The Ohio State wrestling team has two athletes competing in tonight's NCAA wrestling championships (8:00 p.m. on ESPN). One has a chance to end his career by achieving a life-long dream. The other has a chance to make history.
For Senior Nick Heflin, a two-time (now three-time) All-American, this represents his first shot at an NCAA championship. Twice Heflin has finished fifth in the NCAA tournament, a fantastic accomplishment, but also a bitter disappointment for a wrestler whose goal is to win the whole thing. Today, it's Missouri Freshmen J'Den Cox standing between Heflin the top spot on the podium. The two have four common opponents, and they both won close over all four (see wrestlestat for a full h2h comparison). Cox has two losses on the season, Heflin has one (although it was a less explicable loss than any of Cox's). So really, it's anyone's guess how this final will turn out.
If we're going on pure talent, Cox probably has the edge. He's accomplished as a Freshman what Heflin hasn't until his senior year. However, Heflin has a conservative, defensive style along with ridiculous strength (He lifts with the OSU linebackers in the offseason), that has proven to be Kryptonite for talented, athletic wrestlers in the past. That style means that Heflin's matches are always close (Just ask Minnesota's Scott Schiller who Heflin beat 2-1 in the semifinal). The final should be no different. I have Heflin winning a close, physical match 4-3 in ride-outs (overtime) and winning his first national championship.
Heflin's counterpart is in a slightly different situation. Logan Stieber won a national championship as a redshirt freshman. Then, he won another one as a sophomore. Coming into his Junior season, Stieber was the odds-on favorite to repeat. He still is, but the road hasn't been as smooth as many expected. In December, Stieber was upset by a true freshman Zain Retherford of Penn State. It was his first loss in nearly two calendar years. At the Big Ten Tournament, the preseason favorite had to settle for a two seed. In the finals, it was a rematch against Retherford. Stieber won this round, soundly defeating the Penn Stater for his third Big Ten title.
At the NCAA tournament, Stieber received a semi-controversial two-seed. Edinboro's undefeated Mitchell Port (the Wichita State of the weight class) took the top spot. Retherford was the three seed. That meant that Stieber would have to get through his nemesis one more time to make the final. He did just that, scoring a 7-3 victory that saw him completely stifle Retherford's offense.
Waiting for Stieber in the finals is not the #1 seed Port, who lost in the quarterfinals. Instead, it's Virginia Tech's Devin Carter, one of the best stories in the tournament. Way back in December, Carter completely tore his hamstring. The prognosis was a 6-9 month recovery, ostensibly ending his season before it really got going. Then, a few weeks ago a surprise announcement came. Devin Carter was going to compete in the ACC tournament less than three months after his injury. He did more than just compete. He won the tournament in dominant fashion, earning the #4 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Due to his small sample size this season, Carter and Stieber only have two common opponents (Stieber and Carter beat both handily). However, Carter has looked much more human than Stieber in the tournament. Carter struggled in his quarterfinal matchup, and was fortunate to face the 9-seed in the semifinals. Stieber, on the other hand, went pin-tech-pin in the first three rounds before the Retherford match. If I were laying odds on this, I'd put Stieber at something like a 4/1 favorite. Devin Carter is a fantastic story, but tonight I think that the carriage turns back into a pumpkin as Stieber wins something like 8-3.
Should Stieber pull of the win, he will make history as the first three-time national champion in Ohio State history. And he still has one year of eligibility remaining. Those of you reading this who aren't wrestling fans, I implore you to tune in tonight. Stieber is probably the best athlete at the university and there's a good chance that we won't see a wrestler on his level come through Columbus for a very long time.
ESPN, 8:00 p.m. Be there.
Then, come back tomorrow and we'll wrap up the season!