Season Recap Part I: Just Dust in the Wind?
By Garth Gartrell
Contributor to OhioStateBuckeyes.com
On March 21, 2015, the Ohio State wrestling Team swept away all past disappointments to win its first NCAA crown at Scottrade Center, the home of the St. Louis Blues of the National Hockey League. I write this in reflection on the flight home to San Diego where I will land at about the same time when, 1,955 miles to the northeast, The Buckeye wrestlers will be greeted in triumph by their fans at their quirky aging industrial looking training facility which is a good thirty minute walk to the heart of campus.
It is still amazing to think a year which started with so much promise and saw such bitter disappointment and pain would end in such exultation.
Here is what the Buckeyes accomplished: captured Ohio State's first Big Ten title in 64 years before an enthusiastic packed hometown St. John's Arena; saw the crowing of the team's first four-time Big Ten champion, Logan Stieber; sent a full team of ten wrestlers to the NCAA championships in St. Louis; sent a gaudy five wrestlers to the NCAA semifinals; claimed two individual titles with Stieber and Nathan Tomasello and one runner-up, Kyle Snyder; witnessed the ascension of Stieber to an iconic place in the sport after he won his fourth NCAA title and the start of such a possible run by Nathan Tomasello who won his first; saw its coach Tom Ryan take Big Ten and NCAA Coach of the Year honors and Stieber claim Most Valuable Wrestler at the Big Ten and NCAA tourneys, Big Ten Wrestler of the Year and NCAA most Dominant Wrestler; and finally basked in the glow of running away with the team title, steamrolling runner-up Iowa by 18 points and clinching the title before the Finals even started.
But those end of the year accolades don't erase the pain of the previous months.
The year started encouragingly enough. Nathan Tomasello, who redshirted as a freshman, won a US Open freestyle title in Las Vegas in late spring, 2014. He shared that distinction with Kyle Snyder who would enroll as a true Ohio State freshman a few months later. While Nathan would get knocked off the US world team by growing nemesis Thomas Gilman, a rising sophomore at Iowa, Snyder would go on to win bronze on the world stage--adding to the gold he won the year before.
Tomasello eschewed a return home to Parma after his world team loss, going directly to the OSU and Ohio Regional Training Center facility known as the "Steelwood" to address every nuance he could in his drive for perfection. In July, he announced he intended to start every Ohio State meet of the upcoming season with a bang so he could ignite his team.
Meanwhile, Hunter Stieber, a 2013 Big Ten champion and third place NCAA finisher was readying a return for two more years in the Buckeye line-up after a redshirt year. He started things with a bang by accompanying the US team to Mexico City where he won gold in the Pan Am games in July, 2014.
The Buckeyes were also looking for the return of past All American Josh Demas who had to sit out the entire 2013-14 season with a shoulder injury. When you considered the firepower up and down the line-up--the Stiebers, Demas, freshmen Tomasello, Snyder and Bo Jordan and solid returning wrestlers Johnni DiJulius, Mark Martin, Kenny Courts and Nick Tavanello--expectations of a team first national championship inside and outside the program were very high.
And that was right--in the end, what permitted the Buckeye success that was to unfold, was talent so deep it could overcome the repetitive blows it was about to take. At the nadir of the season, many had doubted the Buckeyes could ultimately succeed. While the endgame did not play out as expected, in the final analysis this team was complete from 125 to 285 and possessed the requisite leadership in Steelwood to push through what was about to unfold.
At the high school level Ohio is and always has been a hotbed of wrestling, but for so long, Ohio State, the most successful NCAA program in the state had not generated much wrestling excitement beyond a handful of isolated champions. The best high school wrestlers in the state usually left for somewhere else. Slowly that began to change and the improvement in perception accelerated when AD Gene Smith hired Tom Ryan away from Hofstra.
