place before a record 19,776 fans at the 2018 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships.
It is something they’ve been doing since they were about eight years old, only this time there was a little more stake as the top-seeded Valencia and No. 2 Hall come in undefeated and expecting to remain as such for the 174-pound title.
It wasn’t possible – not after the seven most grueling minutes of the season – on this night.
Valencia won 8-2 on the strength of three takedowns for his first national title and the first for Arizona St. under Zeke Jones.
It’s a long way from his first year on the mat in Bellflower, Calif., when he went 1-18 before really going to work with his brother Anthony, a two-time national qualifier, in the family’s garage, which was set up with padded wall and wrestling mats.
“So as soon as we started getting really good, me and my brother, we decided, Hey, let’s make goals for each other,” Valencia, now 32-0, said. “So we just were shooting for the stars – world champ, Olympic champ, four-time NCAA champ. But that’s all you can really do is reach for the stars.”
Valencia set the tempo from the start against Hall as he always does; taking shot after shot. It can sometime get him out of position but that certainly wasn’t the case on the big stage.
He got the initial takedown at 1:15 and led 2-1 after one period; he added a takedown in the other two periods including the final win in the waning seconds to secure his first national title.
“It’s amazing, when I got recruited by him, he had this dream, this goal, and he brought me along with starting something on the West Coast at ASU, doing the whole folkstyle, freestyle, becoming the best in the world,” Valencia said. “And I really believed in him and I’ve been working with him for a few years now. I think I’ve gotten a lot better. I think you could see it’s just been amazing being able to be coached under him.”
The win also secured the 10th spot finish for the Sun Devils as they finished with 43 points and two other All-Americans in senior Jason Tsirtsis (149, seventh place) and sophomore Josh Shields (149, eighth place).
“It was important to show the progress and get into the top 10 with a pretty young group,” Jones said. “It doesn’t guarantee anything for next year or that we might plateau a year or two. It does show that the proper steps are being made to bring us back to where we feel we belong.”
It started with bringing in the No. 1 recruiting class from the start, anchored by the Valencia brothers.
Jones did so by talking of winning world medals, which Zahid did over the summer, and national titles.
So, far, so good.
“It’s a big step for him, but the not the ultimate,” Jones said. “This is one of the things we talked about, but it wasn’t the end goal. There are a lot of things ahead for him.”
In Valencia’s mind that includes working with his brother to accomplish the goals they set out of for each other long ago.
“It’s been an incredible journey starting, I was 2, he was 3, doing everything together,” Zahid said. “I’m sad he can’t have this feeling right now, but he’s got two years left and I believe in him.
“Both of us are going to keep working to be those two brothers standing here next to each other as national champs.”