Thoughts About Buckeye Big Ten Wrestling Championship

I may be old –ok no “may be” about it—I’m ancient. But I am young enough that until today the wrestling team of The Ohio State University had never in my lifetime won The Big Ten title—the toughest conference in America—by far. They actually won it Sunday by tying Iowa at 120 points each, but a title, especially after 64 years, is a title. I have not felt this warm kind of glow over sports since, well, January when I sat in stadiums in New Orleans and Dallas and just breathed in the joy and relief. But that doesn’t diminish the heartwarming end to a very long, very cold history for OSU wrestling.

In two weeks our thoughts will turn to Logan Stieber—the now four time B1G Champion and B1G most valuable wrestler—and his attempt to become the fourth wrestler in history to win four national titles. But for now I just want to relish what just happened. Here are some things I will never forget.

I have experienced many exciting times in St. John’s Arena—I have even competed in a few. But nothing matched the sheer excitement of Nathan Tomasello’s two dramatic wins. First he beat two time defending B1G and national champion Jesse Delgado (Illinois). Trailing late in the match he was able to hit a go ahead takedown and then was able to ride Delgado out for an excruciating minute. When he did, the crowd erupted in a way I am not sure has ever happened in Columbus in front of so many wrestling partisans. I thought the match would be an apt measuring stick for Nathan because I was sure he had grown to the point he was ready. And he was.

There was a little frustration with the refereeing, which did not surprise me—the same ref that squeezed a stall warning out of Nathan was the same one who, in the judgment of many, unfairly deprived Nick Heflin of an NCAA title last year. I mention this because that same referee came back to haunt the Buckeyes at several points, including Kyle Snyder’s narrow loss in the 197 title bout.

But back to Nathan. Last year, after completing his redshirt freshman year, he won the US Open Junior Freestyle title in Las Vegas. That entitled him to a bye into the final round for the US Team Trials later in the summer. Thomas Gilman, who had just competed as a freshman for Iowa, skipped the US Open but was able to grab an at large invite to the Team Trials where he upset Tomasello. The same result occurred when the two collided in Columbus for the Ohio State/Iowa dual. Tomasello had a score to settle and that he did, racing out to a three point lead, hanging on to a one point win after an escape and a stall.

An even bigger crowd erupted. As the first of three head to head matchups between the two team leaders—Ohio State and Iowa—the Buckeyes had to have this. When Nathan came to Ohio State he wanted to serve as a sparkplug to get the team fired up and he has done that. While Nathan is a thoughtful and respectful young man, he is a fiery competitor on the mat—just the kind of persona that can give a cue to those who follow. Now he has the hardware to drive home his message.

Saturday night (the second of three sessions) was a memorable one for the Buckeyes. The first session yielded few surprises—those Buckeyes expected to win did, those not expected to win did not. Which was disappointing. Immediately before the semis (where Tomasello enjoyed his sprint past Delgado), his teammates who had lost in session one sprinted through the second and third rounds of the consolation brackets. Two big wins each by Johnni Dijulius, Josh Demas and Mark Martin had brought the Buckeyes ever so close to team leading Iowa. By the time Tomasello, Logan Stieber, Bo Jordan and Kyle Snyder won their semi-final matches, the Buckeyes had made up a seventeen point deficit and now led the Championship by 1.5 points.

I also think of the maturity of Kyle Snyder. Obviously as a former World Junior Freestyle gold medalist, the young man must have some poise and that was on full display. Wrestling four seed Nathan Burak of Iowa in the semis, he was attempting to avenge his only B1G loss of the year. I will never forget how Kyle, after finally fighting for a one point lead with both wrestlers on their feet, planted himself on the end line. He knew all he had to do was not get taken down. By using the end line, he could force the action out of bounds if he got in trouble. Burak had no choice but to meet him there and take his defeat like a man.

I think of the fire of Johnni DiJulius and several astounding throws he pulled off, one to come from behind to score a late 7-3 win. I actually saw Johnni shoot twice rather than use his dreaded two on one looking for a dump. I have witnessed Johnni win most scrambles and I’ve rarely seen him lose one, so it has always occurred to me he should use this as a way to strengthen his already powerful tool box. He hit a great double leg in the third place match and after a long scramble seemed to have won the takedown. The ref disagreed but I loved the improvisation.

I cannot help but think of the guts and disappointment of Hunter Stieber. Out nearly the entire year with bad elbows, Hunter showed up for the Big Ten Championship and won his first two matches, looking comfortable and confident in the process. The second win however required a last second reversal after extended effort. The win prompted pandemonium from the crowd and sent Hunter automatically to the NCAA championships in two weeks.

But this is an elbow injury we are talking about—when hurt they always hurt and when Hunter came out for his semi-final match against Jason Tsirtsis, defending national champion from Northwestern, he simply offered his hand and with it the award of a medical default to Tsirtsis. At the time, Coach Ryan said Hunter would go in session three if the team needed him. It did, or so it appeared at the time. Hunter went out against a 16-12 sophomore from Illinois. Soon it was clear his left arm was limp. He hit one of his cobra strikes for a takedown but with only one arm could not reel in his catch. He quickly found himself on his back for the pin. Hunter’s sixth place finish delivered the points essential for the team title, but it came at a very high price. It is very likely he aggravated the elbow enough that Buckeye national title hopes will have to rest on his teammates.

