Carazo, ‘Lopes Wrestlers Begin Championship Quests
By Doug Carroll
R.C. LaHaye didn’t have much to sell in the way of results when he first met Victor Carazo at a California wrestling camp in the summer of 2008.
The coach, charged with launching the wrestling program at GCU, was coming off of an undistinguished 0-24-1 first season. Carazo, looking for a place to land after wrestling for Modesto Junior College, remembers the GCU shirt that LaHaye was wearing — and little else.
“I had no idea where the school was,” recalls Carazo, who is from Salida, Calif.
LaHaye was sincere and kept his pitch simple.
“I’m looking for three things — good people, good students and good wrestlers, in that order,” he said.
Carazo liked what he heard, and since arriving on campus he has “never worked this hard,” he says. The results speak for themselves: a 71-10 record in matches over the past two seasons, with third- and fourth-place finishes at the NCAA Division II Championships that earned him All-America honors both times.
The unfinished business of an NCAA title at 174 pounds begins Saturday for Carazo at the annual Grand Canyon Duals, which will bring five of the best teams in Division II to GCU Arena.
In addition to the fifth-ranked Antelopes, the competition includes No. 1 Newberry (S.C.) College, No. 3 St. Cloud (Minn.) State University, No. 8 Mercyhurst College (Pa.) and No. 18 Colorado Mesa University. GCU will wrestle Mercyhurst at 11 a.m., Newberry at 3 p.m. and St. Cloud State at 5 p.m.
“These teams are the best in Division II,” Carazo says. “This will be an indication of how good we really are.”
This is inarguably LaHaye’s most talented team in his five years at GCU, and last season’s 17-4-0 dual-meet record figures to be surpassed. Even with several injuries, the Antelopes gave Division I Arizona State University a serious scare on Nov. 13 before losing, 27-16.
Carazo didn’t wrestle against ASU — or anyone else on GCU’s schedule in the first semester. Because he had wrestled for three semesters in junior college, that left him with five semesters of varsity eligibility at GCU, so he redshirted the first part of this season.
He wasn’t idle, however. He trained on his own and, wrestling unattached, sprung a huge 10-5 victory on Nov. 21 over All-American Jordan Blanton of the Division I University of Illinois in the National Wrestling Coaches Association All-Star Classic in Tempe.
Suffice it to say, he’s ready to go. LaHaye says the key for Carazo has been a bottomless appetite for improvement.
“I’ve been working on being more offensive,” says Carazo, who moved up to 174 from 165 last season. “I have great counters, but R.C. knew I needed to open up and score more.
“Back-to-back trips to the (NCAA) semifinals were important, but coming up short gets to you. We have a great team this year, and (NCAA) championships for the team and me would be a great way to end my wrestling career.”
One of the obstacles — for both Carazo and the Antelopes — already is out of the way. Ryan Pankoke of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, the national champion at 174 last March, has graduated. And Nebraska-Omaha, which won the Division II team championship, has dropped its wrestling program for financial reasons.
The Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference championship figures to be a two-team battle between GCU and perennial power the University of Nebraska at Kearney — the ’Lopes versus the Lopers. Last season, GCU won the regular-season title and finished third at the conference/Region IV meet.
Because of LaHaye’s astute recruiting, wrestling’s shaky status in a number of financially strapped Division I and Division II athletic programs, and sheer hard work, GCU has ascended quickly to the top.
“The first two years, it was all about putting our system in place,” LaHaye says. “Now when we show up, other teams know they’ve got their hands full. We’ve got guys who can do some damage.
“We’re getting higher-level recruits than ever before. We’re turning away kids we would have loved to have had during the first two years here.”
Reach Doug Carroll at 639.8011 or firstname.lastname@example.org.