"This is certainly as good as it gets," the second-year coach said.
And he has a right to be smiling considering he's taking an Ohio State team to the Scottrade Center that will arrive as national contenders truly for the first time in quite some time. Though the Buckeyes took a near-miraculous third place in 2004 when all five wrestlers taken earned All-America status, this group of seven feels like it can improve on last year's ninth-place finish and be in the running for a crown the entire weekend.
The polls would tend to agree. The Buckeyes are coming off of a fifth-place finish at the Big Ten championships March 8-9 in Minneapolis, but that doesn't mean a similar place is out of the question when more teams are added to the mix in St. Louis.
The Wrestling International Newsmagazine Tournament Power Index, which predicts a finish based on the individual strength of each wrestler, projects OSU as the sixth-place finisher within shouting distance of all comers ahead of it except No. 1 Iowa, the Big Ten champ. A similar poll by Intermat has the Buckeyes fifth.
Bolstered by returning top-eight finishers and All-Americans J Jaggers, Lance Palmer, Mike Pucillo and J.D. Bergman, Ryan likes the Buckeyes' chances.
"With the four returning All-Americans, they all have to place higher and then the other three guys have to score points, and they all can," Ryan said.
And Ohio State has some recent history when it comes to outpacing or duplicating its Big Ten finish. The 2004 team was eighth at Big Tens and then third at nationals, while last year's squad was ninth in the league and 10th at the final meet.
"I think that shows something about the character and how badly we want to do well at Ohio State," Bergman said.
That fifth-place finish at the Big Ten meet was sullied somewhat by Ohio State's poor start. The Buckeyes finished the opening session in ninth place in the league thanks to suffering some upsets, so Ryan said the team has worked on being on the ball during every session at the national tournament.
"We did some more stuff mentally," he said. "We had a great speaker come in the other day and speak about mental focus, preparation and visualization. They're ready to go."
The championships can be followed at www.ncaa.com and there will be television coverage as well. ESPNU/ESPN360.com will air the quarterfinals live at 11 a.m. Friday. Additionally, ESPNU will produce and syndicate live coverage of the semifinals beginning at 7 p.m. Friday.
When it comes to crunch time, ESPNU will carry the medal rounds live at 11 a.m. Saturday and ESPN/ESPN360.com will air the championships live later that evening at 8:30 p.m.
Below are more in-depth previews of the seven Buckeyes wrestling at the national championships.
Pucillo Wants The Double
Given that the Big Ten is the best conference in the nation when it comes to collegiate wrestling, it's hard to do better than finishing a season by winning both the league and national titles. That's the goal in sight for 184-pounder Mike Pucillo.
But if the redshirt sophomore were given his druthers, he'd rather have the title he'll be wrestling for this weekend than the one he won in Minneapolis.
"Big Tens are great, but five years from now people don't ask who won the Big Tens that year," he said. "It's all about nationals. The Big Ten meet is really a qualifying tournament for the national tournament. That's behind me now and hopefully I have five matches and I'll bring home a national title this week."
Pucillo, who took sixth place at NCAAs last season, enters as the No. 2 seed and boasts a 29-1 record. The lone blemish on that docket was a loss at the Las Vegas Invitational to Tyrel Todd of Michigan, who enters as the No. 3 seed and a possible semifinal opponent. Since the loss, Pucillo has won two tight decisions against Todd, including the title match at the Big Ten championships, and wouldn't mind another should it come to it against the Wolverine who beat him last year in the national fifth-place match.
"It comes down to I would say who wants it more, who it means more to," he said. "We've wrestled I think six or seven times now and we know each other's styles real well, and it just comes down to who makes the least amount of mistakes."
Should Pucillo advance out of the bottom half of the bracket, he very well could face No. 1-seeded Jake Varner of Iowa State in the final. Before that, however, he'll be slated against Cal State-Fullerton's Ian Murphy in round No. 1.
His coach seems to think Pucillo has what it takes to bring home gold.
"He's certainly good enough to win it," Ryan said. "If he's at his best this weekend he'll come home and we'll put his picture on the wall."
Pucillo said that returning home and having his larger than life photo placed alongside the other national champions on the wrestling room wall would be fine with him.
"A lot of people have aspirations to go to the Olympics and what not, but my biggest thing, especially right now, is just to win the national title and get my mug up there," he said.
Bergman Looking For Crown
At first glance, senior heavyweight J.D. Bergman looks like a good bet if one is looking for a possible national champion. During his senior year and first at a natural heavyweight spot, the No. 2-seeded wrestler is 29-2 and ran through the Big Ten dual season undefeated at 8-0. Already a two-time All-American, Bergman has shown an ability to wrestle well in tournament conditions. With a career record of 125-35, he sits eighth all-time in wins for a Buckeye.
Just one thing seems to stand in his way: Dustin Fox.
The top-seeded Northwestern heavyweight defeated Bergman first at the January Cliff Keen National Duals by a 3-1 score, then rode out the Buckeye during the third period to earn a 2-0 win in the Big Ten final.
To counteract that momentum, Bergman dropped some weight on the advisement of OSU's last national champ, Tommy Rowlands, and will enter the tournament with a more aggressive approach that meshes with his obvious quickness.
"He just has to wrestle more," Ryan said. "He had to make the guy wrestle. If you let a man that's 280 pounds stand around, the advantage goes to him. The more action there is in the match, the more advantage there is to us. There just hasn't been enough action those first two times we wrestled him."
