Welcome to March Matness: OSU Wrestling

wrestlingThat’s right. Ten years ago, a Buckeye crazed sports fan really only had football and basketball to occupy the rooting attention. Since then hockey and lacrosse have picked up a piece of the action and now, in the decade since Coach Tom Ryan’s arrival, Buckeye wrestling has assumed a prominent role among collegiate powers to produce excitement in the winter months culminating in the NCAA championships in mid-March.

Ryan. Tom Ryan.  Can his young Buckeyes stir things up?

Ryan. Tom Ryan

Wrestling is part alchemy for a coach because of the different weight classes and wrestlers of varying abilities and spectrums of development–and that is not even taking into account how a coach must stack a great team with an NCAA full funding limit of ten full scholarships. Trying to strategically place wrestlers by class and by year to maximize the potential of the team and individual is more art than science, but the various factors ended up in this being a “stretch” year for the Buckeyes as super talented wrestlers sat on the side line red-shirting while others filled in to get the team to stretch their potential as far as they can.

In those terms, this team, rather than packing it in, has kept the Buckeyes at their now customary top of the national pecking order. After some stunning early success, these young wrestlers settled in for the demanding test of the B1G dual meet season. The hopes certainly were to see growth of a cadre a key wrestlers with the goal of peaking into the B1G Tourney and the NCAA Championships. Now, on the eve of the NCAA Championships March 20-22 in Oklahoma City, we find ourselves with the suggestion the glass is either half full or half empty, but perhaps trending toward a pleasant surprise. You could break down the Buckeyes in several groups—those that have busted through to clear success, those who have seen strong positive progression with mixed results and those who can add points for team results but are likely not to bust through quite yet in their early careers. Let’s look at this week’s brackets in those terms.

Have Arrived

141: Two-time NCAA Champion redshirt junior Logan Stieber remains clearly on track to achieve the iconic status of being only the fourth wrestler in history to win four NCAA titles, despite moving up a weight class to 141. Stieber avenged his only loss in two years in the B1G Championship last week in Madison, WI with a pretty convincing 7-3 win over freshman sensation Zain Retherford of Penn State.

It seems a little odd that the seeding committee would then go on to seed Stieber second. The first seed went to Mitchell Port, a 2013 runner-up presumably because of his undefeated record, though he has yet to face Stieber or Retherford. It seems unfair to ask Stieber to face Retherford in the semi-finals and then get to Port in the finals.

But I’m not crying for Stieber. The guy I really feel sorry for is Retherford. He has wrestled at such an intensely high level it just seems unfair to have him go against Stieber in the semis. After watching the B1G finals and knowing Stieber has probably learned from that, as he always seems to do, and will likely open the gap even more, I don’t think there is much chance Retherford reaches the finals. The battle between him and Port would have been intense had Port been seeded second rather than Stieber. Either way, Logan officially becomes the most decorated wrestler in Buckeye history after he wins his third NCAA title this Saturday night.

U197: Senior Nick Heflin finished fifth last year at 174 with a dramatic cross face cradle pin of colorful Mike Evans of Iowa. This year Heflin has moved up to 197 and has achieved the perfect trajectory. After a confounding overtime loss to Wiscy freshman Timothy McCall, Heflin went on a tear, perfecting his offensive takedown skills and winning the B1G title. His 24-1 record earned him the only Ohio State one seed this year. Nick presumably would face former No. 1 ranked Scott Schiller of Minnesota in the semis, but Nick seems to have Schiller’s number. As I have said before, Nick seems to have the perfect blend of offense and defense now, and he looks simply unassailable on his feet. Heflin still lets matches stay too close, opening himself to a last minute mistake that could cost him a title, but I expect Nick to become OSU’s second title winner of the night.

Those Who Could Arrive

I lump four Buckeyes into the same category—guys who to my eye (admittedly–for what that is worth) are almost there. Their results in the months leading up to the NCAAs were mixed, but a closer looks suggests they are closing a gap and nothing would surprise me from any one of them. I would not bet on a national title this year from any of the four but I would not be shocked if a Cinderella emerged from this group.

125: Redshirt freshman Nick Roberts has been the hard luck kid. He shows brilliance from match to match and often within matches that bely his sixth place B1G finish. He wrestled B1G runner-up and 2103 NCAA runner-up Nico Megaludis extremely gamely in the B1G, letting the match drift away from him toward the end. Nick seems to be able to wrestle with anyone. Unseeded in the NCAA Roberts will be tested right away by fifth seed Dylan Peters of Northern Iowa. I would not be surprised to see Roberts pick off Peters, likely pitting Roberts against Tim Lambert of Nebraska. Lambert has pinned Roberts twice this year, but both were attributable to Roberts’ carelessness. Roberts started off dominating Lambert in their first match only to be caught off guard. In the B1G, the match was close until Roberts actually pinned himself in a rare defensive pin—clearly Roberts could have avoided that result with a little more care. This is not a case of Lambert owning Roberts—Nick just has to exercise more prudence. If Nick can bust through in those two he would face four seed Josh Martiniez of Air Force—another match I could see Nick winning.

