Yet that’s exactly where his Buckeyes are as they get set to host the Big Ten wrestling tournament Saturday and Sunday in St. John Arena. The No. 5 Buckeyes are 13-4 with losses to No. 1 Missouri and second-ranked Iowa on their résumé, but the most recent loss to Lehigh in the quarterfinals of the NWCA National Duals on Feb. 21 was a shock to the system.
Ryan wasn’t afraid to use the word embarrassing to describe the loss to the then-No. 11 Mountain Hawks, but he also sees no use dwelling on the setback.
“We wanted to be great that weekend and we weren’t, but the good news is it wasn’t the last weekend,” Ryan said. “We have two more, and we’re a better team than that. We need to show it.”
So why should the Buckeyes, who do have dual wins over No. 4 Minnesota and No. 7 Penn State, feel confident heading into the tournament? After battling injuries all season, Ohio State will have the 10-man lineup it envisioned all season as star 149-pounder Hunter Stieber and heavyweight Nick Tavanello return to health.
“Who would have thought that it would take this long to field the team we know we need to be the best team in the country?” Ryan asked. “You take the second- or third-best guy out of the lineup of any team in the country and they drop dramatically.”
Ohio State also boasts a quartet of studs in senior 141-pounder Logan Stieber, Hunter’s brother, as well as freshmen Nathan Tomasello (125 pounds), Bo Jordan (165) and Kyle Snyder (197). Stieber leads the way as a near sure thing in the postseason having not lost a match in tournament wrestling on the way to Big Ten and NCAA titles each of the past three years.
Meanwhile, Jordan joins Stieber as unbeaten on the year, while Tomasello and Snyder have a single Big Ten loss apiece. The quartet is a combined 33-2 in Big Ten duals, and Snyder and Jordan join Stieber as a No. 1 seed.
However, the rest of the squad that will wrestle this weekend is just a combined 19-13 this year in league duals, and Ryan admitted such wrestlers as senior 157-pounder Josh Demas and juniors Johnni DiJulius (133), Mark Martin (174) and Kenny Courts (184) must make strides both mentally and physically to be at their best for the postseason.
Despite a season that has not quite lived up to expectations yet, the Buckeyes know their goals – including a quest for the program’s first Big Ten tournament championship since 1951 – are still intact.
“Absolutely the goals have stayed the same throughout the year,” Snyder said. “I want a national championship as a team, and individually guys can do the same thing.”
The Big Ten meet won’t be easy with eight schools – including four-time defending champion Penn State – ranked in the top 15, with Nebraska (11th), Illinois (12th), Michigan (14th) and Wisconsin (15th) joining the Hawkeyes, Golden Gophers, Nittany Lions and Buckeyes.
The following is a weight-by-weight breakdown of the league. The national top-20 rankings, noted in parentheses, are those bestowed by the NCAA Division I Wrestling Coaches Panel on Feb. 26. In addition, the numbers of automatic qualifiers to the NCAA tournament from each weight class are listed, and additional wild-card spots will be handed out by the NCAA after the meet.
125 Pounds (5 NCAA Qualifiers)
Favorite – Thomas Gilman, Iowa (4)
Top-20 Wrestlers – Tomasello, Ohio State (6); Jesse Delgado, Illinois (7); Jordan Conaway, Penn State (9); Tim Lambert, Nebraska (12)
Breakdown – Tomasello is 24-4 on the year and 8-1 in Big Ten duals, with the lone setback coming in a tiebreaker vs. Gilman in January. That was Tomasello’s last loss, and Ryan likes that the redshirt freshman has outgrown the youthful, aggressive mistakes that cost him earlier this year.
“I love where Nathan is right now,” the head coach said. “I think he’s matured through the Big Ten schedule. How could you not? I think he’s done a tremendous job at working on the areas that cost him earlier. I think he’s the best guy in the country.”
It won’t be an easy bracket. As the No. 3 seed, Tomasello likely faces Delgado, who has won the Big Ten and NCAA titles each of the past two years but is coming off a loss to new No. 1 Alan Waters of Missouri at the National Dual, in Saturday evening's semifinals. Gilman is undefeated against conference foes but has lost two of his last three matches.
133 Pounds (12)
Favorite – Chris Dardanes, Minnesota (1)
Top-20 Wrestlers – Ryan Taylor, Wisconsin (2); James Gulibon, Penn State (4); Cory Clark, Iowa (6); Zane Richards, Illinois (8); Rossi Bruno, Michigan (9); DiJulius (10); Danny Sabatello, Purdue (12); Scott Delvecchio, Rutgers (16); Geoffrey Alexander, Maryland (18)
Breakdown – The No. 4 seed, DiJulius is 23-4 this season and 6-2 in Big Ten duals with wins against Clark (a likely quarterfinals opponent) and Sabatello on his résumé. He has lost to Gulibon and Delvecchio, though, and there is no easy draw at this weight.
