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Banged up Buckeye wrestlers lose Big Ten finale on Senior Night, but hopes remain high

While the Senior Night stumble certainly stings, Ohio State is still well-positioned to make noise in the postseason.

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Whether out of necessity or an abundance of caution, Tom Ryan’s Ohio State wrestling team went into last Friday’s dual against No. 8 Nebraska already at a major disadvantage. They were forced to take on an uber-talented Cornhuskers squad – and celebrate Senior Night in Covelli Center – without the services of several key contributors.

All-American candidates Carson Kharchla (165), Kaleb Romero (184), and Gavin Hoffman (197) were all sidelined due to injury, positioning the Buckeyes’ very much behind the proverbial eight ball. But even a healthy OSU lineup would have had its hands full with the Huskers, who would go on to dominate this dual by a score of 25-16.

Going in traditional order, Friday’s first match took place at 125 pounds and featured a pair of top-10 grapplers. Unfortunately, neither was able to mount much offense, resulting in a bit of an opening snoozefest. Nebraska’s Liam Cronin scored the only non-escape points of the match with a second-period takedown, handing Malik Heinselman just his fourth loss of the season. However, two of those have come in back-to-back duals, against the best competition Heinselman has faced since last year’s Big Ten and NCAA Championships.

The road ahead will not get any easier for Ohio State’s “leadoff hitter”, but Heinselman has 93 career wins under his belt and should not be overwhelmed by the demands of the postseason.

Jesse Mendez got OSU on the board at 133 with an impressive 22-11 major decision over the Huskers’ Justin Burwick. Needing to flip momentum for the Scarlet and Gray, it was actually Mendez who surrendered the match’s first takedown. After a general feeling out period, the Buckeyes’ star freshman began to impose his will, scoring takedown after takedown of his own. The result pushed Mendez’ record to 13-2 on the season, with six victories over ranked opponents. Unfortunately, his win was only one of two on the night for Ryan’s squad.

Up next was the 141-pound match, where Ohio State’s Dylan D’Emilio suffered yet another tough loss. Seemingly always competitive against top-tier competition, OSU’s redshirt junior tied his match with fifth-ranked Brock Hardy (NEB) in the closing seconds of the third period. But Hardy got the last laugh, scoring a takedown in sudden victory and handing D’Emilio his third straight loss — all to top-8 opponents, by a total of five points.

Sammy Sasso secured the last (legitimate) victory of the night for OSU with a pin of Nebraska’s Dayne Morton. The pin was Sasso’s 10th of the season, matching his total from the previous two seasons combined. Now 21-3 on the season, Ohio State’s 149-pounder appears poised to compete for another Big Ten title. Wisconsin’s Austin Gomez stands firmly in his way as the reigning B1G champ, but Sasso will be seeking revenge for a November loss to Gomez, during which the Buckeyes’ veteran leader was ahead after two periods.

Friday’s 157-pound match ended in a bit of controversy, and anyone viewing it through scarlet-tinted glasses could make an argument that OSU and Paddy Gallagher were given a raw deal. Taking on Peyton Robb, the Huskers’ top-ranked grappler and national title contender, Gallagher trailed by just one in the closing seconds. He then took a shot and appeared to gain control over Robb, but no points were given.

Ohio State coaches used a challenge, and after further review, Gallagher’s takedown attempt looked even better to yours truly. However, the referees did not share my opinion, resulting in Gallagher’s fourth Big Ten loss in his last five matches. All have come to top-15 opponents, but such is life in wrestling’s most competitive and demanding conference. This former junior champion and Ohio state champ will begin to see results go his way sooner rather than later.

The back half of this dual was dominated by Nebraska, with the Buckeyes sending out “backups” at nearly every remaining weight class. Ethan Smith was the only lineup fixture to compete down the stretch, and wouldn’t you know it, he (also) lost his 174-pound match in frustrating fashion. Tied 4-4 with second-ranked Mikey Labriola, Smith surrendered a takedown in the final seconds of the match, resulting in a 6-4 decision for the Huskers.

OSU heavyweight Tate Orndorff was awarded a win by forfeit, but his six points were inconsequential. Nebraska had built a commanding lead through nine matches, leaving no need to send out their own heavyweight representative. This losing result put a damper on Senior Night, but the Scarlet and Gray should still have plenty of confidence moving forward.

Many individuals are performing well, and the team has yet to reach its collective peak. There is a higher ceiling, and I truly believe Ryan’s squad can make a run at postseason glory with this group. Nobody is predicting a national title, but a top-3 finish is not out of the question... If they get and remain healthy.

The Buckeyes will compete in the Spartan Combat Dual this Saturday (against Cornell), before shifting their focus to the Big Ten Championship taking place March 4th and 5th. Here’s hoping they can get back to full health in the next few weeks and contend with the full complement of their talented roster.