Seems like the flight from San Diego in route to Madison, WI is a good time to offer up some observations on the B1G Wrestling Championships I am about to enjoy. But first let me direct you to some excellent detailed previews of the tourney. First is Dan Vest’s complete breakdown at landgrantholyland.com. I cannot really quibble with any of Dan’s OSU perspective. I do think Logan Stieber revenges his lone loss to PSU’s Zain Retherford and I agree that a commanding decision is very possible. This is a very highly anticipated match–if you cannot get to Madison, find BTN on Sunday and don’t miss this one. I also agree that Johnny DiJulius and Ian Paddock have the potential to break through but both have not exactly lit up the B1G this year, so if they do shoot to a high finish it will mean they surprisingly showed something they have not for several months. Which would be really cool because these are two very talented and likable young men who are easy to root for.
My quibble is not so much with Dan’s discussion of Nick Heflin, but I will go one better and predict Nick wins his first B1G championship. I agree that any one of three competitors including Nick could win the B1G and the NCAA titles. I also agree that Nick’s win over Minnesota’s Scott Schiller was closer than it looked because of a five point throw. But Nick was not the one who got thrown, he is the one who pulled it off–it’s not a fluke. And here is the thing. Nick has clearly gotten over the fear of shooting from his feet, something that has caused his matches to be close. I actually think Nick is the best athlete of the group—so once he threw off his mental block he has been a bit of a wrecking ball. A third place finish is entirely possible for Nick, but his trajectory has been steep and forceful. Our boy is on a mission and I expect that to continue.
Ok, we have also said, ad nauseam perhaps, that this is a year in which Ohio State sits on its firepower as several high performers redshirt, including defending B1G champ at 141 and third place NCAA finisher Hunter Stieber. Oh, and the studs that arrive on campus next year are headlined by current junior world champ Kyle Snyder.
But there are many reasons to be interested in, and still believe in the team potential of Ohio State this year. First, let me draw a parallel between this tourney and international soccer leagues which, because of their habit of relegating the least successful teams to lower divisions for the following season, and promoting successful teams from lower divisions to higher ones, create excitement at the top and bottom of the “table” (to use the cute phraseology of the Brits).
What am I babbling about? This:
“This” is the NCAA allocation of NCAA Championships by conference. There will also be a few at large bids extended (which make for some interesting non-placing exhibitions at each conference tourney) but it means for example, that in the 149 weight class, the top six finishers in the B1G Tourney will receive a bid to the big dance, to borrow from college basketball.
Ok, I have said this before, but if you step on any mat with an Ohio State singlet, you are one of the best wrestlers in the country competing in far and away the best conference (see the allocation of 74 NCAA slots to the B1G compared with 47 for the number two conference). So don’t feel too sorry for the likes of Randy Languis at 157 or Joe Grandominico at 167. Despite their lack of success within the B1G dual meet season these are two very good wrestlers who competed well and fought very well. I am sure Coach Tom Ryan bursts forth with respect and gratitude for the efforts these guys have been giving. Joe is not going to derail Ohioan David Taylor of Penn State from becoming the next four time B1G champ, but it will be exciting to watch him and Randy compete for one of the eight tickets in their respective brackets to Oklahoma City in two weeks.
The same can be said for Ian Paddock as he competes to squeeze into one of only six spots at 149. The B1G enjoys a whopping nine slots at 285 where the competition is fierce. Nick Tavanello has really competed well this year and I expect him to make a fun run to pick up an invite for himself. So obviously the point is—don’t just look at the championship matches—points can be scored, meaningful matches can be won, respect can be earned and lifetimes of satisfaction can be enjoyed with what is happening up and down the brackets.
Take a moment and listen to this short interview with Tom Ryan. It is impossible not to like Coach Ryan. He is an intense and thoughtful man enlightened and hardened by the trials of having given all he had while competing: and enjoying and suffering the highs and devastating lows the sport has to offer (this is a guy who gave up a full ride at Syracuse to walk onto Dan Gable’s Iowa Hawkeyes, where he had a brilliant career, losing a National Championship in the final seconds of his bout with Oklahoma State’s Pat Smith). He is speaking with love for his wrestlers but there is also a hope and frustration that fairly leaps out between the lines. I had written with high hopes of the strides which the Buckeyes could take over the recently concluded B1G dual meet season. Frankly, with the exception of Nick Heflin throwing off the doubt, growth was not apparent and in fact some backsliding was disheartening to see. Obviously Logan Stieber continued to motor on—these comments are largely directed at about half the team, the half which has the potential to burst through but never really showed much during the dual meet season. Comparing results to potential, one has to be disappointed, but still hopeful, and my guess this is what weighs on and encourages Coach Ryan.
Now things can be misleading. If for example a wrestler says, “look, my target dates are mid-March. I am going to work my ass off every day, including days before and maybe even days of dual meets. Maybe that means I’m a little out of gas for a dual, but I cannot afford to take any days off getting ready for March.” I want to think that has been happening, but human nature is to want to be ready for every match. I suspect what we saw with this portion of the team is where they are. And to me, Coach Ryan is speaking to the same disappointment.
There is a point here and it is at times a subtle one—one needs a mental commitment to winning. On the one hand that sounds too much a cliché—certainly the guys want to win and I am guessing they train to win. So fighting hard with determination is almost a given. But the opponents at this level come with the same intensity. Invariably one will wear the other down and when the crushing starts, the aggressiveness gets wiped away, heads fall and energy gets trumped by a stronger opposing energy. It has been Ohio State wrestlers who have too often this year had their attitudes set back by their opponents.
Former Buckeye great JD Bergman once said at a certain point he just decided, in tough matches he was no longer going to settle for losing by a point. If he loses by a point, why not win by one. That sounds more like a conclusion than a strategy—a conclusion that can be countered simply by an opponent who is determined not to let you write your own conclusion. It is kind of like saying, “ok, I am going to make myself invisible.” Nice to say, but how are you going to do it? How do you make this more than words? But to anyone who has gotten to a similar point and made the same determination, it is a state of mind that resonates and can translate into a meaningful difference.
To decide to win is not a conclusion, it is a process. The process starts with being as fit as the other guy, working hard and competing hard and staying determined but it is more. But more importantly, guys who make this determination, as suggested by former Buckeye great Reece Humphrey, go in with a plan and they make that plan stick. They know where they are strong and where they are weak. It is not so much about the other guy, though knowing tendencies, strengths and weaknesses is important. But the bigger key is to know your game, what works, what doesn’t and how to game manage the two (William Sherman once said about Grant, “I’m a damn bit smarter than him but where he beats me and beats me soundly is he doesn’t give a damn what the enemy is doing out of our sight and it scares me like hell”).
That winning mindset means fighting hard to make the match go as you want it to, fight for a lead and defend that lead so that you can continue to wrestle your match. It is a subtle distinction about how to turn a match in your favor. It involves being disciplined about what you have to do and fighting to enforce that. And as Logan Stieber says, it is about not making little mistakes. At this level, the guys are good enough to make their own things work if you give them any opportunity to do so.
No, this is not as strong as a Tom Ryan team can be, but it has the talent to be a very successful team if each member of the squad can tell himself he has earned the right to win by a point.