Sammy Sasso’s play-by-play of his inauspicious wrestling debut requires only four words.
“Ankle pick, cradle, fall,” the Ohio State redshirt freshman recalled this week. “I got pinned in five seconds. I kid you not: five seconds.”
In fairness to Sasso, he was a second-grader wrestling a sixth-grader in the 61-pound division. But even as a child, Sasso had resolve and didn’t mind sharing it.
“I said I’ll be better than anyone in this room by the time this is all said and done,” Sasso said. “They said I was crazy. The other kids kind of laughed at me.”
It hasn’t always been a smooth path, but Sasso’s determination has paid off.
Heading into today’s showdown at second-ranked Penn State, Sasso is ranked No. 1 nationally at 149 pounds for the No. 3 Buckeyes. Luke Pletcher (141 pounds) and Kollin Moore (197) are also top-ranked nationally for the Buckeyes.
Pletcher and Moore are decorated seniors. Sasso’s rise is a surprise, at least to outsiders. It’s not to Ohio State coach Tom Ryan.
“I don’t think anything out of the ordinary has happened to this point with him being ranked No. 1,” Ryan said. “I don’t want to sound arrogant, like we knew he would be; we didn’t know he would be. But we knew he could be, based on what we saw.”
Sasso redshirted last year mainly because the Buckeyes had an elite, experienced wrestler in his weight class, Micah Jordan. Redshirting is difficult for any athlete. For a wrestler, who endures the physical pain of practice without the reward of actual competition, it can be especially tough.
But Sasso prepared as if he would have to step in at any time. Once he got his chance this season, he was ready. He has lost only once in a dual match, a pin in an upset by Virginia Tech early in the season.
Ryan attributes some of Sasso’s success to his sound technical skills, good speed and excellent flexibility. But the real keys are his ferocity and competitiveness.
“He is an absolutely psychotic competitor,” Ryan said. “It’s a bad analogy, but if he was on top of you and there’s 10 seconds to go and he’s got to keep you down to win the match, he’d bite the back of your skull.
“Now, he wouldn’t, but that’s the picture of how there’s no amount of energy he’s not willing to give to make things go his way.”
Yet in other ways, Sasso is surprisingly clinical. Take today’s match. Sasso is from Nazareth, Pennsylvania, but did not grow up a Penn State fan and the Nittany Lions didn’t seriously recruit him. By his own admission, Sasso made his share of mistakes growing up.
“I had to mature a lot,” he said. “I grew up in a great home with a loving family. A lot of the things I did were self-harmful. But by the same token, it’s molded me into the man I am, the wrestler I am and, most importantly, the leader I know I am and try to be.”
So when Sasso wrestles at the Bryce Jordan Center today in front of a hostile crowd, he won’t make it more than it is — an important wrestling match.
“When I do what I do and wrestle the way I’m capable of, I’m going to come out with my hand raised,” he said. “I can’t look at it as anything bigger than that.”
Besides, Sasso has bigger goals. He wants to become the fourth Ohio State freshman to win a national title since Ryan became coach in 2006.
But he’s not yet looking ahead to March. For now, his focus is on staying disciplined and making steady progress on that path.
“If I get better every day and make every day better than the last, there’s no doubt I’m going to be a national champion at the end of the year,” he said.