Bring on the Devils, GCU’s Wrestlers Say
By Doug Carroll
On this side of the mat, wearing purple and black, only three years removed from a winless season … the Grand Canyon University Antelopes.
And on the other side, wearing maroon and gold, with a 47-year history that includes dozens of All-Americans … the Arizona State University Sun Devils.If you’re thinking R.C. LaHaye, GCU’s feisty wrestling coach, is happy just to be swapping holds with ASU, forget about it. When the Antelopes and Sun Devils square off for the fourth time in Saturday’s dual meet in Antelope Gym, know this: He’s in it to win it.
“For us to dual a top-20 team and get them on the schedule is one thing,” says LaHaye, GCU’s fourth-year coach. “But we’re looking to knock them off.”
Don’t laugh. Although the Antelopes are 0-3 in their previous meetings with ASU, they’ve never had the ammunition they do now. Four members of last season’s team qualified for the NCAA Division II nationals last season, and two of them — Victor Carazo (174 pounds) and Ryan Becerra (184) — became GCU’s first wrestling All-Americans.
The season represented a stunning breakthrough for the fledgling program, which went 0-24-1 and 1-16-1 in its first two seasons before going 12-8 in 2009-10.
“We just want our guys to fight,” says LaHaye, a native of Payson who was a Division II All-American at Western State College in Gunnison, Colo. “With that sense of work ethic, you win matches you shouldn’t win.”
Saturday’s meet has been anticipated for months by Carazo and Becerra, who can’t wait to see how the Antelopes measure up against a formidable Division I opponent.
“It’s one of the biggest duals of my life,” says Carazo, a junior from Modesto, Calif. “I like facing tough competition early in the season, because it helps you in the end. You know what to work on.”
Becerra calls the meet “a huge benchmark” for the program, which has been built brick-by-brick by LaHaye.
“What R.C. has done here is pretty awesome,” says Becerra, a senior from Gilbert who raves about the way his young coach connects with college athletes. “With enthusiasm like his, you can’t go anywhere but up.”
LaHaye says it’s all about developing his wrestlers. While Division I schools might have stronger freshman classes than their D-2 counterparts, he’s convinced it’s possible for the better D-2 programs to catch up.
“The level of recruit out of high school is the main difference,” he says. “But at the same time, we have kids who can be at that level in a year’s time. We can get them there. It takes a good attitude and commitment from the kids.”
The program received a substantial boost this year with the opening of a dedicated practice facility on the second level of the new Student Recreation Center on campus.
Carazo says the team can’t believe its good fortune.
“This is world-class,” he says of the facility. “Not many Division I schools have something like this. Last year, we were rolling up the mats so volleyball could practice. Now we come in and work out whenever we want.”
Carazo says it also helps that LaHaye is relentless in promoting the program. Saturday’s meet will be preceded by a youth clinic at 8 a.m. and a cookout on Mariposa Lawn at 11. The goal is to have 1,000 fired-up fans in Antelope Gym for the 1 p.m. start of the meet.
“We need all of the GCU faithful to turn out,” LaHaye says. “A loud, rowdy crowd can create momentum and excitement. That’s what we’re looking for. To win (against ASU), we’ll have to wrestle better than we are.”
Reach Doug Carroll at 639.8011 or firstname.lastname@example.org.