Season Recap Part III: Champions All
by Garth Gartrell
Contributor to OhioStateBuckeyes.com
There has always been a great respect between football players and wrestlers, often because athletes compete in both in high school. They also share a mutual understanding of the toughness and difficulty each experiences in a combat environment.
Of course, there are limiting factors of genetic makeup and size that sometimes steer an athlete toward one and away from the other. And of course, one is more attractive simply because it is more popular than the other. But enough about Europe in Asia. As it turns out, it is football which is actually more popular in the US.
You might not believe this but when wrestlers hear about the power of the SEC, they actually think, how tough can they be if they don't wrestle? Which they don't (Missouri has to carpet bag to the MAC to find a conference).
There were a number of similarities between the 2015 Buckeye national championships won in football and wrestling. Obviously both lost teammate Kosta Karageorge and both honored him in their triumphs. Both lost stunningly to Virginia Tech and both had to battle crises in confidence and overcome devastating injuries.
I guess you could also say that both coaches, relentless and tireless in their search for excellence, won their first national titles AT Ohio State (never mind that Urban has won twice elsewhere).
Intriguingly, both had two major hurdles to climb. In football it was Alabama, then Oregon. In wrestling, it was the Big Ten and the NCAA. Now it's true that the wrestling team didn't need to win the Big Ten to win the NCAA but as with football, in many respects the first test was tougher and winning provided the perhaps the most overwhelming sense of accomplishment. In the wrestlers winning the Big Ten, as was the case for football in the Sugar Bowl, bullies of the past were vanquished and long standings weights were taken off their shoulders.
After the Buckeyes wrestling loss to Lehigh, the outside world essentially wrote off Buckeye title hopes as the teams gathered in Columbus for this year's tournament (for a more hopeful view, see this). Based on team point projections from the seeds, Ohio State was a prohibitive underdog to Iowa. Ohio State entered the tournament with three number one seeds: Logan Stieber, Bo Jordan and Kyle Snyder. A win would be Stieber's fourth and for the others it would be the first of four they each hoped to win. As things played out, those three were joined in the finals by Nathan Tomasello.
Tomasello overcame his third seed in dramatic fashion. Before a packed home crowd on the opening night, Nathan held on for a close win over two time defending national champion Jesse Delgado of Illinois. Delgado looked sharp. He was recovering from a shoulder injury that had kept him out much of the year. He was looking like his old self (ultimately he injury defaulted two weeks later at the NCAA tournament because of a new hamstring injury). Beating the great Jesse Delgado was a clear signal that Nathan Tomasello was at the very top of his class.
The next dayTomasello faced Thomas Gilman, a man who had beaten Tomasello three times in the preceding months--twice in the freestyle world team trials and once in the Iowa / Ohio State dual. The dual match was a close one that went to overtime. This time, Tomasello was able to push the action, managing the first take down and extending out to a 3-0 lead. He overcame a stall point and an escape to win his first Big Ten Title, kicking off a memorable night in front of a wildly enthusiastic crowd.
Bo Jordan did not fare quite as well. Somehow in watching you wondered if his heart really was in the title match against his first cousin, good friend and former Graham High School teammate Isaac Jordan of Wisconsin. Isaac struck first but the story of this match was Bo's inability to close on his very deep shots from neutral. Somehow Isaac was always able to escape danger and inflicted his own punishing ride on Bo, who just did not have the answer in a late comeback. His second place finish resulted in his first defeat of the year.
Kyle Snyder cruised along as expected into the finals where he faced Morgan McIntosh, a man he had narrowly beaten in the Penn State dual. In a rare occurrence, McIntosh got an early takedown and then also doled out a punishing ride, returning Snyder to the mat several times with forceful throws. The battle left Snyder the Buckeyes' second runner-up finish for the night.
