Season Recap Part II: The One Who Knocks
By Garth Gartrell
Contributor to OhioStateBuckeyes.com
One week after their January 4, 2015 loss to Iowa, the Buckeye wrestling team beat defending national champ Penn State, 22-15. Although this would be the last appearance for Hunter Stieber until the Big Ten tournament, this win kicked off a six week period of solid success.
While the Buckeyes were not causing any sensational stir, at least they were winning. More importantly they were stabilizing, not suffering additional blows and were seeing incremental growth at some key weight classes. They won their remaining eight Big Ten dual meets, including a 22-13 pounding of perennial power Minnesota, coached by J. Robinson, a legendary coach and mentor to Ohio State's coach Tom Ryan.
Nathan Tomasello had lost an overtime decision to Thomas Gilman, but something was different. In suffering his fourth defeat, it was clear that he was much more cautious than he had been in previous matches.
In his earlier loss to Joey Dance of Virginia Tech Tomasello stormed out to a lead, only to be caught for backpoints which proved the difference. The same was true against Dylan Peters of Northern Iowa in Las Vegas only this time he was pinned for his aggressiveness. While Alan Waters was the one who sprinted out to a big lead in the Missouri dual, once again backpoints were involved in Nathan's downfall.
Thus, even though the Gilman match resulted in a loss, Tomasellos's managed approach was an encouraging moral victory. As time went on, Nathan seemed focused on managing his wins even as he was mauling the guys he should have. A thinking man's caution was now at work.
No one could be certain at the time that Tomasello would not taste defeat again in 2015, but the subtle change was noticeable. It also makes you wonder, were those harsh early losses responsible for the lessons that propelled him to a national title? I have often thought too many wrestlers are afraid to lose early in the year and because of that they fail to adopt the tools and mindset necessary as they get to March.
Would Kyle Snyder and Bo Jordan have benefitted from the early disappointment that Nathan Tomasello struggled with? Nathan had lost by being aggressive and by being cautious, but both seemed instructive to him.
Kyle Snyder, also adapting to the new experience of collegiate wrestling didn't so much get beat. More aptly described, he probably mismanaged himself to his only two losses, first against Kyven Gadson of Iowa State in Las Vegas and then to the always capable Nathan Burak of Iowa. After he hit the even more successful veteran Scott Schiller of Minnesota with a last second match winner, you felt Snyder had grown quite a bit in collegiate match management.
Snyder was rising to collegiate superstar status. He went into the Big Ten Tournament as a number one seed (Tomasello by comparison, was a third seed). As a world freestyle champion, Snyder is very good from his feet. In fact, he can get to an opponent's legs with relative ease, much as a lighter weight can. Even better, he is almost unassailable in the neutral position. While he does not have a strong backpoint game, practically no one does at the 197 pound class--which is made up of men squeezed with every ounce of muscle possible without exploding into the heavy weight class.
Bo Jordan, now healthy, started just demolishing opponents. It really became noticeable starting with the Indiana match. Every year, Coach Ryan conducts one, maybe two home matches at an Ohio high school, often the alma mater of a prominent Buckeye senior. On January 23, 2015 the Buckeyes hosted Indiana at Norwalk High School the hometown of Hunter and Logan Stieber (the Stiebers, while from Norwalk, actually attended nearby Monroeville High, which has a gym too small to host the match).
As a tribute to the Stiebers, and in recognition that Logan was shooting for history in seeking his fourth NCAA title, the citizens of Norwalk had filled the gym ninety minutes before the 7:00 PM start. The Indiana coach graciously offered to start the meet at 149 so that the final match could feature Logan. True to form, Logan declined the honor so by blind draw it was determined the meet would start at 165.
Indiana wrestled only one real superstar, the pinning machine that would wrestle in the NCAA finals, Taylor Walsh--at 165. Thus, the meet would start with its best competitive match--undefeated Bo Jordan and Walsh--both ranked in the top five.
After Walsh took Jordan down and manhandled him for the entire first period, the feeling was that Jordan had met his match, and perhaps was not quite ready for the big boys. But then the match turned as Jordan started dealing out the punishment. When Jordan overcame a 4-1 deficit, the duo went to overtime. It was clear that by that time Jordan had taken all the fight out of Walsh who almost seemed to give himself up for Jordan's sudden victory win.
From that point on, Jordan gathered steam. Opponents seemed to visibly give up and were indifferent as to how Jordan ended the match, whether by pin or technical fall, so long it ended quickly.
Going into the Big Ten tournament, the big four of Logan Stieber, Tomasello, Jordan and Snyder would not lose a single match among them after Iowa. Stieber and Jordan remained undefeated.
