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Ohio State Wrestling: Sammy Sasso wins, Buckeyes take disappointing 8th at Cliff Keen Invitational

The Ohio State wrestling team journeyed to the desert, hoping to place well in a Vegas tournament they have won six times. But while Sasso hit the jackpot, many other Buckeyes walked away empty-handed.

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Since 2009, Tom Ryan’s Ohio State wrestling team has won six team titles at the prestigious Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational. The team also finished second in 2014, 2019, and 2021, and third in 2013. So to say that this dance in the desert has traditionally been worth the trip for OSU, would be a massive understatement.

Ryan’s third-ranked Buckeyes appeared poised to repeat a high level of success (in this tourney) again this year, entering as a heavy favorite. Instead, 2022’s CKLVI was surprisingly unkind to most scarlet and gray grapplers, leaving more questions than answers as they prepare for an in-state dual against Kent State.

Ohio State got off to a solid-enough start on Friday, with Sasso (149 pounds), Carson Kharchla (165), Ethan Smith (174), Kaleb Romero (184), and Gavin Hoffman (197) all finishing 2-0 during early competition — meaning they would remain alive in the championship bracket. Malik Heinselman (125), Dylan D’Emilio (141), and Tate Orndorff (HWT) also advanced to later sessions, however they – after splitting their first two matches – would be forced to try and navigate the consolation bracket.

Dylan Koontz (133) was the only Buckeye in attendance who did not advance beyond Friday morning, and it should be noted that he wrestled in place of star freshman Jesse Mendez. Also absent was redshirt freshman Paddy Gallagher (157), leaving OSU without two of their talented young guns.

Sasso, the No. 1 seed at 149 (in this tournament), ran roughshod over his competition, and clinched an individual title by outscoring Arizona State’s Kyle Parco in their finals matchup. It was the Ohio State star’s closest match, ending in a 6-2 decision. He also added two falls and a tech fall, showing dominance throughout the entire tournament. After a surprising loss in OSU’s first dual of the season, Sasso has rebounded quite nicely, and seems well on his way to once again competing for a Big Ten and/or national championship.

Unfortunately, Sasso would end up as the only Buckeye to earn a top-3 finish in Vegas. Kharchla – who joined his 149-pound teammate as a top seed – was one of the favorites at 165, but after breezing through the round of 16, he dropped a stunner to Tanner Cook of South Dakota State. Kharchla was pinned merely 37 seconds into their quarterfinal match, resulting in one of the biggest upsets of the weekend. He bounced back with a major decision over Kent State’s Enrique Munguia, but was ultimately forced to settle for eighth due to a medical forfeit.

The same issue forced Smith out of the 174-pound running, as he wrestled to a 2-1 record before his own medical forfeit. Those forfeits, as well as the absence of both Mendez and Gallagher, doomed Ohio State’s chances of finishing highly at the Keen. But the goal is to finish strong and protect athletes, so you have to believe the right decisions were made.

Orndorff was also dealt a medical forfeit after starting 3-1, although he was not necessarily viewed as a favorite in his weight class. However, he did look good in his matches, only dropping a 3-2 decision to Northern Iowa’s Tyrell Gordon. Just another stroke of bad luck the Buckeyes experienced during this tournament, but it was not all bad news to go along with the Sasso win.

Romero wrestled to a solid fourth-place finish, after dropping his last match in sudden victory. He was narrowly defeated by Virginia Tech’s Hunter Bolden, an opponent he had already gotten the best of twice this season — including in the quarters of this very tournament! Romero also dropped a one-point decision to Trent Hidlay of North Carolina State, who is currently ranked No. 3 at their shared 184 weight class. The OSU big man put forth a strong showing, and was not helped by the fact that it becomes increasingly difficult to beat the same talented wrestler three or more times in the span of a few months. Onward and upward for Romero, as I think he makes a strong postseason run once the calendar flips to 2023.

Another solid finish was earned – and I do mean earned – by Heinselman at 125. The fifth-year senior wrestled in a ridiculous eight matches across Friday and Saturday, taking the most difficult path possible on his way to fifth place. His tournament began with a 4-0 loss to Cornell’s Brett Ungar — a loss for which he would later gain retribution. Heinselman then ripped off five straight wins to claw his way through the consolation bracket, eventually ending his weekend with a decisive 11-5 victory over SDSU’s Tanner Jordan (not to be confused with his 165-lb teammate Tanner Cook). It is not how you start, but rather how you finish, and Heinselman showed a warrior’s mentality by competing in eight matches.

As a team, the Buckeyes finished eighth out of 34 teams at the Keen, which is frankly a poor finish for them. They had not finished outside the top-5 in this tournament since 2010, when they took 12th. And Ohio State was absolutely a favorite going into this year’s version. This event in Las Vegas has traditionally been a good, early test for OSU, which they often pass with flying colors. But that simply was not the case this year.

A few young guys being held out, combined with a little bit of bad luck, significantly impacted their chances of becoming a seven-time team winner. Ryan’s group can now use the result(s) to learn and get better, which I have faith in them to do.

Ohio State’s next match is a Sunday (12/11) dual against in-state foe Kent State, taking place in Covelli Center. The Buckeyes should be able to get their mojo back as they also prepare for the Collegiate Duals in New Orleans and an eventual Big Ten slate. Exciting times are ahead, and the action will be intense this weekend. Go Bucks!