The 2023 Big Ten Wrestling Championships are being held this weekend in beautiful Ann Arbor, Michigan. Okay, you got me... In that state and town up north, where a large Big Ten university exists.
Regardless of venue, it is there that the Ohio State Buckeyes will be looking to improve upon their fourth-place finish in last year’s event and ninth-place finish the year before that. Prior to 2020-21, Tom Ryan’s squad had become a fixture in the top-3, not finishing “off the podium” since 2013-14.
But the last few seasons have been a bit of a struggle for the Scarlet and Gray if only measured against their own extremely high standard.
For those not familiar with recent Ohio State wrestling history, Ryan has coached the Buckeyes since 2006. And after a few years spent building up what was a fairly mediocre program, his teams ripped off three conference titles and a national championship between 2014 and 2018 (four seasons). OSU also finished second in both the Big Ten and national tournament(s) in 2019, before taking a small step back in recent years.
But this 2022-23 season has been a resurgence of sorts for Ryan’s team, as they wrestled to a 13-3 dual record, including 6-2 in Big Ten competition. Ohio State technically finished fourth in the conference’s regular season standings, but only lost to Penn State when remotely healthy. Their second B1G defeat came at the hands of a talented Nebraska team (currently ranked No. 4), on a night when numerous Buckeyes and All-American candidates were missing from the lineup... Not sayin’, just sayin’.
This weekend is a golden opportunity for OSU to reestablish itself as one of the Big Ten superpowers. However, the competition is arguably as stiff as ever. TTUN, who won last year’s conference tournament, finished middle of the pack in this year’s regular season standings. Wisconsin, a team with seven wresters recently ranked inside the top-10 nationally at their respective weight classes (NCAA coaches poll), was only able to muster one dual victory over a conference opponent. And of course, defending national champion Penn State and 24-time champs Iowa also loom large.
The Big Ten is a true murderer’s row, meaning the Buckeyes will need an outstanding team effort just to make some noise in this tournament. But paramount to outstanding effort is having healthy bodies available, which is no guarantee for this Ohio State squad. They have been banged up all season, and especially so as of late.
However, the assumption is that all who missed action late in the regular season should be ready to go this weekend, so here’s hoping for an outstanding performance from the Scarlet and Gray. Here is a quick primer on each weight class and the OSU wrestlers set to compete.
125 pounds — Malik Heinselman
A four-time NCAA qualifier and winner of 94 career matches already, Heinselman will be looking to finish in the top-3 at these Big Ten Championships for the first time. Major postseason success has been just about the only thing which has eluded Heinselman during his illustrious collegiate career, although he has placed fourth and fifth in this tournament, in 2021 and 2022 respectively.
But placing high in Ann Arbor will not be easy. Heinselman is likely to enter the weekend as a 7-seed, behind the likes of Spencer Lee (Iowa), Liam Cronin (Nebraska), and Michael DeAugustino (Northwestern). The latter two handed Ohio State’s 125-pounder back-to-back losses in early February, during which he was only able to score two points combined. Victories over highly-ranked wrestlers have been hard to come by for Heinselman, but he will need at least one to secure a career-high finish.
133 pounds — Jesse Mendez
OSU’s star freshman and prized recruit from the 2022 class has done just about everything to validate his status coming out of high school, while also developing a new reputation as one of the top 133-pound grapplers at the next level. Winning or placing high at the Big Ten Championships (at some point) seems inevitable, but Mendez must first prove that he can handle the intensity of the NCAA’s most demanding conference wrestling tournament.
133 goes through Roman Bravo-Young of Penn State, who Mendez lost to earlier this year. But Mendez has defeated the “best of the rest” in the B1G, claiming victories over the third and fourth seeds in this weekend’s tourney (Mendez will be the 2-seed). Beating the same talented opponent(s) twice is no easy task, but if Mendez wrestles to his potential, expect him to get another shot at RBY in the finals.
