This weekend in Lincoln, Nebraska, many of the best wrestlers and teams in the country will be competing. The Big Ten is not just the best overall conference in NCAA wrestling, it is elite beyond comparison. Five of the top seven teams in the country reside in the Big Ten. Only the ACC and Big 12 have more than one team ranked inside the top-10 (two each). This is nothing new, as the Big Ten has dominated college wrestling for what seems like decades. This conference tournament is a literal best of the best tournament.
Ohio State finished in fourth place in the Big Ten regular season standings, and if we’re being honest, seems like a long-shot to take home the team title. That being said, they do have one defending Big Ten champ and four top-4 seeds in this tournament. The eventual team champion is determined by an aggregate scoring system – placement, advancement, and bonus points – so it’s not as if the Buckeyes need all four of their highest-seeded wrestlers to appear in or even win a championship match. They just need points on the board from nearly everybody — wins and pins, baby.
It will take a collective group effort, with most or all participants wrestling to their potential... and some help from other teams, you got me. We’re going to break it down class by class, and highlight OSU’s top candidates to earn big-time points.
125 pounds — Malik Heinselman (No. 4 seed)
125, like many others, is a loaded weight class. Nick Suriano of Michigan and Drew Hildebrandt of Penn State are the top two seeds here, and it seems like people are under the impression that their eventual meeting in the final is a foregone conclusion.
Don’t sleep on Heinselman. He is already a three-time NCAA qualifier, and just finished the regular season with his best W-L record (16-3). He won’t earn the Buckeyes a ton of bonus points (four combined major decisions, tech falls, pins), but he could wrestle his way into a semifinal, which is exactly what he did last season.
149 pounds — Sammy Sasso (No. 1 seed)
This former top-5 overall recruit has enjoyed an incredible run at 149 over the past few years, and will be looking to close out this season with at least another Big Ten title. Sasso took first place in this event last season, and second in 2019-20. His biggest challenge might be not looking ahead to the NCAA Championships.
Sasso was undefeated in the conference this season, with his only loss coming at the hands of Cornell’s Yianni Diakomihalis. After winning the Big Ten, but falling in his NCAA championship match last year, he is surely looking forward to a similar postseason run in 2022. An NCAA championship is the only thing missing from his impressive career résumé. He needs to take care of business in Lincoln first, and I believe that he will.
165 pounds — Carson Kharchla (No. 1 seed)
Kharchla has likely been chomping at the bit for this opportunity. The former Intermat Wrestler of the Year and back-to-back Ohio high school state champion began his Ohio State career 16-0, wrestling unattached in 2019-20. He then suffered a torn ACL, causing him to miss all of last season. He has come back with a vengeance in 2021-22, compiling a 19-1 record. Kharchla also finished in a tie for first on the team (with Ethan Smith) with five major decisions, and led the Buckeyes with five tech falls.
Like Sasso, Kharchla went undefeated in the Big Ten this season — including a narrow victory over three-time All-American and three-time Big Ten champ, Iowa’s Alex Marinelli. Kharchla also took down last year’s NCAA runner-up, Pitt’s Jake Wentzel. His only loss came in the Cliff Keen Invitational, and it was by one point, to the man who beat Wentzel for the NCAA title: Stanford’s Shane Griffith. OSU’s 165-pounder held a lead in that match, but was not able to hold on.
It is difficult to beat a great wrestler twice, and Iowa’s Marinelli is just that, but he never had to go through Kharchla before. 165 has potential to be Ohio State’s weight class to lose for the next few years. Kharchla is a rising superstar, and this could be the first of many big-time tournament titles for him.
174 pounds — Ethan Smith (No. 5 seed)
Smith is ranked 7th in the country, but 5th in his own conference... what!? I don’t know if 174 is the most loaded weight class in the Big Ten, but it’s up there, and that is why Smith has his work cut out for him. However, this is a guy who made it to the finals and finished second last year. I would not be the least bit surprised to see him sneak into the semifinals.
184 pounds — Kaleb Romero (No. 3 seed)
Romero began the season hampered by injury, but hit the ground running, compiling a record of 10-1. He is another multiple-time NCAA qualifier, but also faces a stacked weight class. Penn State’s Aaron Brooks won a Big Ten title as a true freshman and repeated last year, before taking home the NCAA title as well. He is looking to go a perfect 3-for-3 in conference championships. Myles Amine is the 2-seed, ahead of Romero, and all he has done is win an Olympic bronze medal. So yeah, Romero is up against it. But he is another guy I could see in the semifinals, and he did take Amine to overtime earlier this season...
Other Ohio State competitors to watch:
133 pounds — Dylan Koontz (No. 14 seed)
141 pounds — Dylan D’Emilio (No. 7 seed)
157 pounds — Bryce Hepner (No. 9 seed)
197 pounds — Gavin Hoffman (No. 9 seed)
285 pounds — Tate Orndorff (No. 8 seed)
As previously mentioned, Ohio State faces an uphill battle in this tournament. There are three elite programs ahead of them in the conference standings, and they’re all comprised of great wrestlers. But don’t count out these Buckeyes. Tom Ryan has won this tournament three times since 2015. He has a few elite grapplers at his disposal, and this is a talented, veteran bunch. Here’s hoping OSU can shock the wrestling world!