Of course, getting to Fox, who Bergman cannot face in the winner's bracket until the national final, will be the key. A third-place finisher as a freshman in 2004 and a fourth-place finisher last season at 197 pounds, Bergman knows what it takes to do well at the NCAA meet and that starts with focusing on the match in front of you.
"I guess it's natural to think about who else is in your weight class and everything like that, but I'm focusing on one match," he said. "Personally I haven't won a championship match in three years, three trips out here, so I'm really focusing on that first round, getting a win and after that I'll focus on the next round."
Bergman will open with Patrick Walker of Liberty, who is 29-7. The first ranked wrestler Bergman can face will be either seventh-seeded David Zabriskie of Iowa State or 10th-seeded Zach Sheaffer of Pittsburgh in the quarterfinals.
The Oak Harbor, Ohio, native added that he's done thinking about the disappointment after going into Big Tens as the No. 1 seed and is ready for his first individual postseason title as a Buckeye.
"I learned from that," he said. "I practiced some things this last week and a half and made some adjustments to make myself more aggressive than I have been or than I was at Big Tens, anyway. I'm going to pick it up and wrestle more than I did then, take a few more risks."
The Rest Of The Story
With Jaggers and Palmer returning as All-Americans, both of those grapplers have shown an ability to get the job done at a very high level. Jaggers finished seventh in the Big Ten last year and then posted the same finish at nationals, while Palmer went from third at the Big Ten championships to fourth at the NCAA meet.
Jaggers, a 141-pounder who has won 10 of his last 11 bouts, has shown improvement this year, going 6-2 in the Big Ten dual season and then coming back with a vengeance after losing a first-round league tourney match to Minnesota's Manuel Rivera, who was seeded sixth at Big Tens and is fifth at the NCAA championships
"Against Jaggers we saw Rivera, who conceivably you could see in the national finals, first round of the Big Ten," Ryan said.
After the 6-2 decision dropped to Rivera, Jaggers never lost again the tournament, working through four wins in the consolation bracket, including a pin, technical fall and major decision, to take third place.
The sixth overall seed, Jaggers (25-6) will start the tournament with Nexi Delgado of UC-Davis before a possible round of 16 matchup with Northwestern's Keith Sulzer, who Jaggers pinned at Big Tens. The possible round of 8 opponent, Michigan's third-seeded Kellen Russell, won the Big Ten championship but split his matches with Jaggers this season.
As for Palmer, he returns to the NCAA championships as the ninth seed as a sophomore despite taking fourth a year ago.
"He's got a very tough class," Ryan said. "It's probably the toughest class in the country. He was fourth last year and he's seeded ninth, so that's an indication of how tough the weight is."
Palmer has ended up in the top of the draw, meaning that if he gets by the winner of a match between Oregon State's Kyle Larson and Clarion's Hadley Harrison, he likely would face No. 8 Jake Patacsil of Purdue in the round of 16. Palmer (23-8) won a decision over Patacsil during the dual season but lost a decision to the Boilermaker in Minneapolis. Should he advance a step beyond that, Palmer would get top-seeded Brent Metcalf of Iowa, the Big Ten champion and a regular-season victor over the Buckeye.
That match against Patacsil was the last Palmer would wrestle at the Big Ten meet, choosing to take an injury default in the fifth-place match. Palmer was one of the disappointing Buckeyes to an extent in the Twin Cities, losing his opening bout to Bubba Jenkins of Penn State and posting two wins before the loss to Patacsil.
However, Ryan expects his 149-pounder to be ready at the national tournament after reaching the semifinals at the event a year ago.
"An event like this, you love a Lance Palmer because the more people in the place, the more fired up he gets," Ryan said. "I haven't seen nerves really get to him and sometimes nerves really stifle people. He just loves to compete, so we expect him to return an All-American or national champion."
The other Ohio State competitors go into St. Louis unseeded.
The reward for junior 157-pounder Jason Johnstone for making his first NCAA tournament thanks to a surprising run to a fourth-place finish at the Big Ten meet is a probable first-round meeting with No. 1 Gregor Gillespie of Edinboro, who enters with a 28-1 record and a 6-0 decision win over Johnstone under his belt.
But that's likely fine for Johnstone (16-17), who won three matches at the Big Ten championships after going just 2-8 against conference foes during the regular campaign.
"I was so happy for him," Ryan said. "I have a lot of faith in that guy. I watch him practice all the time and then I shake my head when I watch him compete. I'm like, ‘Hey, Johnstone, you're really good. You have to do it out there.' It was nice to see him finally do it."
Then there's 133-pounder Reece Humphrey, who will put off a match with the No. 1-ranked wrestler for at least a round. Should Humphrey (24-9) get by Edinboro's Rick Deubel, someone he defeated 7-3 this year, in the first round he will likely get No. 1 Franklin Gomez, the Big Ten champion, of Michigan State.
"He's probably our biggest weight cutter, so in a tournament like this when you have more time after weigh in, it should help him," Ryan said. "He'll have a really tough second-round match but it's a winnable match for him. I believe with his talent he's really capable of beating anybody."
Humphrey, a sophomore who redshirted last season, is competing in his second NCAA championships. This year at Big Tens, Humphrey took seventh place with a 2-2 mark, and he has not faced Gomez this season.
Finally, freshman 125-pounder Nikko Triggas (18-16) enters after a similar seventh-place ending in Minneapolis. Triggas' tournament begins with a tough bout, as he is slated to face third-seeded Paul Donahoe of Nebraska.