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Ohio State wrestling heads to the desert in pursuit of a prestigious tournament title

The third-ranked Buckeyes have started out hot, and will be competing in a major tournament this weekend.

Ohio State athletics /

The Ohio State wrestling Buckeyes have grappled to a 3-0 start in dual competition(s) to begin their 2022-23 season, and will look to parlay the team’s hot head-to-head start into a solid result at the Cliff Keen Collegiate Wrestling Invitational (Dec. 2-3). With a strong combination of youth and experience, Tom Ryan’s squad is expecting to once again place well – both individually and as a team – in a tournament which has treated them very well over the last decade and change. Since 2009, the Buckeyes have finished first or second in this Las Vegas-hosted tournament eight times, with top-three finishes in nine of the last 10.

In order to understand why OSU is expected to perform so well (again) in Vegas this year, we should probably go back and do a bit of a retroactive season preview/early season recap. I say retroactive, because I am late to the game. I own it.

The wrestling Bucks began their season roughly a month ago, and it falls on me for not publishing a piece sooner. But here’s the deal: I was in a very committed relationship with this unnamed football team, and I expected things to go well for at least a few more weeks. Instead, our entire year together went south in the span of 30 minutes, thanks to some team up north. So now I am drinking orange juice straight from the container like Mikey in Swingers, leaning into my seasonal depression, and it’s just a whole giant thing... I will spare you the details because they are of little significance. Instead, let’s catch up with the team that will bring me out of my winter funk!

Ranked No. 3 in the NCWA Coaches Poll, this Ohio State wrestling program has been a monster for many years. Although they currently sit behind two other Big Ten teams (Penn State and Iowa), the Buckeyes are a perennial national contender. Last season was a down year for the team, as they finished 13th at the year-end NCAA Championships. But prior to that – and a “meh” 2020-21 Covid-impacted campaign – OSU had captured three conference championships and a national championship since 2014-15.

So it was no surprise when Ryan’s staff brought in a top-ranked recruiting class. Nor is it surprising to see this season’s squad back inside the top-5, with a chance to reclaim their status as one of the sport’s elites.

Ohio State currently has seven wrestlers ranked inside the InterMat top-13 at their respective weight classes, led by superstar 149-pounder Sammy Sasso (third). He is joined in the top-13 by holdovers and veterans Malik Heinselman (No. 11 at 125 lb.), Carson Kharchla (No. 6 at 165), Evan Smith (No. 7 at 174), Kaleb Romero (No. 4 at 184), and Tate Orndorff (No. 7 at heavyweight). And joining all of those vets, is true freshman Jesse Mendez (No. 13 at 133). Mendez is one of the top freshman grapplers in the country, but there is plenty of talented youth to be found throughout this roster.

Redshirt freshman Paddy Gallagher is one to keep an eye on at 157 pounds, while Nick Bouzakis (133) and Nick Feldman (HWT) were also members of this year’s historic recruiting class. Jordan Decatur (141) and Gavin Hoffman (197) join the rest of the “front-liners”, with Hoffman looking to build on an impressive 2021-22 postseason.

So yeah, this group is stacked.

As previously mentioned, the Buckeyes have begun their dual season 3-0, with two victories over ACC schools. The first such victory came at home against Virginia Tech, the No. 14-ranked team and a tough opening opponent. In what could have been an ominous development, Sasso dropped the first match of opening night — a sudden victory stunner by the Hokies’ Caleb Hanson. But he (Sasso) has since finished matches with four pins and a tech fall, so all is right in the world. The rest of the OSU squad picked up the slack against VT, notching wins in six of the remaining nine matches, and securing an 18-13 result.

Subsequent victories over Columbia and North Carolina have not been nearly as close, with Ohio State racking up 33 points in each dual. The Tar Heels in particular are no slouch of a team, as they were ranked No. 17 at the time of the match.

Now Ryan’s guys will head to the desert, looking for individual and team accolades in Sin City. In its 40th year, the Cliff Keen Invitational is one of, if not the most, prestigious tournaments in all of college wrestling. And as noted earlier, OSU typically performs very well in said tourney. Sasso and Kharchla are among the favorites to win their respective weight classes this time around, in addition to Romero and Smith — both of whom should also be considered as (very) legitimate title contenders.

A strong finish, or potentially even a win in this one, would give Ohio State great momentum as they prepare for Big Ten competition. Conference duals do not begin until after the first of the year, and as expected, collegiate wrestling will run through the Buckeyes’ geographic back yard. The Big Ten boasts four of the top five ranked teams in D1, leading to a tough road ahead. But Sasso, Kharchla, and Romero headline a loaded contender.

If you are still licking your wounds from an OSU football loss, I suggest you check out the Buckeye wrestlers... Or the men’s and women’s basketball teams, or the hockey teams, or any number of top-notch programs Ohio State athletics has to offer. There are athletes to root for and championships to be had, in what should be an exciting winter season. Find Keen Invitational coverage wherever you can this weekend, and across the board: Go Bucks!