“He certainly has the tools to win it,” Ryan said. “He’s going to have to win dogfights. He is going to win it ugly. He can’t win it pretty. He’ll grind to a win, he’ll ride a guy out, he’ll be able to get out, maybe have to survive a scramble or two. But he’s got to feel really good out here and really believe that he can win. Otherwise he’ll be in the bleachers.”
Dardanes is 20-0 but Taylor hasn’t lost to a Big Ten opponent all year.
141 Pounds (8)
Favorite – Logan Stieber, Ohio State (1)
Top-20 Wrestlers – Nick Dardanes, Minnesota (4); Anthony Abidin, Nebraska (6); Josh Dziewa, Iowa (7); Anthony Ashnault, Rutgers (8); Steven Rodrigues, Illinois (11)
Breakdown – History now beckons Stieber, who is expected by most to make it four straight Big Ten titles before embarking upon his run at becoming the fourth-ever wrestler to win a quartet of NCAA crowns. He’s 21-0 this year with 16 bonus-point wins, but he had a close result against Dardanes, whom he beat 10-9 on Feb. 6.
Ryan doesn’t expect Stieber to get caught up in the pressure of ending his career on top, and neither does the OSU senior.
“Can we clone him?” Ryan said. “He just does what he does. It’s very natural – it’s like walking, it’s like breathing. He won’t get caught up in all the stuff.”
Added Stieber: “I don’t really worry about it. For me, it’s just going out and wrestling in another tournament.”
149 Pounds (7)
Co-Favorites – Jason Tsirtsis, Northwestern (3); Brandon Sorensen, Iowa (4)
Top-20 Wrestlers – Alec Pantaleo, Michigan (9); Zack Beitz, Penn State (14); Kenneth Theobold, Rutgers (16); Justin Arthur, Nebraska (20)
Breakdown – Hunter Stieber is just 1-2 this year as he’s battled injuries to his elbows. Ryan said the Buckeyes – who have turned to senior Randy Languis (8-11) in his stead – might have debuted freshmen Jake Ryan or Micah Jordan if they didn’t have belief in Stieber, a 2012 and ’13 All-American who won the Big Ten at 141 in 2013.
“Against all odds, he’s going to have to find a way to do it because it’s not the formula for success,” Ryan said. “You don’t wrestle three or four matches in a year, are out for most of the year, and find a way to win. But he’s not your normal student-athlete.”
The No. 3 seed, Stieber has shown his talent when healthy, making his debut near midseason and nearly beating Sorensen in a Jan. 4 dual before tiring late. Stieber could also default out of the tournament, depending on the situation, once he clinches an NCAA spot.
The defending Big Ten champion, Tsirtsis’ lone loss came in a tiebreaker vs. Sorensen, who sits at 31-3.
157 Pounds (8)
Favorite – Isaiah Martinez, Illinois (1)
Top-20 Wrestlers – Dylan Ness, Minnesota (2); James Green, Nebraska (3); Brian Murphy, Michigan (7); Doug Welch, Purdue (8); Demas, Ohio State (12); Dylan Alton, Penn State (13); Mike Kelly, Iowa (15); Anthony Perrotti, Rutgers (17)
Breakdown – This is another stacked weight class, and Demas must find a shot of confidence. The Columbus-area native has battled injuries and is just 12-5 on the year with losses to Alton, Murphy, Perrotti and Ness.
“You can see the doubt and concern on his face when he wrestles,” Ryan said. “If he’s fearful and he’s not making it a point to react, then he’s very easily beatable. He’s a homegrown guy. If I’m him, I’d be thinking people are going to see (a performance) they’ve never seen before.”
The No. 6 seed, he has a tough draw as Green, the defending Big Ten champ, is the No. 3 seed.
Martinez (26-0) is unbeaten on the year with a win vs. Green, and Ness (26-1) owns a trio of top-four finishes at the NCAA meet.
165 Pounds (8)
Favorite – Bo Jordan, Ohio State (2)
Top-20 Wrestlers – Isaac Jordan, Wisconsin (5); Taylor Walsh, Indiana (6); Pierce Harger, Northwestern (7); Jackson Morse, Illinois (8); Nick Moore, Iowa (11); Garrett Hammond, Penn State (19); Nicholas Wanzek, Minnesota (20)
Breakdown – Cousins are expected to meet in the final in the two Jordans, who both wrestled at St. Paris (Ohio) Graham. They haven’t faced each other during the season, with Bo posting a 16-0 record with 11 bonus-point wins since coming back from injury at midseason. Isaac, meanwhile, has a 19-2 record but was pinned by co-No. 2 Michael Moreno of Iowa State in his last match.
