OSU Wrestling: Buckeyes Logan Stieber and Nick Heflin Go for Titles

The Ohio State Wrestling Team advanced its two leaders to the NCAA Championship Finals tonight at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City (8 EDT, televised on ESPN). The Championship matches will start at 174 pounds, meaning Buckeye senior Nick Heflin will be the third match of the night at 197 and junior Logan Stieber will go for his third national title in the 141 pound class—which will be the seventh match of the night.

In a day with mixed team results, the duo capped off the night with strong personal performances propelling the team to fifth in the team standings. Unfortunately, no other Buckeye will place which has caused the Buckeyes to drift to seventh in today’s “medal round matches.” However, success in tonight’s finals will permit the Buckeyes to climb a little higher. Given how young the Buckeyes are this year and how much strength they sat out in red shirt years, a sixth place national finish is a phenomenal result—no check that—it is a fabulous success under any circumstances. Coach Ryan, after encouraging his Buckeyes to dig deep, expressed deep pride in the growth of the entire team and especially for guys like Johnni DiJulus and Nick Tavanello who fought hard, coming up just short in bids to become All Americans.

Stieber started the Buckeyes night off with another convincing win over Zain Retherford of Penn State who had upset Stieber in December in State College, dealing Stieber his only loss in over two years. As predicted, Stieber increased his performance over Retherford two weeks ago in the B1G championships. The score was the same 7-3 and the formula was much the same, but Stieber offered no opportunity to Retherford who looked helpless to make anything happen against Stieber.

As in the B1G, Stieber got an opening takedown (and a second) to go to the second period with a lead. With the choice of how to start, Stieber once again chose neutral, no doubt in deference to Retherford’s punishing leg ride. After Stieber’s third takedown of the night increased his lead to an effective 7-1 lead, the outcome was never in doubt. Retherford managed an escape but had to choose the down position in an effort to score points. Although Stieber did not put Retherford to his back as he did in the B1G, he did return the favor of a punishing ride, holding on until late in the third period. Retherford never got a chance for a ride. Perhaps deflated from the Stieber loss, Retherford lost in the wrestle backs, settling for fifth place this afternoon.

Tonight Stieber will face vaunted Devin Carter of Virginia Tech. Carter has beaten some very good wrestlers but injury had appeared to end his season. Healing quickly, he was cleared a few weeks ago to wrestle and responded by earning a fourth seed. His path to the final was made easier when No. 1 seed Mitchell Port of Edinboro was upset in the quarterfinals.

Nick Heflin had a tougher go at it, in certain respects, and the issue was in doubt until the end, but the match went Nick’s way all throughout and he avoided a mistake that would have cost him a title shot. Facing the eventual third place winner Scott Schiller of Minnesota for the third time, Nick parried all Schiller attempts, taking a 1-1 tie into overtime. Neither wrestler was cautious in the sudden death first minute from the neutral position. The shots were fast and furious and both wrestlers fought off serious shots. Nick appeared on the verge of a winning takedown a few times but Schiller fought his way out. But then Schiller had Heflin in an awkward catch that often leads to a capitulating crumple but Heflin’s incredible strength permitted him to straighten his back and resist the force being exerted by Schiller.

In the next two 30 second periods (which are not sudden death—I know it is called sudden victory but I like being a traditionalist in this instance), Nick kept ride out control resorting to a leg ride over the last few seconds. With Nick’s mid-period escape in the final stanza, he had earned the ticket all NCAA competitors in all sports covet.

Nick now faces national expert favorite J’Den Cox of Missouri—a freshman. Not only have most national experts picked Cox to be a national champion, but most had picked Iowa State’s Kyven Gadson to beat Heflin in the semis—a prediction that went awry when Schiller beat Gadson (a feat he repeated in the third place match). The under-appreciation of Heflin is not new—few predicted he would win the B1G, few predicted him to make the finals, and few think he will win. So all is well—Nick has the world right where he wants it.

As you might expect for two wrestlers in such different weight classes, the styles of the two are very different. Logan is a total takedown master who can use any variety of upper body moves or leg attacks to get his takedown. Nick is far more content to grind out his time on top looking for clear opportunities or mistakes. Logan also typically earns lots of back points even if he did not against Retherford last night. Nick can certainly lock up a mean cradle or other pin, but he tends to win his matches in a low point, methodical way.

But the similarities between the two speak to their success. Both are really at the very top of the strength pyramid for their classes. If on guard, their strength makes them unassailable, essentially negating the weapons their opponents might have from their feet. Indeed, both Retherford and Schiller made very successful leg attempts last night that Stieber and Heflin just “whizzered” themselves out of with little effort.

On a related point, their dominant physical strength lets each take calculated risks that would mean disaster for other wrestlers in the event of failure. But these two typically can just muscle their way out of trouble. Both seem to shoot extraordinary fear type adrenaline through their systems when put in trouble that also has helped in those rare times they have been put in danger.

But the thing that separates them so clearly is, and I am borrowing from Coach Ryan here—they own their stuff the way men do. They know their strengths and weaknesses and game plan the match in enforcement mode to ensure the match plays into their advantages. Physical strength is a big part of it, but a guy has to know what works well and what does not, must have a plan and work it, and must enforce the flow of events. That is probably the single biggest thing that separates them from others who have not reached this pinnacle.

So this is the great thing about wrestling—the team sport aspect is great fun and watching these young guys participating and growing in such an intense effort has been rewarding. Now that much of the team has retired, the excitement only really begins as two young men, born and bred in Ohio, go for their glory and the glory of anyone who roots for the team, who roots for the sport, or who roots for people who survive in the toughest of environments.

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