Seniors set the tone as OSU wrestling goes for sixth-straight Pac-12 title

(Left to right)  senior wrestlers Joey Delgado, Joey Palmer and Ali Alshujery pose with their family on Senior Night against CSU Bakersfield

Mitchell Monge, Multimedia Contributor

As the Oregon State wrestling team pursues their sixth straight Pac-12 title, the young team has been looking to senior leadership in the heat of the championship tournament.

Seniors Joey Palmer, Joey Delgado, and Ali Alshujery have done a great job filling the leadership void on a team that doesn’t have that many veteran to start with.

“They’ve done a good job providing leadership,” said associate head coach Kevin Roberts. “And they’re not more of the super vocal leaders. Palmer kinda started a little bit more this year, but for the most part, they’ve just been good, solid workers.”

Unfortunately, Alshujery has been held out this season due to injury, and is “thinking about (medically) redshirting” this season.

“Since I can’t compete… I try to lead as much just by practicing, and by doing things physically,” Alshujery said. “We don’t really have a lot of vocal leaders, so it’s mostly just lead by example… We have a lot of young guys and I kinda just try to show them (as much as possible).”

Good work ethic in these individuals is something that anyone could witness on their own at any practice. Day in and day out, Palmer and Delgado continue to lead their team by example on the mat. Head Coach Jim Zalesky recognizes the effort level that is put out every practice.

“Each person, they see how they run, they see how they lift,” Zalesky said. “Palmer’s a go-go-go guy, and when he wrestles, he’s the best example of how I want our team to wrestle. You just have to get some of the younger guys to see that’s how you gotta wrestle to be successful at this level.”

For many, watching Joey Palmer in the practice room looks similar to a young kid, with the energy and enthusiasm he brings to the mat every day. Other teammates can feed off this energy, bettering themselves as well.

“What we wanna do is kind of influence them to have good habits, and influence them to do the right things every day and being consistent with workouts,” said the 133-pound Palmer. “They’re the future of OSU wrestling, and we want them to make an impact these next couple years.”

Not to mention Palmer in addition to inspiring younger teammates, he also wants to inspire beginning wrestlers someday as well. Palmer and Delgado have had solid impacts off the mat as well, including thriving in the classroom.

“(They’re) always doing the right things in here and off the mat too,” Roberts said. “Both (are) on schedule here to be graduating (this spring). Palmer’s gonna be a teacher, and a youth coach, so that’s pretty cool. Just both really good, hard-working kids, outside of the wrestling success they’ve had.”

And what success both these have wrestlers enjoyed.  

Delgado and Palmer have previously competed at Pac-12s, with Delgado winning his weight class in 2014 at 141 pounds. Palmer has also been successful, claiming a second place finish at 133 pounds last season.

Both would also like to continue that success, and perhaps earn a sixth-straight Pac-12 title for the OSU wrestling team.

However nice another title might be, Zalesky wants his team to focus on the big picture.

“The main thing down there is to qualify yourself for the NCAA tournament,” Zalesky said. “If you win the (Pac-12) tournament, you’re going to the NCAA tournament, which is what wrestling’s all about. Yeah, we wanna win Pac-12s, but it’s more about qualifying for the NCAA tournament.”

Roberts echoed Zalesky’s call to focus on individual matches first, and let the team component take care of itself.

“The main thing is, we talk about every year is that wrestling is a team sport,” Roberts explained. “It’s a different dynamic because it’s such an individual sport, but it’s a team sport too. You get to the end of the year, and we talk about, ‘the best way you can help your team is go out and take care of your business.’”

Taking care of business has not been a problem for either wrestler in the past.

Roberts, a member of the OSU coaching staff for 10 years, is able to recall how these young men have been natural leaders since day one.

“Great influence on the younger guys,” said the veteran assistant. “Even since they were young guys themselves, as far as just being guys who can come into the (wrestling) room every day with the right attitude, and great work ethic.

“You know they live their life right. They’re just kids getting a perfect opportunity to be student athletes at this level, and taking full advantage of it.”

The way Palmer and Delgado lead the team by example speaks to the level of respect they have obtained from their fellow wrestlers.

“(Their teammates) know these guys have their back, and they’ll be down there working with them, any time of the day,” Roberts said. “They’re the type of guys that when they get done with their match, they’re exhausted… (Yet) within a couple minutes, they’re back out mat-side, cheering for the next guy.”

These seniors have been a big part of helping build the championship culture at OSU.

“To me, that’s big: culture,” Roberts stressed. “Culture of the team, team dynamics, all that stuff is big, and they’ve been really good examples of that.” 

Coach Zalesky was able to sum up how Delgado and Palmer have kept that culture a part of the wrestling program, especially during a sub-.500 season. 

“They’ve just been seniors,” Zalesky said. “Both of them have been wrestling well, both of them have struggled at times throughout the season, so it’s one of those things young guys can look at and say, ‘Hey, not everything is easy.’ When you stay with it, good things will happen.”

Now in his fifth year with the team, the type of leadership put forth by Delgado not only encourages younger wrestlers, but also boosts overall team morale.

“I just think I focus on going into the room with the right attitude and positivity, and I think that goes a long way with these younger guys,” said the 149-pounder. “I’m just making sure I do the right thing, and just am passionate whatever I do around the wrestling room, around wrestling, and my life.”

His passion for wrestling has shown through this season, as Delgado was the only Beaver wrestler who was also consistently in the top-20 rankings as an individual. Palmer was also ranked at various points throughout the season, but neither wrestler let it get to his head.

“I think the main thing for me is that they’re both strong, loyal guys,” Roberts expressed. “I really like that about them. They’re big team guys… which to me, loyalty, and being a team player is really important. Sometimes, that trumps talent. You can have talent, but you also gotta have good leaders and guys who are loyal to their buddies around them.”

As underdogs in the Pac-12 Tournament, being a team player will be necessary, as other conference teams like Stanford and Arizona State who are loaded with young talent.

However hard losing some of your best wrestlers to graduation may be, Zalesky remains a believer of “next man up.”

“Anytime you lose seniors, you gotta have somebody step up and replace them. We’ll miss the leadership that they bring. It’s kind of the example we want to have for the other guys to look at.”

Luckily for the Beavers, they have two extremely talented wrestlers still waiting to take the mat next year.

“You got two guys probably sitting on the sidelines: (Ronnie) Bresser and (Amarveer) Dhesi. They’re out this season, so hopefully they’ll be back next year,” Zalesky said. “They’re actually our most accomplished guys, coming into this year so, hopefully we’ll have them back.”

But the focus isn’t completely on next year quite yet.

With Pac-12 Championships Sunday, Roberts isn’t taking anything for granted. He has faith that these guys, who have trained all season for this Sunday, will come together for a special performance.

“Three of the last five years we won, we probably weren’t supposed to win on paper, and we did,” Roberts explained. “That was (a combination of) team dynamics, guys getting behind each other, pulling tight matches out, and being a close team.”

Every wrestler will be looking to win his respective weight class for an automatic birth to the NCAA tournament in Missouri this March. If not, each individual must hope for an at-large bid from the selection committee.

“We don’t know how many spots we’re gonna get,” Zalesky noted. “The only way to (claim a spot) for sure… is to win the tournament.”

Oregon State will be on the quest for six straight conference titles this Sunday, at Maples Pavilion in Palo Alto, Calif. As Stanford hosts the tournament, they will look to win at home similar to how OSU did in 2015.

The matches will start at 10:30 a.m. and continue on throughout the day, with the fifth, third, and championship matches being televised on Pac-12 Networks Sunday evening.

On Twitter @mitchmonge55

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