After a few near misses over the ensuing years, Ryan felt the momentum and anticipation had grown to the point that, with the powerhouse the 2014-15 team projected to be, he could be so bold as to think the Buckeyes could move an early January against powerhouse Iowa or Minnesota to Schottenstein Center. The goal was to break the NCAA wrestling dual meet attendance mark. Urban Meyer agreed to help, telling Coach Ryan that if things went as planned for the football Buckeyes, he would pump up an Iowa crowd. If not, Minnesota would work. Well, we all knew how that went--he would show up for Iowa.
As events would unfold, the Iowa match took on an entirely different meaning.
The year's first event in early November was the Michigan State Open. Confirming the perceived truth of the formula that would drive the Buckeyes to a national title, freshmen Jordan, Tomasello and Snyder all won their first collegiate tournaments.
Unfortunately, the portents of things to come also were in evidence. Josh Demas did win in his comeback attempt, but Hunter Stieber was absent from the line-up. Although it was a bit of a knee injury at first, as Hunter continued to remain absent from the line-up, rumors grew that a serious elbow injury was involved.
Before long Stieber was joined by Jordan with a toe injury that threatened to derail his season. It was not long before the sense was that Stieber and Jordan would be held out until the first of the year. Without two of their stars the team travelled to Blacksburg, Virginia on Sunday November 23, 2014, suffering a fairly shocking defeat. After beating UVA in Charlottesville the next day, the team headed home for a brief Thanksgiving respite. Their annual trip to the prestigious Cliff Keen Tournament in Las Vegas was less than two weeks away.
During the 2012-13 Ohio State wrestling season a larger than life presence with an unmistakable bounce began showing up in the heavyweight slot for Ohio State. Kosta Karageorge couldn't quite earn a place on the Big Ten podium in Madison, WI, but he wrestled gamely, winning some and performing well in those Big Ten extra matches where wrestlers try to secure an NCAA qualifier slot or at large berth.
Kosta was beat out by freshman Nick Tavanello in the 2013-14 season, so he set his sights as a walk-on as a football lineman in his senior season. The idea was he would give football a shot and return to the wrestling team in whatever capacity he was needed when football actually finished.
Heading to from Steelwood to lunch in the heart of campus, Coach Ryan pulled his car up to the intersection of Fred Taylor Drive and Lane Avenue on a warm October day. There atop his crotch rocket, with flowing hair and no helmet, wearing a backpack, was the hulking Kosta.
"Hey brother, I heard you were a little dinged up--how is everything?"
"Couldn't be better Coach. I'm back now. Just got moved up to third string." The light changed, a thumbs up and Kosta beat his motorcycle into a left turn as Coach Ryan turned right. "What a great kid! We will get him back in a few months," a smiling Ryan beamed.
The wrestling team boarded a bus to attend Kosta's funeral just hours before leaving for Las Vegas. Best friend Josh Demas was too devastated to make the trip and the entire team wept over the loss of their bigger than life hero, a guy who had established himself as there for everyone at any time. The sports world had held its collective breath in the days before Kosta's body was found in the dumpster into which he would crawl to take his life. Now it was time to say goodbye, the week after Thanksgiving.
After the Las Vegas tournament, the team, coaches, parents and friends gathered in a casino sports lounge to watch in surreal wonderment as the football Buckeyes demolished Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. Costa's 53 appeared on the helmets of his football brothers and Michael Bennett wore Kosta's numbers. His wrestling family alternated between joy and mourning. One by one, as the game's outcome grew certain the wrestlers quietly walked back to their rooms.
Months later, on the walk to Scottrade Center on the night of the NCAA semifinals, Coach Ryan's laughing dad Jack was being playfully tormented by Tom's sassy sister Kim. Kim is much like Tom's wife Lynette, full of energy and enthusiasm, always looking for fun and always looking out for their closely bonded family. Kim was draped in an Ohio State banner she would later be seen hoisting in all proud manner among the faithful on the arena.
As Kim walked she could not contain her happiness for what it seemed her brother was about to achieve. After talking about some of the playful events from his life she pleaded, "Tom deserves this. He has had so much grief in his life." No response was needed or given.
