They believe with all their hearts that they would be NCAA champions right now, their collegiate wrestling careers capped off with hands raised in glory.
Instead, as with so many other athletes in this coronavirus-stricken world, Kollin Moore and Luke Pletcher’s dreams were stopped without the resolution they wanted — or any resolution at all.
The Ohio State senior wrestlers were seeded No. 1 in their weight classes for the NCAA championships scheduled for Minneapolis two weeks ago.
With a 27-0 record, Moore was a strong favorite in the 191-pound division.
“I was wrestling the best I've ever been wrestling up to that point,” he said. “I feel like I was the mentally toughest I've ever been. I was just really calm and very prepared for nationals.
“I'm very confident that me and Pletcher and (third-seeded redshirt freshman Sammy) Sasso would have won. The whole team, I just think we were ready to make a splash at nationals.”
At 141 pounds, Pletcher had lost only once, and he avenged that dual-meet loss to Penn State’s Nick Lee by beating him in the Big Ten finals.
“Going into the (NCAA) tournament, I was as confident as I could have been,” he said. “There was no doubt in my mind that that Saturday night my hand was going to get raised.”
Instead, Moore and Pletcher have to cope with the knowledge that their dreams of a national title are over. The NCAA Division I Council granted spring-sport athletes an extra year of eligibility but did not extend that to winter-sport athletes.
The pain of not being able to compete for a national title is particularly acute for Moore and Pletcher because they had come up short in their previous NCAAs. Moore, a native of Burbank, Ohio, was runner-up in 2019 and fourth a year earlier. Pletcher, who’s from Latrobe, Pennsylvania, finished fourth each of the past two years.
Ohio State coach Tom Ryan used the word “devastation” to describe his emotions about his seniors being denied their final chance.
“They’re both ranked No. 1, incredible leaders for us, wrestling extremely well,” he said. “And it was right around the corner. It was like you could taste it. You could taste the tournament. Plans were being made. They were healthy. So I feel for these guys.”
As crushing as the cancellation of the NCAAs was, Moore and Pletcher are determined not to let it define their season.
“Getting your hand raised is a big part of the sport,” Moore said, “but I feel it’s not why we wrestle. It’s not why we love wrestling. I feel like we both were fighting for things that couldn’t be taken away by our opponents or a virus or anything.
“In a way, I think Luke and a lot of guys on our team accomplished a lot of what we wanted to do this year. We always talk about the pain of regret versus the pain of discipline. There’s no pain of regret for me or Luke or a lot of guys on the team.”
Pletcher said he made peace with himself even before the season because of his dedication. That’s helped him get through his disappointment.
“I think the only way you can cope with it is knowing that you did everything possible,” Pletcher said. “I made all the right decisions. I lived the right lifestyle. I worked as hard as I possibly could. It stinks that I didn’t get that chance, but there’s a lot of people who didn’t get that chance, either.
“Sometimes, life stinks.”
Both wrestlers also understand that perspective is required these days in a world where hardship is growing exponentially.
“It definitely changes your perspective from ‘Why me?’ to, ‘Not only am I not the only one going through this, but other people have it way worse,’” Moore said.
It also helps that the NCAAs weren’t going to be the end of their wrestling careers anyway. Both Moore and Pletcher will try to qualify for the Summer Olympics in Japan, which have been pushed back to 2021.
To qualify, Moore will have to get past a familiar ― and daunting ― wrestler. He will compete in the 97-kilometer division (213 pounds) against former OSU teammate Kyle Snyder, the reigning Olympic champion.
Moore often wrestled Snyder, who now trains in State College, Pennsylvania, in practice. He said he got some takedowns against Snyder but never beat him in points. Now, he has a year to bulk up effectively instead of transitioning so quickly from the NCAAs to the Olympic trials.
“This could actually work out in my favor in giving me some time to put on weight the right way and get a year of solid freestyle training in before the trials and Olympics,” he said.
But Moore knows how big an underdog he’ll be.
“It’s always a good matchup when you have nothing to lose, right?” he said. “I don’t think anybody’s really expecting me to beat him, so that’s a great opportunity for me to just go out there and wrestle and see what I can do against him.”
Hopefully, the pandemic will be over by then.