Do the Wrestling Buckeyes Have the Right Stuff? Twuckeye with his take

After the Ohio State Wrestling Team lost to Lehigh—let me say that again, Lehigh!—it is tempting to say that the hype surrounding this team has exceeded its grasp. First, let’s be clear about something—in football, Lehigh is venerable (think Lehigh v. Lafayette) but insignificant on a national stage. On the wrestling stage however, Lehigh is more than a credible program—in fact it is a co-favorite to win the prestigious EWIA.

But come on—if the Buckeyes are the team we have hyped them to be—me most of all—then they should have been able to sneak by Lehigh. But Lehigh came out with an attitude that said, “you think you’re so tough? How about I hit you in the face a few times and then see how tough you are.”

Don’t get me wrong. Every young man who steps on a mat wearing an Ohio State singlet is a remarkable young man. They have each achieved a level of distinction in the world’s toughest sport that deserves our utmost respect and gratitude that they represent Ohio State. Recently I had the expectation of speaking to the team, which I thought was a weird joke of nature—it is they who can pass wisdom and experience to me, not the other way around. I mumbled through enough to have done my expected duty, but it was I who left feeling uplifted by our time together.

Nonetheless, when it comes to competition against their current peers, half the Buckeye lineup rarely disappoints, and the other half rarely surprises. We were hoping the narrative would change. Who wants to classify a remarkable group that way? But the truth is, to achieve its ultimate goal, the team has to have one or two wrestlers break through his collegiate past to become an elite competitor. At this point, while there are candidates to do so, none has shown many signs he is up to the task.

So, at the top are Nathan Tomasello, Logan Stieber, Hunter Stieber, Bo Jordan and Kyle Snyder. No one would be surprised to see any of them as a Big Ten champ or NCAA finalist.

The team is ably rounded out by Johnni DiJulius, Josh Demas, Mark Martin, Kenny Courts and Nick Tavanello. Despite my implication to the contrary, no one would be surprised to see any of these young men finish as All Americans—which puts them in the rarefied air of the top eight in their weight class. Each has either been firmly entrenched in, or has flirted at the edges of, a top ten ranking most of the year.

Yes, half the team could make it to the NCAA finals and the other half could be All Americans. If that happened the Buckeyes would in fact run away with the team title. The problem, in a recurrent theme, is math—not all those who could make it to the finals, and not all those who could be All Americans, will in fact do so. The odds say no.

If the Buckeyes are to achieve their potential, one or two in the All American tier are simply going to have to do what they have mostly failed to do all year—surprise in a pleasant way by wrestling above their ranking.

If that happens, it will be those individuals who will be the team MVPs because those will be the wrestlers who will elevate their teammates from being teammates of one or two NCAA champions to being NCAA champions themselves.

First, we have to recognize that although Hunter Stieber is an undeniable talent—he went undefeated until the 2013 NCAA semis, and still finished third—he has been out all year hurt. He intends to come back for the Big Ten. Of course Devin Carter of Virginia Tech missed most of last year but was still able to make it to the NCAA finals—only to get crushed by Hunter’s brother Logan. Still, it is a lot to ask for Hunter to duplicate the effort.

And of course, Johnni DiJulius could express great indignation at not being labeled an elite wrestler—he has beaten some very strong competitors in the last few years. But he also shows signs of fading as he did last year. In a sense, Johnni is as good as anyone in his class, but he is committed to a style that would make him unbeatable if he added more traditional wrestling tools. As it is, he is kind of like a pitcher with a great fastball without a second pitch. The good wrestlers seem to wait him out and go for a close win late. I would have preferred to see Johnni risk a bit this year and take the stride to diversify his arsenal, but it really seems a little late to do that now.

Josh Demas also has elite talent but he has had so much injury time away from the sport that he is chasing others who have been able to compete and advance over this period of time. Mark Martin, Kenny Courts and Nick Tavanello also compete well but the truth just might be that none of them has the right body type to compete at their weight. Having said that, Nick, who is clearly undersized as a heavy, wrestled like a mad man in last year’s heavy consolation bracket. He came one win shy of attaining All American status in an heroic series of matches. But he too has been hurt this year: even if recovered he has lost the experience and conditioning under pressure that he might need to make the same push down the stretch.

If there is a secret to a breakthrough, one may only have to look back as far as Lehigh. The underdog Mountain Hawks came in with a chip on their shoulder. Even though Nathan Tomasello won a major decision in the opening bout, it was obvious his Lehigh counterpart was fighting as hard as he could to force Nathan to give everything he had. At 164 Bo Jordan has literally beaten his opponents into obvious submission this year. While he put a tech fall on his Lehigh opponent, young Mr. Peppelman was fighting him off to the very end.

In other matches, it was just obvious that the Lehigh wrestlers were going to fight like a father defending his family. They pushed around the higher ranked Buckeyes and you could see the confidence grow with every match. At some point you expected to see an “I’ve had enough of this crap” explosion from the Buckeyes but it never happened.

In apparent exasperation at fans criticizing teammates, Logan tweeted earlier this season that people don’t understand how hard it is to win a match. Amen, to that—winning is brutally difficult and as I said, win or lose these warriors deserve our respect. But it is also the easiest thing in the world to lose a match you could have won. The Mountain Hawks put on display for everyone to see how a big dose of hostility can break the will of a better competitor.

What this team possess in talent, it frankly lacks in fierceness—in a sport where fierce goes a long way. Little Lehigh demonstrated what determination can do. Dan Gable once said a winning wrestler knows he is going to win before he steps on the mat. If there is to be a Buckeye MVP or two in an historic season, he or they may just need to borrow a page out of the playbook of a small eastern school and go out there with the determination to will his opponent into submission.

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