Jim Humphrey was an Ohio State Big Ten champ in the 70's. He also went on to win a World silver and is the father of Buckeye Reece Humphrey, an NCAA finalist and several time national freestyle champion. Jim is clear about what has made Tom Ryan so successful--he approaches his job like a CEO might. He manages all resources necessary for success, including fund raising, facilities development, recruiting, marketing, messaging and coaching. He has hired the best assistants he can and gives them freedom to conduct most of the instruction. He also makes it possible for post-graduates to continue their Olympic level training in the Ohio State wrestling room.
He is also a leader in the wrestling world. One of the topics he is most passionate about is determining a national champion based on a dual meet formula--like basketball and football, have the teams advance through a tournament, as a team, and crown one team, in its entirety, as national champion.
Ryan believes this approach, which would not supplant the current NCAA championship individual format, would greatly enhance spectator interest. Even if the casual fan might not comprehend the nuances of wrestling, many can get behind a team and a school and become hooked by the dual meet back and forth. The concept has grown to the point where the top six or seven nationally ranked teams participated in the event in 2015.
Ohio State began the tournament against Edinboro, an undersized western Pennsylvania school with an oversized wrestling program. Not only did the opening meet raise the anticipation of a one vs two Logan Stieber / Mitchell Port match, assuming the Buckeyes continued to win, it set up a tasty semi-final showdown with Missouri, including Tomasello / Waters and Snyder / Cox main events.
The Buckeyes pummeled Edinboro on the Edinboro campus. While Port proved as good as advertised, he was not good enough to score an offensive point on Stieber who walked away with a 6-3 win. Having dispatched one small school power, few seriously expected much fight from another, Lehigh, which had also advanced.
Every great comeback story deserves an interim setback. First Johnni DiJulius was upset. Then, after both Josh Demas and Mark Martin went down, the alarms started to go off. Even assuming Snyder would win at 197, which he did, the Buckeyes would need either Kenny Courts at 184, or Nick Tavanello at 285 to step up. Given that Tavanello had missed most of the preceding six weeks with a knee injury, it would have to be Courts, who would face Nathaniel Brown.
In the final analysis, amid all the suffering and tragedy of the 2014-15 season, there were heroic stories, but none with the feel good quality of Kenny Courts. Kenny has one key quality in common with Kyle Snyder--for a very big guy, he is remarkably quick to strike at the legs of his opponent from neutral. Yet for all his obvious talent, he has had very inconsistent results. Seeded second at the Cliff Keen he did not place. He won 30 matches over the course of the year, yet finished eighth in the Big Ten and looked lost doing so.
Believing in Kenny's talent, yet frustrated by commensurate results, Coach Ryan decided on a different tack with Kenny headed into the NCAA finals. Most guys respond to training which builds in preparing for an intense a multi-day event like the NCAA tournament. But some people have a make-up which does not productively respond to that. After the Big Ten frustration, Coach Ryan reached out to Kenny's dad and coach and changed things with Kenny: measured out his workouts, gave him time to recover and collect, and talked him through his drills in a different sort of way.
Kenny hit the NCAAs unseeded with 26 wins, and to open drew a relatively high seed in No. 6 Hayden Zilmer of North Dakota State. When Kenny hit an overtime winner, the reaction was, "wow, a little shocking--that's a six seed. But good for him."
In the second round Kenny faced an unseeded Scott Patrick of Davidson who had seemingly done Kenny a favor by beating Brett Pfarr, the eleven seed from Minnesota who had beaten Courts in the Big Ten and who had finished as a Big Ten runner-up. Perhaps it was not so surprising that Courts beat Patrick to advance to the quarterfinals, but when you looked up to see that fourteen seed Brian McCutcheon of Penn State had become Kenny's second round opponent by beating three seed Blake Stauffer of Arizona State, you began to question just Who was sitting in Kenny's corner. Jordan Burroughs says when you beat the three seed, you become the three seed. That might be so, but it had to buoy Kenny's confidence to go against a fourteen seed instead.
Few images in sport are as powerful as the sight of Kenny landing in Coach Ryan's arms after his dramatic come-from-behind, sudden victory win against McCutcheon. Coach and wrestler had huddled in a shared belief and combined to create one of those out of nowhere stories that make life so great. Kenny landed in the semi-finals, one match away from a trip up the elevated stage to wrestle for a national championship.
Courts would face Nathaniel Brown of Lehigh.
Brown had pinned Kenny in that dual meet weeks earlier, a loss that had effectively ended the Buckeye regular season, leaving them to lick their wounds and stew in anger and disappointment as they prepared for the Big Ten and NCAAs. Kenny fared a little better in the national semifinals, losing 4-0.
But the dream had come true and in fact would not end. Already an All American by virtue of his semi-final appearance, when Kenny hit a takedown to claim fifth place, he earned the point that claimed at least a share of the Buckeye's first national title. The Buckeyes would go on to claim the title by eighteen points but junior Kenny Courts had claimed what few can and in the process embedded himself in Buckeye lore.