141 pounds — Dylan D’Emilio
D’Emilio has wrestled in close matches with elite competition all season, but seemingly never got the one takedown or break he needed. The two-time NCAA qualifier is a longshot to place highly this weekend, but do not be surprised if he pulls off at least one major upset.
149 pounds — Sammy Sasso
Sasso, a national title contender and the Buckeyes only No. 1 seed, is eyeing his second Big Ten championship at 149, as well as another matchup with Wisconsin’s Austin Gomez. The one-time Iowa State Cyclone and current Badger holds a 3-0 career record over Sasso but has not wrestled since Jan. 27 due to injury.
If Gomez is healthy, he has to be considered the favorite. However, Sasso is both hungry for a win over last year’s conference champ and seeking revenge for their last tussle. At the NWCA All-Star Classic in November, Sasso held a lead over Gomez, before the latter completed a wild third-period comeback with a flurry of takedowns. And we’re talking about an Ohio State star who is rarely taken down. Here’s hoping Sasso can finally notch a win over his Big Ten nemesis.
157 pounds — Paddy Gallagher
Similar to D’Emilio, Gallagher dropped a handful of heartbreakers to top-tier opponents during the regular season. However, he (Gallagher) has also shown glimpses of star potential, which is part of the reason he was recognized as the No. 1 pound-for-pound high school prospect in 2021.
Gallagher will be a double-digit seed at 157 but has the talent to at least hang with those ahead of him. A top-5 finish might stun others, but certainly not Gallagher and/or his coaches.
165 pounds — Carson Kharchla
Kharchla has been snake-bitten by injuries for much of his OSU career. When healthy, he is an absolute stud. Who knows which version of Kharchla we will see in Ann Arbor, but he has wildcard potential if close to 100%.
174 pounds — Ethan Smith
Smith has also been banged up this season, but the redshirt senior owns three top-4 finishes in this tournament and should be considered a serious contender. Standing in his way is a back-to-back NCAA champion from Penn State.
Carter Starocci is the top seed at 174 and has not lost a match since the 2021 Big Ten Championships. Mikey Labriola of Nebraska will be the No. 2 seed, and he has defeated Smith in each of the last two seasons. But the Scarlet and Gray vet handed Labriola a loss in last year’s B1G tourney, so there is a path for Smith to reach his second final. If he were to get there, all he needs is one shot (legitimate wrestling pun).
184 pounds — Kaleb Romero
Like Smith, Romero has wrestled at Ohio State for 12 years... Alright, it has only been six for each, but they feel like they have been in Columbus forever. And I mean that in the best way possible. Romero’s ascent has been a steady one, and there is hope that after earning his first All-American nod last year, he will add a top-3 Big Ten finish to his impressive resume in 2023.
Romero will also have a back-to-back NCAA champion from Penn State standing in his way, by the name of Aaron Brooks. But the homegrown Buckeye from Mechanicburg (OH) gave Brooks all he could handle the last time they met, resulting in a close 3-2 decision for the defending champ. Romero would love to face Brooks again and should be considered a favorite to do so in the final.
197 pounds — Gavin Hoffman
197 seems wide open behind Penn State’s Max Dean. But unlike last year, Hoffman will not be able to sneak up on his opponents. That is because despite “only” taking eighth place at last year’s Big Ten Championships, Hoffman pulled off multiple upsets en route to a six-place finish at the NCAA’s. He has not wrestled since the PSU dual on Feb. 3, but there is hope he will be ready to go on Saturday.
Heavyweight — Tate Orndorff
Orndorff is among 6 of the top 15 nationally-ranked heavyweights wrestling in the Big Ten Championships. His best result in this tournament is a sixth-place finish in 2021, but he has top-5 upside if he wrestles to the best of his ability.
The Big Ten Championships begin on Saturday, March 4 at 10:00 a.m. ET. Big Ten Network and BIG+ will have all the action, as Ohio State seeks the reclaim the conference crown or at least give Penn State and/or Iowa a run for their money.