How does one measure the value of a program? Look at the community around it and how the people benefit from its existence. For Arizona State wrestling, that worth is seen across the Valley from young kids just learning about the sport to high school athletes dreaming of playing at a collegiate level.
Coach Zeke Jones’ program has made it a priority to expand wrestling’s reach. He and his staff have put on numerous clinics and camps every year that give coaches and wrestlers the opportunity to learn from the best. They range from team competition camps where athletes are able to improve their technical skills and participate in live matches to an intensive camp that tests the wrestlers’ physical and mental limits.
While they are fee-based, Jones believes it’s an essential part of any wrestling program to connect with the community, specifically the local high schools, junior highs and elementary schools.
“It’s allowing those kids who aspire to wrestle in college, to see what that looks like,” Jones said. “To give them hope and a goal and a dream that maybe one day they can wrestle for Arizona State and get an education from here.”
On top of the camps Jones and his staff host every year, they also make sure their wrestlers are out in the community teaching and inspiring kids. This was seen at the All-American Wrestling Camp at Chandler High School, where a number of ASU wrestlers, including former national champion Anthony Robles, spent time educating young wrestlers from around the Valley.
Jones has stood firm on the idea that the relationship between student-athletes and the community is a symbiotic one.
“For them to be able to learn from the most elite athletes in the world, that win-win scenario is good for both of them,” Jones said. “If we’re helping kids in Arizona to be successful even in other programs, then we’ve done our job.”
One of the programs impacted by ASU is Red Mountain.
“There are so many opportunities that he’s providing for young wrestlers,” wrestling coach Kyle Hare said.
In Jones’ first year, Hare and his coaching staff made sure to have their athletes involved with ASU. They would attend home matches and send the kids to camps and clinics like Sunkist Kids in order for them to learn from the best.
With programs like Grand Canyon University dropping its wrestling program in 2016, and University of Arizona at a club level, it’s left to ASU and Embry-Riddle to inspire young wrestlers in the Valley.
“If you removed ASU, they wouldn’t really have anything to look up to locally,” Hare said. “It gives them an opportunity to go and watch a Division I program locally.
Mesa High coach David DiDomenico agreed.
“With ASU being the last premier wrestling program in the state of Arizona, it is the pinnacle, it is as John Winthrop would say, ‘A City Upon a Hill’ that our wrestlers always aspire to be able to compete at,” DiDomenico said.
ASU and Mesa High have had a long relationship. The former coach, Bobby Williams, was a letterman for ASU with Bobby Douglas. The program has had a number of athletes go on and wrestle for the Sun Devils, including NCAA champion Anthony Robles.
Many of the wrestlers that competed at ASU have made it a priority to give back to the community. With alumni like Chris and Mike Smith returning to schools like Mesa, it gives the young wrestlers someone that they can look up to and connect with in a different manner.
“You have someone in between that the kids can relate and communicate with differently,” DiDomenico said. “It’s great role models for those kids who are struggling.”
Wrestling often attracts kids that don’t fit in, DiDomenico noted, so when collegiate programs like ASU mentor these kids, it allows for them to channel their aggression in a positive way.
“It’s a chance to build camaraderie, brotherhood, and teamwork,” DiDomenico said. “It connects with kids that nobody else would connect with and even if they don’t wrestle for Arizona State, they still have a connection because of the influence of the positive people that are associated with that program.”
The ASU wrestling program’s worth stretches far beyond the scoreboard. For many of the wrestlers across the Phoenix metro area, it is the only program in which they can see firsthand what success looks like. For those kids, being connected with a top-notch program like Arizona State helps them realize that their aspirations are reachable.
“You cannot put a money value on the extent of Arizona State’s program,” DiDomenico said. “They don’t need to be national champions to have an influence on all these kids that need something. They are what helps drive all the kids that are left in the cracks.”
Although the young wrestlers being touched by ASU’s community involvement may not all attend ASU in the future, the inspiration is still there.