I remember and credit wrestlers from other teams, who as enemies of our enemies became our best friends. First there was Tsirtsis who went to the 149 title match against number one seed Brandon Sorenson of Iowa. Although the Buckeyes had opened a gap by winning head to head title matches (Tomasello and Stieber), they had lost a third place match at 133. The Buckeyes needed help to slow the Hawkeye advance and Tsirtsis delivered with a one point win that went to the wire. He must have thought he was in Evanston as Ohio State fans urged him on and erupted at his victory.

Kyle Snyder lost a close match to coasting Morgan McIntosh of PSU (with the coddling aid of the suddenly oblivious to stalling referee that tormented Tomasello and Heflin). Meanwhile, on the mat next door, Minnesota’s Scott Schiller did the Buckeyes a solid by keeping Iowa’s Nathan Burak from gaining third place points.
With the team score tied at 120, and no Buckeye competing at heavy, the Buckeyes needed Northwestern’s Mike McMullan to stop Iowa’s Bobby Telford. It was a match-up of three and four seeds. Telford is the classic B1G heavy—tall, fairly lean, but carrying a bit of non-muscle extra weight for ballast. McMullan looked substantially undersized—shorter but without the unproductive weight. After Telford took a 3-0 lead, the drama seemed to have left the arena and the year but McMullan got an instantaneous escape, then used his quickness to spin around the lumbering Telford for a tying takedown. When he escaped in the third period, he played cat and mouse for the duration. The crowd counted an interminable 5-4-3-2-1 and erupted in delirium as witnesses to the crowning of hometown B1G champions.

Before I leave the subject of non-Buckeye wrestlers and the aid they gave, let me say one more thing about Thomas Gilman—I don’t recall ever seeing anything like it. On the award stand he hid his runner-up bracket card behind his back–i actually have seen that little pouty move often. But, then he bolted from the podium and ran out of the gym while Nathan Tomasello received his applause. The applause quickly turned to boos at the sight of Gilman’s “look at me” dash. I understand these are young men that in losses are dealing with a great deal of disappointment, but even twelve year olds know better than pull a stunt like that. It is true, Iowa wrestling is not known for its grace. But Gilman could have gone quietly to plot his revenge. What he did instead what essentially give an already intensely driven Tomasello bulletin board type material. That is not a smart thing to do.

As tempting as it might be to say the Buckeyes backed into the title after razor thin losses at 165 and 197, nothing could be further from the truth. In the finals, Ohio State won two of their four title matches—Iowa lost all four of theirs. In fact, Iowa won only one match on the mat in the last session when Cory Clark edged Johnni DiJulius for third. They did collect a medical forfeit (and the pin points that come with it) at 184. Of the two teams, it was an Ohio State wrestler who struck the last winning blow—Mark Martin.

In overtime for the fifth place match Mark hit a sudden double leg and muscled his way to the winning takedown. He beat his chest defiantly and with just cause. Mark had had bad luck throughout the tournament due to the seeding (which in reality he earned from his season performance). He faced Iowa’s tough Mike Evans in the quarters and lost a hard fought 2-0 decision. Then he ran into the ever tough four seed Logan Storley. Mark appeared to be riding Storley out for a signature win when Storley hit a freak move for the win. What Martin did do this weekend was show anger and toughness—two things that will help him in two weeks in St. Louis. He is good enough (sorry, did not mean to paraphrase Stuart Smalley)—you just sense if he could hit that break-through win he might go to a new level. He left the B1G giving you the feeling that might be coming.

As a footnote, as Martin was delivering the Buckeyes’ crucial last point, Storley was hanging on for a close win over Evans—another helping hand from up north.

I thought of Ammon Butcher, the phenomenal accounting student on a full ride scholarship from the Fisher School at OSU. As a high school wrestler he broke his neck in a tournament and now inspires everyone with his upbeat approach to life as a quadriplegic. Embraced by Coach Ryan and the wrestling team, he patrolled the sidelines this weekend and reveled in the same euphoria we all did.

And then there is Coach Ryan, the native of Long Island, New York who lost his NCAA championship match in what the famed Dan Gable called the most physically and emotionally exhausting match he ever coached. Coach Ryan finally landed at Ohio State and treated the program as a CEO would treat a business, investing his energies in all aspects of the program. An innovator and tireless worker he has recruited the most talented kids and built a fence around the talent rich Ohio high school program. Thinking of this passionate, friendly and funny man, I contemplated his joy even as he shared, or maybe in part because he shared, the honors with his teammate and long-time friend, Iowa coach Tom Brands. I thought of the smile that must be bringing to their common mentor Dan Gable.

And I thought of the powers behind the throne, assistants Ross Thatcher, J. Jaggers and the quiet genius Lou Rosselli. I watched them cajole, cheer and exalt in the progress, match by match.

This is the best ending Ohio State could have hoped for, overlooking if it is possible, the probable loss of Hunter Stieber (just my guess, as a long time sufferer of elbow injuries). The stars wrestled like stars and the potential All Americans wrestled like All Americans who now threaten to break through to elite levels. Josh Demas finished fourth only because he ran into the very strong James Green of Nebraska twice. He wrestled with passion and aggression. The exact same thing can be said of Johnni DiJulius and Mark Martin. The raw courage that Hunter Stieber showed was emotionally uplifting for everyone who saw it. The Jordan and Snyder losses are painful, but you just know they will come back looking for redemption in two weeks, because no doubt—they are the real deal.

Oh and then there’s that guy named Logan Stieber. My best memory of Logan this weekend was the poetic gesture of having his weight coach, the great J. Jaggers, a two time national champ himself, hand Logan his championship award on the podium.

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