Tom Ryan is many good things but he is also what no one hopes to be--someone who has experienced incomprehensible grief, which in Tom and Lynette's case was the loss of a young child. In those moments when his team struggled to deal with the grief of Kosta's death, it must have comforted them to know their suffering, while it might never pass, could at least be endured and someday understood. They knew this because their coach, friend and confidante was there as proof, even without his having to say a word.
On December 14, the mighty Missouri Tigers came to town, boasting three wrestlers who would later become NCAA number one seeds: Alan Waters at 125, Drake Houdashelt at 149 and defending national champion J'Den Cox at 197.
(Most Ohio State fans still smart from Cox' 2014 NCAA win over Buckeye Nick Heflin. Heflin, wrestling no differently from how he had all year, was hit with a rare stall warning and then an even rarer (for Heflin) penalty point. That point was the winning margin after Heflin failed by a fraction of a second to complete a takedown. Without prompting as he was discussing Logan Stieber, wrestling great Dan Gable said, "I really don't think a stalling call against Heflin was the right call there." It was interesting to see that while that same referee, who was to haunt Nathan Tomasello a little and Kyle Snyder a lot in the Big Ten this year, was nowhere to be seen in this year's NCAA finals.)
In the continuance of a problem which was to plague him in the first half of the year, Tomasello gave up some early backpoints to Waters and lost despite storming back to make it close. As for Cox, Missouri moved him up to heavy to exploit a chance to win the dual--which they did, in part because of what happened earlier with Houdashelt.
After Tomasello's loss, the Buckeyes bounded back with a win by Johnni DiJulius. Logan Stieber won by forfeit, thus denying him a shot at Lavion Mayes who would earn an inexplicable three seed months later at the NCAA finals--Mayes would finish seventh. Ryan decided to stoke the frenzy of the crowd, which indeed erupted as Hunter Stieber made a surprise sprint from the locker room in an early return to action. Many must have breathed a sigh of relief that Hunter was in fact back and ready to join in the title hunt.
Some things you just cannot know until later. Houdashelt had been a strong wrestler to that point in his career, but few knew, until that day at least, that he was turning into the top wrestler in his class. Hunter, fed by the crowd's adrenaline, and perhaps forgetting how explosive competitive wrestlers can be--and unaware of what Houdashelt was becoming--somewhat recklessly through himself into the action. Houdashelt buckled a twisting Hunter into a standing cradle and forcefully put him to bed. Sheer excitement instantly gave way to shock.
Coach Ryan admitted he let himself get carried away. While the feeling at the time was that Hunter was physically ok, he hadn't had the time to mentally prepare for such a big match. Coach Ryan felt he had let down a pumped up Hunter by letting him take the mat.
The dream of hosting the largest dual meet ever was fading. While there were logistical issues, the truth was that after a poor finish at the Cliff Keen in the wake of Kosta's death and losses to Missouri and Virginia Tech, there was nowhere near the momentum and enthusiasm necessary to cause Central Ohioans to flock to a wrestling meet in record numbers. Bo Jordan had in fact returned to the line-up and Urban Meyer did in fact serve as an honorary coach for the Iowa match--which remained at the smaller St. John Arena--but the confidence of a few months before existed only among a handful of the faithful.
The team would lose to Iowa--its third dual meet loss in the first half of the season. Then, Hunter Stieber, after losing to Brandon Sorenson of Iowa, suffered what was to be a devastating injury to a second elbow in the Penn State match a few days later. Soon Nick Tavanello would exit the lineup with a knee injury that would effectively cost him his season.
A season that had started with so much hope and excitement had seen little above tragedy, mounting injuries, disappointing team results and, with notable exceptions many uninspiring individual performances. As the season continued, one prominent wrestling magazine projected the Buckeyes would finish fourth, almost twenty points behind projected champion Iowa.
This was it. Rather than becoming the harbinger of great things to come, the Iowa match served more to bury Buckeye hopes of throwing off its dark wrestling past. This is where sayings like, the water is out of the tub, all hope is lost, better luck next year all seemed appropriate. If this were a movie, if this were Hoosiers, this is when the music would have gone slow, heavy and discordant.
But if you looked closely, footprints up the path to glory were becoming faintly discernible.