Like any successful college wrestling coach, Tom Ryan will direct his Ohio State team in this weekend’s Big Ten championship meet with one eye on the scoreboard and the other on the next big competition.
“The Big Tens is where the elite come to compete,” said Ryan, OSU’s 14th-year coach. “It’s time to show what we’re all about.”
But for the Buckeyes, the competition Saturday and Sunday in the Rutgers Athletic Center will be as much about setting up the NCAA meet two weeks hence as it is trying to claim their fourth Big Ten title in the past six seasons.
Iowa, top-ranked nationally, is favored to win the league for the time since 2015. Penn State, trying to repeat as champion, is ranked No. 2. Combined, they have five of the 10 top-seeded wrestlers this weekend.
Meanwhile, the object for third-ranked Ohio State, Ryan said, is to get all 10 of its wrestlers through to the NCAA tournament, to be held March 19-21 in Minneapolis.
“We’ve gotten 10 through the last couple of years,” he said. “It will be a real challenge at (a few weights), but it’s time to trust all the things that we talk about. They’ll need great composure out there, tremendous emotional control. They’ve got to be aggressive at the right moments and rely on their training.”
Ryan isn’t worried about his top wrestlers, including two-time Big Ten champion Kollin Moore at 197 pounds, senior and three-time NCAA qualifier Luke Pletcher at 141 and freshman sensation Sammy Sasso at 149. Moore and Sasso are seeded first this weekend; Pletcher is second.
Ryan and his staff are less certain about youngsters including freshman Jordan Decatur at 133 pounds, sophomore Malik Heinselman at 125 and fourth-year junior Elijah Cleary at 157. Each is among the bottom four seeds at their weight class for the Big Ten tournament.
“Elijah has earned his spot,” Ryan said. “We just need more risk out of him. He’s fast, he’s strong, he’s got good skill, but he’s too careful. He needs to be careful in an aggressive way.”
Ryan added that all three have benefited from a three-week break in competition heading into this meet.
“The last three weeks have been just what we needed,” he said. “We pushed them really hard and we’ve tracked everything to see where they are. I know they’re feeling better now than they were a couple of days ago.”
They’ll feel even better if they can pull some surprises and qualify the entire team for the NCAAs.
“If you looked at Ohio State’s lineup, how do you get 125, 133 and 157 on to the national championships?” Ryan said. “We’re going need a few bracket-busters. We’ll see what we’re made of.”