“He’s an animal,” Ryan said of his wrestler. “He’s a ferocious competitor. He does everything right. He hasn’t lost in college. He just does so many things right. I expect him to win the Big Ten.”
The No. 1 seed, Jordan beat Walsh in sudden-victory fashion and also downed Moore – last year’s Big Ten runner-up – in Columbus.
174 Pounds (10)
Favorite – Robert Kokesh, Nebraska (1)
Top-20 Wrestlers – Matt Brown, Penn State (2); Michael Evans, Iowa (3); Logan Storley, Minnesota (4); Zach Brunson, Illinois (10); Martin, Ohio State (13); Nathan Jackson, Indiana (16); Frank Cousins, Wisconsin (18); Phil Bakuckas, Rutgers (20)
Breakdown – With the top four wrestlers in the nation at this weight class, there won’t be an easy quarterfinal match for anyone, and Martin is drawn against Evans – a two-time Big Ten second-place finisher – in that round. Martin (15-9) lost a 5-2 decision to Evans in January but gave Storley all he could handle in a 3-0 loss and was even on takedowns in a 7-2 loss to Kokesh at the Las Vegas Invitational in December.
“Mark is really good,” Ryan said. “He just has to believe he’s really good. He’s got to manage his weight. He’s a big piece of the puzzle.”
The defending Big Ten champ, Kokesh is unbeaten at 30-0 this season and beat Brown, 3-2, at the Southern Scuffle on Jan. 2.
184 Pounds (10)
Favorite – Sam Brooks, Iowa (9)
Top-20 Wrestlers – Domenic Abounader, Michigan (10); Kenny Courts, Ohio State (13); Brett Pfarr, Minnesota (14); Timothy Dudley, Nebraska (15); Richard Robertson, Wisconsin (19); Matthew McCutcheon, Penn State (20)
Breakdown – This is perhaps the most wide-open class in the Big Ten, and Courts (19-6) has wrestled to his ranking thus far with decision losses to Brooks and Abounader and wins vs. Pfarr and McCutcheon. But he was pinned at the National Duals against Lehigh, and Ryan said the junior is battling issues with his body.
“He doesn’t feel great out there and we’re trying to figure out why,” Ryan said. “It’s been kind of a mystery. But at the end of the day, he just has to get tough.”
Courts has been given the No. 5 seed and faces a likely quarterfinal matchup with Pfarr before Brooks would await.
Brooks leads the nation in RPI and has a 23-4 mark but lost to Abounader, 3-2, in dual action. Abounader is 18-6 on the campaign.
197 Pounds (9)
Favorite – Snyder, Ohio State (3)
Top-20 Wrestlers – Morgan McIntosh, Penn State (4); Scott Schiller, Minnesota (5); Nathan Burak, Iowa (6); Max Huntley, Michigan (8); Timothy McCall, Wisconsin (13); Aaron Studebaker, Nebraska (15); Alex Polizzi, Northwestern (16); Braden Atwood, Purdue (19)
Breakdown – Snyder is on a roll having not lost since a 2-1 decision against Burak on Jan. 4, a match in which he earned a stalling point on a technicality. He’s beaten McIntosh (6-1) and Schiller (3-1) in the meantime on his way to a 24-2 mark and feels he learned a lot about each competitor during his first trip though the Big Ten.
“I get a good feel for people the first time I wrestle them,” he said. “I can feel their tendencies, so the more times I wrestle someone usually the better I do. I expect to win this tournament.”
Ohio State won at this weight a year ago when senior Nick Heflin downed McIntosh, who beat Schiller by a 7-4 decision earlier this year when the Gopher was ranked No. 1.
Favorite – Connor Medbery, Wisconsin (2)
Top-20 Wrestlers – Mike McMullen, Northwestern (3); Bobby Telford, Iowa (4); Adam Coon, Michigan (6); James Lawson, Penn State (7); Tavanello, Ohio State (11); Spencer Myers, Maryland (14); Michael Kroells, Minnesota (15); William Smith, Rutgers (16)
Breakdown – Tavanello finished a win short of All-America status last year but has battled injury and is just 13-8, including 0-2 in Big Ten duals. He should be healthy for the Big Ten meet after his hurried return and overtime loss vs. Lehigh.
“You could see he had doubt,” Ryan said of his return. “He’s back on the mat now full time, and he’ll get a couple of good weeks of practice.”
Tavanello has been given the No. 9 seed with an early match against Smith on the docket, with the winner set to take on Medbery.
Medbury is 26-1 and has a decision over McMullen (23-2) with his only loss coming to Telford, who has fallen to McMullen and Coon.