The stage was set.
Way back in the 1950s when then-Arizona State president Grady Gammage and famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright came together to design Gammage Auditorium before it opened on Arizona State’s campus in 1964, they created on of the campus’ iconic buildings.
They probably envisioned spotlights and maybe even machine-generated smoke during a performance when artists like B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Elton John and Broadway touring plays, including Phantom of Opera, Wicked and The Lion King, graced the stage.
The performance on Sunday was rather unique and different than probably anything they thought the two-balcony theater would ever house.
As the sport of wrestling tries to grab a bigger audience the sport has dipped into outside venues like Times Square, battleships on the Hudson River and Grand Central Station in New York City.
Arizona State coach Zeke Jones and the University tried to do something similar by putting the Sun Devils on an actual stage, only previously reserved for the likes of Elton John and the 2004 Presidential debate involving George Bush and John Kerry.
The No. 5 Sun Devils did their best to keep up the lineage of star performances at Gammage with a 32-6 win over No. 22 Pitt.
“One of the first things I thought when I got to Arizona State was wouldn’t it be great to wrestle at Gammage,” Jones said. “Everyone in wrestling now is looking for iconic places to wrestle. The thing about is can do it anywhere. You can do it in your living room or grass, and we’ve all done it.
“To do it here, at a place of this magnitude was pretty awesome.”
The start attraction at Arizona State is redshirt sophomore Zahid Valencia, the country’s No. 1 ranked wrestler at 174.
He got the initial takedown against Austin Bell, but got too high on a roll-through cradle attempt as Bell slipped out for a reversal.
Valencia got the escape and three takedowns before applying another cradle and finished it off with the pin in 1:58.
The match started quickly when No. 5 Ryan Milhof, an All-American at Oklahoma before transferring to Arizona State, had a 57 second pin at 125 and was the start of Sun Devil wrestlers setting the tempo in most of the matches.
“I really haven’t seen Milhof wrestle yet,” Jones said. “He’s pinning everyone too fast.”
In one of only two matches that featured two top-ranked nationally ranked individuals came at 157 when No. 5 Josh Shields topped No. 15 Taleb Rahmani, 4-2. They faced each other twice last season with a split, although got the big one as he knocked Shields out of the NCAA Tournament last year.
“I try to reach all the matches the same but this one had something a little extra,” Shields said. “He left a bad taste in my mouth. I wanted to get back on top of the mountain. It felt good to get this one.”
Shields scored the only takedown when Rahmani took score, picked up the leg and Shields rolled through to start the scramble before the Arizona State redshirt sophomore gained advantage for the two points.
He eventually earned an escape and riding time before Rahmani got a last second reversal.
“I just told myself to keep wrestling,” Shields said. “I feel like I’m one of the best scramblers in the country and there’s not an odd position anyone is more comfortable in than me. You keep moving and working for the advantage.”
The other match with two top 20 wrestlers came at heavyweight as Sun Devil Tanner Hall edged Ryan Solomon 2-0 with a second period escape, and riding time after containing Solomon for the full two minutes of the third period.
Anthony Valencia won his fifth straight match after opening the season 0-3 something – a three-match losing streak – he’s ever had to endure.
He made quick work of Pitt’s Jake Wentzel, 15-3, with a barrage of takedowns and handful of back points.
“It showed me what to work on and I know I can improve from there,” he said. “I’ve already wrestled these guys and heading into the NCAAs I’ve already wrestled these guys and I know what to do and I know I can get better.”
Valencia opened the year with a 14-0 loss to No. 10 Te’Shaun Campbell of Ohio State and 11-3 and 6-0 to No. 2 Logan Massa of Michigan.
Jones said he likes the way Valencia has responded to early defeats.
“He needed it; he was in a war to start the year,” Jones said. “I can’t tell you the monumental growth Anthony is going through right now. I will take a 14-0 loss if it means he comes back and shows the emotional maturity he is showing now. He came back with the focus of how do I beat that guy. That’s what he is doing now, and he never did that before.”
Jones said Sunday’s performance – winning eight of the 10 matches – was the benefit of beginning the season against Michigan and Ohio State, both of which are ranked in the top three in the nation and beat the Sun Devils.
“Make no mistake, we did not lose at Ohio State and Michigan – we learned,” Jones said. “Our kids came saying, ‘OK that’s what a championship team looks like. We can do that.’ ”
One thing they now know they can do is bring in a big crowd to a unique venue and put on a good show at a place that is used to bringing down the house.
“The stage and the setting were terrific,” Jones said. “The thing is once you do it then you know you can do it again and now we know we can make it better. I could really hear the crowd and they were fighting for us.”
– Jason P. Skoda is a senior writer for MyNewsMesa.com. Send Mesa-based story ideas to email@example.com.
No. 5 Arizona State (32), No. 22 Pittsburg (6)
125: No. 5 Ryan Millhof FALL Brendan Price (0:57)
133: Ali Naser MD Jake Cherry, 12-4
141: Nick Zanetta dec. Nikko Villarreal, 5-3 (SV-2)
149: No. 13 Josh Maruca dec. Robert Lee, 7-2
157: No. 5 Josh Shields dec. No. 15 Taleb Rahmani, 4-2
165: No. 8 Anthony Valencia MD Jake Wentzel, 15-3
174: No. 1 Zahid Valencia FALL Austin Bell (1:58)
184: Kordell Norfleet dec. Gregg Harvey, 6-3
197: Kellan Stout dec. Cade Belshay, 2-0
HWT: No. 3 Tanner Hall dec. Ryan Solomon, 2-0