That kind of success would be a cumulative surprise, but if Roberts can take the next big step and turn around close matches, he could find himself in the semis facing defending champ Jesse Delgado of Illinois.

133: Redshirt sophomore Johhni DiJulius is a guy who really showed early season brilliance only to stall a bit in the B1G dual season. To be fair, he was hampered a little by injury. Nonetheless he wrestled well in the B1G including a very close 5-3 loss to Minnesota’s David Thorn (see my earlier thoughts on DiJulius here). If DiJulius can also pick his game up a notch and overcome Thorn in a likely second NCAA match, he would then face No. 1 seed Joe Colon of Northern Iowa, a guy DiJulius beat handily at the Cliff Keen at the beginning of the year. Colon is likely not the same guy now, but perhaps this is a case of DiJulius simply matching up well with Colon. A win would put JD in a tough semi-final match against Tony Ramos of Iowa, but again the path is there for Johnni.

149: Redshirt senior Ian Paddock has suffered through agonizing injury almost the entire second half of what started as a very promising Buckeye career. This year has been no different. Paddock looks strong and he is in the best match condition he has enjoyed in a long time. But he still doesn’t look like himself—he has always been a forceful upper body wrestler, almost in a Greco Roman style, but he also had the ability to shoot for the legs—a trait noticeably missing at the B1G.

Still Ian wrestled well at the B1G losing 3-2 to Champion Jason Tsirtsis of Northwestern. He qualified for the NCAA as an at-large and is unseeded. Ian faces No. 11 seed Josh Kindig of Oklahoma State, a winnable match, and if he prevails he would likely face Jake Sueflohn of Nebraska. Sueflohn beat Ian handily a lifetime ago in mid-January but Ian has progressed markedly since then. Sueflohn has not let up either—earning the No. 1 B1G seed although he too was beaten by Tsirtsis in a close match.

This is Ian’s last go around. A true warrior every Buckeye can be proud of, if Ian is healthy and can conjure up his old magic, nothing is out of range for him. The beauty of sport is the chance to root for a guy like Ian Paddock. An even greater beauty would be seeing him bust through–he can wrestle with anyone in this stacked weight class.

184: Redshirt sophomore Kenny Courts is an amazingly gifted wrestler—you don’t see guys with quickness like his from his feet at any weight but especially up in the big boy weights. He can snatch an opponent’s ankle like no one’s business. Kenny probably needs another year to get stronger to compete in a very tough weight class but he is a guy who is capable of going a long way.

As a ten seed he should be able to advance to a second round match against a very tough seven seed Kevin Steinhaus of Minnesota. I think this is a very, very big hill to climb, but with Kenny’s talent I never rule anything out. The problem is if he does win he would run right into defending champion Ed Ruth. Somehow Ruth has actually lost this year, but he is just too dominant. If Kenny is to really be productive he will have to do it through the wrestle backs. While I thought Kenny sleep-walked through his B1G wrestle backs, in the NCAA All American status is on the line so I expect the motivation would be strong for a sophomore to continue wrestling hard. If Kenny’s heart is in his task he is a tough out for anyone.

The Cavalry—Those Who Can Add Valuable Team Points

If the Buckeyes do pick up two individual champions and get one or two strong runs from the Cinderella candidates, they could be in a surprisingly strong team position that could have them needing valuable team points from their remaining two wrestlers.

174: Redshirt sophomore Mark Martin is smart and talented but has been inexplicably inconsistent. As a 14 seed, I can see him winning a first match but running into three seed Robert Kokesh is just too tall an order. Mark will thus have to do his damage from early on in the wrestle backs—a task he is totally up to, and there is a big opportunity for him to do so. It might not be apparent to him in the early matches, but his ability to win from thereon could help the Buckeyes immensely. In a few years there is no ceiling on Martin—this year would be a fine time to get a jump on his future.

285: I just love heavy freshman Nick Tavanello. If you were disappointed by the Buckeye basketball team getting edged by Michigan, you can hold in your mind’s eye Nick’s thundering upset of B1G No. 1 seed Adam Coon of Michigan. Big Nick caught a last second double leg and then lifted and slammed the towering Coon to the mat for the winning margin. Nick has wrestled with hustle and skill all year.

Nick starts off with a pigtail match (kind of like a play-in for basketball fans) against a wrestler from Va. Tech whom he has already beaten. A win would pit him against the ten seed from Boise State. I can see Nick getting that far. Unfortunately he would likely face Connor Medbury from Wisconsin. Medbury seems to have Tavanello’s number so I do not expect much progression in the winner’s bracket, but there is no reason this steam engine cannot speed along in the wrestle backs.

Conclusion: This week will tell, but there is a lot of reason to be optimistic about where Coach Ryan’s team sits. A national championship expectation is realistically still a year away, but this could be a fun stepping stone. ESPN can let you see virtually all of the tournament. Stay tuned. I will be tweeting from OKC so follow me at @twuckeye and also check in with Coach Ryan, @buckeye158 and the OSU account, @wrestlingBucks. It should be fun.

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