Buckeyes Wrestle With Growing Pains

The Buckeye Wrestling Team tied the University of Missouri Tigers, losing the high powered dual meet on “criteria,” going to the fourth tie breaker. Tie meets are first decided on number of wins (tied at 5-5), then on falls (tied 1-1) and then on the total of individual match points (also tied at 48-48). Thus, they lost the dual 20-19 because the Tigers scored more first match takedowns.

It is beginning to sound like a broken record—this team has tremendous potential—the kind of potential that could easily propel the Buckeyes to their first national title in March, but injuries have to some extent masked that potential. It is becoming increasingly clear however that youth and inexperience are talking a toll. Buckeye fans have only to look at what the football team experienced after a loss to Virginia Tech to understand the hold that youth can put on title aspirations. The good news is that like the football experience, lessons can be learned early on that can erase early disappointments and lead to the ultimate goal.

The Buckeyes saw winners at 133 (decision by junior Johnni DiJulius), 141 (forfeit to senior Logan Stieber—which counts as a fall), 157 (decision by senior Josh Demas), 174 (decision by junior Mark Martin) and 197 (major decision by freshman Kyle Snyder). Freshman Bo Jordan was healthy enough to go at 165 if needed, but the decision has been made to hold him out until January to get him both completely healthy and ready. Junior Kenny Courts was injured in Las Vegas and was held out at 184.

Freshman Nathan Tomasello was again victimized by an early mistake that led to a takedown and three backpoints that put him down early 5-0 to third ranked Alan Waters. He stormed back only to fall short 10-8. Nathan has now faced most of the top wrestlers in his 125 pound weight class, including Waters. He has demonstrated superiority through most of those matches but has had the youthful bad luck of getting caught for back points, largely because of his high motor that experienced wrestlers have used against him. At some point Nathan will start to understand what guys at this level can do if you aren’t careful. When that comes, Nathan will be unstoppable.

Sophomore Justin Kresevic filled in gamely once again at 165, and could have won his match, but also made a mistake to lose a heart-breaker. This underscores the importance that experience plays—like a backup quarterback, a reserve wrestler never knows when he is going to be called on and it is a tough task to keep your head against top flight collegiate wrestlers. His energy, drive and talent were unmistakable. He will have his chances again, and hopefully a lesson was learned against Missouri.

The emotional moment of the match came when junior Hunter Stieber emerged to the center of the mat to go against highly ranked Drake Houdashelt. It was thought Hunter would be held out for injury precaution until the New Year, but after two Buckeye wins, including Missouri’s default to brother Logan, the crowd was stoked to see the highly successful Hunter emerge for this campaign. Hunter clearly was not ready for action yet—he was caught in a crossface cradle after a wild scramble for the takedown and pinned as time wound down in the first period.

Coach Tom Ryan conceded it was probably a mistake to insert Hunter in a surprise move. “It’s a lesson how tough the sport is. The body, mind and spirit must be working in unison. Tonight they weren’t for Hunter. Credit to his opponent as well. He stunned him a little. Hunter is ok from a health standpoint and we will work hard to prepare him for our next dual.” So again, the Buckeyes were hurt by not collectively being ready.

Even the wins had tough lessons to think about. Johnni DiJulius is my dark horse candidate for NCAA champion. At his best he has proven he can beat anyone. He has come out this year much tougher and for the most part noticeably more aggressive–you can start to see the pain he is inflicting on opponents. Yet, Coach Ryan offers, “he has to close out periods.” He zoomed out to a commanding 4-0 lead with over two minutes of riding time, only to get reversed near the end of the match, nearly avoiding backpoints. He likes to wrestle in a way to make opponents uncomfortable, but Coach Ryan concedes that piling up points is what really discourages an opponent. “He has a tendency to just hang on, and that is a recipe for trouble.” If Johnni wants to avoid the simple math of getting upset because occasionally things will go against you in close matches at the end, he has to use his punishing style to start putting distance between him and his opponents early and often.

At 197, the anticipated match-up between Snyder and defending national champion J’Den Cox did not materialize as Missouri opted to move Cox up to 285 to win the meet—Cox eked out a win against the always hard working Nick Tavanello. Against the back-up Snyder scored a major 15-5 win, racking up a torrent of takedowns. So far this year Snyder has proven to be as good as expected, which is to say breath-takingly good. Snyder is a world junior freestyle champion who has spent a few years honing his freestyle wrestling. Coach Ryan concedes he needs to advance with his collegiate style (“folkstyle”) by working on his back scoring holds and adding some things from his feet. The complaint, a minor one, is only one of emphasis. “He’s going to be a factor for sure,” Ryan concludes.

Mark Martin ground out a close win but again the feeling was that he was just hanging on, rather than wrestling at his potential. Mark is also one of those guys that you expect has unlimited potential if he went into each match with more determination and fight. He seems at times to get discouraged at points in the match and often leaves you feeling he has more to give than what you see.

Another emotional moment came with Josh Demas’ return to the mat. Demas is naturally traumatized by the death of his close friend, teammate and roommate Kosta Karageorge. “Josh lost last year to injury,“ Ryan notes. “I expected him to come out this year with a youthful passion. We have not seen that yet, though I understand he is having a hard time. He has tremendous talent.”

When asked if there was anything that pleasantly surprised him in the Missouri meet, Coach Ryan responded, “No. [It] was an uninspired performance overall. [I’m] starting to believe this team will have to wrestle above their potential to score the necessary points. We look very average now.” Coach Ryan does not put the responsibility solely on his wrestlers. When asked if his young team mirrored Urban’s football team after that VaTech loss, he volunteered, “Exactly. Hope we can coach them up as well as he and his staff did.”

The wrestling Buckeyes have had to deal with far more than most teams have to fight through in a young season. There is a lot of growth that needs to happen and at the current moment the questions outnumber the answers. But it is a long season. If the coaches can get the young men to come together with a clear common purpose with each doing what he can do with his circumstances, there is every reason to think they will weather the tumult. What this team really needs is for a few of the guys to simply step up from their expectations and have one of those beautifully memorable breakout years. Everyone will enjoy watching Logan Stieber attempt to get a hold on history but if the team wants to be a part of history as a group, others will have to step up and help lead the way.

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