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Ohio State Wrestling: A preview of things to come

The Buckeyes struggled to a ninth-place finish in the Big Ten last season, but there is plenty of upside with this year’s team

Tom Ryan’s bunch is looking to bounce back from a rough (for them) 2020-2021 season
Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Ohio State Wrestling Buckeyes are officially 3-0 on the 2021-2022 season, with dual victories over North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame College (small school in Euclid, OH — not University of). They are scheduled to compete in this weekend’s Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational, so now is a good time to get caught up on the team, if you have not done so already.

In case you are not a big follower of the sport, jumping out to a solid start is the norm for these Buckeyes. OSU’s wrestling team is one of the best in the Big Ten, as well as the country. Sounds pretty familiar, right?

Tom Ryan took over the program in 2006, and has helped guide the grapplers to a top-10 NCAA finish each year, with the exception of a surprisingly poor 2010-2011 season. The Buckeyes have won three Big Ten (tournament) Championships under Ryan, in addition to the 2014-2015 National Championship. The 2014-2019 stretch was especially dominant, as their respective NCAA finishes were first, third, second, second, and second. The Buckeyes then took a step back in 2020-2021, and finished ninth in the Big Ten — which was the same as their overall NCAA finish, telling you just how difficult the conference is.

Similar to football and basketball, OSU annually faces its toughest competition within the Big Ten conference. Since 2008, Iowa or Penn State has won the NCAA title every year (!), except for that 2014-2015 season. Minnesota took home three championships between 2001 and 2007. But Big Ten and program dominance is nothing new in D1 wrestling. Oklahoma State has 34 national titles. Iowa has 24. Only six schools have won multiple national titles, putting Ohio State in a tie for seventh all-time. So how will the Buckeyes fare this season? I’m glad you asked.

The Ohio State wrestling program always has high expectations under Ryan. Any season in which the Buckeye are not making a run at the Big Ten or NCAA title is considered a disappointment. 2020-2021 was a down year in which the team barely had a winning record in conference duals (5-4), and this program doesn’t have two in a row… usually. However, the Big Ten is just as tough as it was last year, and the Buckeyes are in a bit of a rebuild (will to get that later, and I have good news). I don’t have the highest of expectations, but that doesn’t mean they are a bad squad. From 125 pounds through heavyweight, this team has a ton of talent. A few guys could compete for individual championships. I don’t anticipate any banners going up after this wrestling season, but there is still plenty to be excited about.

Ohio State sent seven wrestlers to the NCAA Championships last season, all of which returned for another go at it. Those returning qualifiers encountered plenty of depth on their own roster, and thus far, the 2021-2022 lineup looks very different than it did a year ago (almost a year, as the previous season was delayed due to Covid). Starting at the 125 pound weight class, senior Malik Heinselman will be looking to punch his ticket to the NCAA tournament for a fourth time. He is certainly not the biggest favorite to win an individual title, but could be a darkhorse due to his experience.

Dylan D’Emilio was another NCAA qualifier, but he will be pushed at 141 by Jordan Decatur, who was the team’s main starter at 133 last season. Decatur wrestled at 141 in the opening dual, but dropped his match against UNC. As is always the case with OSU, there will be a lot of intra-squad competition at various weight classes, and 133/141 is a prime example.

Sammy Sasso is Ohio State’s top returning starter and a star in the making — if he is not considered to be one already. The redshirt junior from Pennsylvania lost a tough match in the finals at 149 last season, and has a record of 47-4 as a Buckeye with 12 pins. He has started this season 7-0, and should be a lock to at least qualify for the NCAA Championships. As good as Sasso is and has been, OSU’s best wrestler could be a freshman at the next weight class… and that same freshman might not see the mat in an official capacity. Yes, you read that correctly.

Sasso was Ohio State’s top-ranked wrestler in the preseason, and he will be looking to bring home an individual title that narrowly escaped him last season
Photo by G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images

Paddy Gallagher was a two-time state champion in Ohio, only missing out on three straight due to the pandemic. Prior to enrolling at Ohio State, he was also named the top pound-for-pound wrestling prospect in the country by FloWrestling (a big deal). He is likely the team’s next star and best option at 157 pounds, but OSU loves to redshirt their guys. That is because, in order for teams to compete with Penn State, Iowa, and others, they need to be stacked from top-to-bottom. A few weak weight classes will take you right out of the running, whether that be in the Big Ten or nationally. Penn State had four individual NCAA champions last season, and still finished second. Gallagher won’t make or break the 2021-2022 season, so there is a good chance he is held out of major competition. Jashon Hubbard and Bryce Hepner have both wrestled at 157 already this season.

The Buckeyes had a battle at 165 pounds, and this is where things get very interesting. Ethan Smith had a strong 20-21 season, but did not face competition from Carson Kharchla. Kharchla missed the previous season due to a knee injury, but was an up-and-comer prior to that. He came into this season healthy, and earned the 165 nod over Smith. That set off a chain reaction of other moves.

Smith then moved up to 174, taking the place of Kaleb Romero. Romero was an Ohio high school legend, winning four state titles, but for now appears to be the odd man out. Rocky Jordan, Gavin Hoffman, and Tate Orndorff fill out the rest of the starting lineup, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see Romero work himself back into the rotation. There could be some musical chairs at the heavier weight classes, but Romero is arguably the most talented of the bunch. If healthy, I think he earns the 184 spot soon.

That’s the early rundown, but there is plenty of season to go. Ohio State was ranked in or around the top-10 in preseason polls, and I assume that will be their ceiling. This is not Tom Ryan’s best team, but they will compete in the Big Ten, like they always do, and we could see a guy or two place highly in the NCAA Championships. Now about that good news I teased earlier…

2021-2022 would be a good time to start paying serious attention to the wrestling Buckeyes, because they are about to bring in a truly historic recruiting class. You think the football and basketball Buckeyes have had some good recruiting classes? Get a load of this one. As part of their seven-man class, Ohio State signed each of the top three recruits in the country— that is No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3 overall! OSU was able to do something that no other wrestling program in history was able to do by signing Jesse Mendez, Nic Bouzakis, and Nick Feldman. They will be joined by a few more top-50 recruits, including Seth Shumate, who committed early and became a recruiter himself.

The future is very bright for Ohio State wrestling, and if you are not already, I suggest you get on board. The roster is loaded, they have an outstanding coaching staff, and the Jennings Wrestling Facility inside Coveli Center is a great venue to watch wrestling in-person. Because of the growing popularity and continued success of the Big Ten, networks such as BTN have also done a better job of making it more accessible (on television) to the common fan.

No more excuses, go watch another OSU team that can perennially lay claim to being one of the best in the country!