CLEVELAND — Ohio State entered the NCAA wrestling championships confident of winning its second national title in four years.
The Buckeyes even spoke about potentially breaking the NCAA record for team points.
But after a disappointing quarterfinal round Friday morning and a near-disastrous semifinals in the evening at Quicken Loans Arena, the Buckeyes’ chances for an NCAA title are on life support.
Myles Martin and Kyle Snyder advanced to the finals with victories, but the first four Ohio State semifinalists to wrestle Friday night lost, erasing what had been a sizable team lead over Penn State.
The Buckeyes trail the Nittany Lions lead 120.5-109.5, and Penn State has five wrestlers in Saturday night’s finals. The Nittany Lions have won six of the last seven team titles, with the Buckeyes’ 2015 victory the exception.
“There is no reason why anyone from Ohio State should be hanging their head,” Ohio State coach Tom Ryan said. “We came in with a goal winning a national tournament. It's going to be hard to do tomorrow. It’s still possible, but we could be a lot of other teams that aren’t in the hunt.”
With a loaded lineup featuring top-seeded wrestlers at heavyweight with Snyder and 197 pounds with Kollin Moore, and two second seeds with Nathan Tomasello (125) and Martin (184), the Buckeyes looked primed to ride a friendly crowd to glory.
Instead, Moore, as well as senior Bo Jordan, lost in the quarterfinals. Then came the four straight losses to start the semis.
Martin finally broke the Buckeyes’ drought with a 7-3 victory over Virginia Tech’s Zach Zavatsky at 184 pounds. The bout was tied after two periods until Martin got an escape and two takedowns to pull away.
“It sucks that those guys lost,” Martin said of his teammates, “and I felt it when they did lose, but I tried not to get caught up in it a whole lot because I've still got to do my part for the team, as well. I controlled my emotions and then was able to compete and do well for my teammates and for the Buckeye fans.”
He will face Penn State’s Bo Nickal in the finals Saturday night. Martin beat Nickal for the 174-pound NCAA championship two years ago. Nickal has defeated Martin twice this season.
Snyder posted a methodical 10-5 heavyweight victory over Duke’s Jacob Kasper. Snyder will face Michigan’s Adam Coon in his attempt to win his third consecutive NCAA title. Coon beat Snyder in a dual match before Snyder won in overtime for the Big Ten title.
Tomasello usually is the sparkplug for the Buckeyes, but his loss by pin to Iowa’s Spencer Lee had the opposite effect.
Tomasello had defeated the Iowa freshman in the Big Ten championships after losing in his home finale, but the rubber match was all Lee.
He got a takedown early and built a 6-2 lead before getting the pin with 56 seconds left. Tomasello won the 125-pound NCAA title as a redshirt freshman but did not make it back to the finals his final three years.
“We ran into someone really special tonight,” Ryan said of Lee. “ I've watched him wrestle for a long time. Spencer Lee is a unique, unique wrestler, as is Nathan.”
For the Buckeyes, it was just the first of several disappointments.
At 133 pounds. Luke Pletcher was tied with Michigan’s Stevan Micic at 4-4 before Micic got a late takedown and added a near fall at the end of the third period to win 8-4.
Joey McKenna looked poised to reverse the Ohio State slide at 141 pounds. McKenna, a transfer from Stanford, had totaled 39 points in easy victories in his first three bouts as a No. 4 seed.
But top-seeded Bryce Meredith of Wyoming was strong and agile enough to fend off McKenna in a 1-0 decision. The only point came on a Meredith escape to start the second period.
That left it up to Micah Jordan to give Ohio State any realistic hope, but he couldn’t come close to pulling an upset of Penn State’s Jason Nolf at 149 pounds. Nolf jumped to a 10-0 in the first period before getting a 16-0 technical fall.