Ohio State wrestling team ready for another shot at qualifying for NCAA championships

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State's Sammy Sasso, left, is unbeaten this season and the top seed at 149 pounds in this weekend's Big Ten tournament.

The Ohio State wrestling team was in the middle of a practice last March when its coaching staff delivered crushing news.

The NCAA championship meet had been postponed, soon to be canceled, due to a novel coronavirus pandemic. Their season was over.

“I was pretty upset, for sure,” OSU redshirt sophomore Rocky Jordan said this week. “It was devastating to work hard all year, have a whole wrestling season and have it canceled within six days of the tournament.”

The disappointment has been difficult to forget. Jordan vividly recalls details from 12 months ago. The Buckeyes were about 30 minutes into the start of their workout, and he was wearing two pairs of knee pads to cope with mat burns from the season’s grind, before learning their undeserved fate.

Jordan and other Buckeyes wrestlers will have the opportunity to requalify for the national tournament this weekend when they head to the Big Ten championships at Penn State.

Ohio State fell below its usual high standards during a shortened, conference-only season, slipping dangerously close to .500 after consecutive losses to Michigan and Penn State to end last month. OSU finished the season 5-4 overall. The Buckeyes had posted double-digit wins in dual meets in each season since going 2-11 in 2010-11.

Sammy Sasso, another third-year sophomore, is the only Buckeye who is pre-seeded at the top of his weight class at the Big Tens, starting at No. 1 in the 149-pound bracket after he went 9-0 during the regular season.

But longtime coach Tom Ryan believes pre-seeding has only so much bearing on how wrestlers ultimately fare in qualifying for the NCAA championships, which are to be held on March 18-20 in St. Louis. There is too much depth.

“Seeding is incredibly important on one level because the better your season was, the better chance you should have in the early rounds moving forward,” Ryan said. “But we see over and over again in the conference, No. 7 seeds beating 2s and beating 3s. Ultimately you got to be able to wrestle.”

Ohio State wrestling coach Tom Ryan doesn't discount seeding in postseason tournaments, but believes the rankings can be deceiving, especially with the depth of the Big Ten.

Finishing near the top of a weight class should give wrestlers enough of a strong finish to make the tournament. The Big Ten is allocated 76 automatic berths over 10 the classes for the NCAA championships.

Other highly seeded Buckeyes are Malik Heinselman, who is No. 3 in the 125-pound bracket, and Ethan Smith, also No. 3 in the 165-pound bracket.

Both have lost only one match apiece this season, and Smith has been unbeaten since faltering in his first matchup, in January.

Ryan believes the Buckeyes will need little motivation this weekend, seeing another chance to reach the pinnacle of college wrestling. Of the eight Buckeyes who qualified for the NCAA championships last spring, six of them are vying for another spot in the bracket, including Heinselman, Jordan, Sasso and Smith.

Kollin Moore and Luke Pletcher, who were both seniors, are the sole departures from last season’s team.

“Most of this team lost a chance,” Ryan said, “so I can't imagine they're not excited and hungry right now.”

jkaufman@dispatch.com

@joeyrkaufman

Big Ten championships

When: Saturday and Sunday

TV: Saturday, 10 a.m., 7:30 p.m. Big Ten Network; Sunday, 4 p.m. Big Ten Network