Zeke Jones knew he had the support of the administration at Arizona State, the proximity of the Art Martori’s Sunkist Kids was a huge bonus and the facilities were among the best.
What he didn’t know when he decided to leave the U.S. Olympic training center and the best assembled talent in the country for his alma mater was how his presence in Tempe, as the face of the program, was going to be received by prized recruits.
After all, the wrestlers are the lifeblood of a program. There can be all the support in the world but if the bodies in the room are not of the highest caliber then the struggles were going to remain.
Then the phone rang. It changed the program’s optics instantly.
The Valencia brothers – Anthony and Zahid – were the first ones to truly believe in Zeke Jones’ vision.
“It was literally when I was announced the coach, five minutes later my phone rang, and it was (father) Ruben Valencia and he said: ‘You’re close to us,’” Jones said Wednesday.
“I also call Anthony and Zahid the first believers. They were the first ones to believe that we could do something great when we had nothing. The team was 65th in the country.”
That’s all changed and the Sun Devils will continue to grow over the next two seasons, especially if Jones’ recruiting classes continue to be among the best in the country.
Only two of the eight qualifiers in Cleveland this weekend are seniors.
“Zahid and Anthony committed shortly after, but we didn’t have much for them,” Jones said. “We really – you can call it a vision and a dream or maybe I call it smoke and mirrors, but we shared with them that you could help build something here.
“So they believed. And I think that when they believed that gave Tanner Hall, Josh Shields, Josh Maruca, the place in their minds where they’re saying, OK, we want to be part of building something, too.”
They came to Tempe with the expectation of transforming the program into a national power.
“Once we got that ball rolling (in recruiting), then the ball rolled,” Jones said. “Then we were in a place where it got easier. But Zahid is a tremendous, as we all know, a world-class athlete who got the gift. And he’s been blessed. And he’s training his gift. You just can’t have it; you’ve got to train it.
“He’s been a true leader in the room, outside the room, in the wrestling community, in the Arizona community and we’ve been really fortunate to have that happen to us and for them to be highly successful and it started with Zahid and Anthony being those believers.”
– Jason P. Skoda is a senior writer for MyNewsMesa.com. Send Mesa-based story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.