The weekend really belonged to the Stieber brothers. Logan cruised to this fourth title, winning by an early second period tech fall over Josh Dweiza of Iowa--his final match in front of the home crowd. His last Ohio State appearance was in receiving his trophy and bracket card from his good friend, mentor and weight class coach, two time NCAA champion J. Jaggers. Stieber would later be presented the Big Ten Wrestler of the Year and the Big Ten Tournament's Outstanding Wrestler. It was a fitting send-off to a hero in search of a fourth national title who has transformed the course of Ohio State wrestling.
The weekend will also be memorable for what Hunter Stieber did. Entering the Big Ten Tournament with just a 3-4 record, this former Big Ten Champion had not wrestled for two months and was just hanging on--knowing he faced surgery on both elbows within weeks.
Hunter started off promisingly. While he faded toward the end of his first match, he held on for a close win. In the quarter finals he was trailing late in his match to Zach Beitz of Penn State. His coach later observed he was so injured that rather than brace any falls with his arms, he would go right into a head first roll. As time expired, Hunter manufactured a winning two point reversal, sending him to a stunning place in the Big Ten semifinals. He winced in the pain as the ref tugged on his arm to attempt to raise it in victory.
Hunter would not win another match in 2015 but he was winning the devotion of everyone who watched him gut out the effort that, without which, the Buckeyes would not have won their first league title in 64 years. He went out for the semifinal match against defending national champion Jason Tsirtsis of Northwestern. Rather than strapping on a red anklet, Hunter offered his hand to a gracious Tsirtsis, who accepted the injury default win. Hunter does not think of himself as a leader but people will always follow a person with that sense of courage and devotion.
The Buckeyes had entered the semifinal round down seventeen points to Iowa, but by the end of the night they had squeezed out a 1.5 point lead. As the wrestlebacks began to unfold, it looked as if every point would matter, so hearing the crowd as Hunter's consolation semi-final match was announced, he emerged from the locker room, untaped and unprepared, to wrestle for those points a higher place would bring. It was clear early on Hunter could not use his left arm at all. He tied the match at three, went in for a takedown he would normally complete, but without a usable arm to reel in his opponent, was twisted and pinned. As the unseeded Illinois wrestler paraded in exultation, tactless in accepting his gift, an injured champion stayed on his knees, helpless to make his body do as he commanded.
Other wrestlers played a big role. Johnni DiJulius and Josh Demas only lost to one wrestler each. Though they did that twice each, their fourth place finishes provided critical points. Moments before Kyle Snyder took the mat for the Buckeyes' last shot at an individual title, Iowa benefitted from the number one seed from Penn State forfeiting his third place match to Nathan Burak of Iowa, leaving the Hawkeyes at 120 points after the bonus points were added.
Fortunately, an impassioned and resentful Mark Martin had already hit an overtime takedown in the 174 match. That point had also gotten the Buckeyes to 120 points. As the crowd later counted the last seconds of Northwestern's Mike McMullan taunting win over Bobby Telford of Iowa in the heavy championship match, it was over. Hunter Stieber had provided the essential points with his sixth place win, and Mark Martin's determined surge add the one point needed. The Buckeyes were Big Ten champs and the generations overdue celebration was on.
The greatest night in wrestling history on the Ohio State campus ended with a tie with Iowa, but no matter. The Buckeyes had seized the moment and the championship that most had then thought was out of their grasp. It was also fitting that the newest and most prominent fan was on hand to witness it. Urban Meyer had been the honorary coach in the Iowa dual. Hehad provided some Urbanesque color at that time in exhorting the Buckeyes on.
During the Big Ten Urban stood matside, cheering on each Buckeye wrestler. Weeks later, as the Buckeyes celebrated their national championship in the hotel next to the Arch, Nathan Tomasello was asked what Urban had said the night of the Big Ten championship. "He said he loved me," an obviously moved Tomasello recounted. A mutual feeling shared by all.
The Buckeyes had opened some eyes, but although they sent all ten wrestlers to the NCAA in St. Louis, most doubted they would take the title. When the dust settled, it was true that the Buckeyes would have eked out a four point margin to win the title with just its big four of Logan Stieber, Tomasello, Jordan and Snyder.
But mere points don't do justice to Kenny Courts unforgettable run from unseeded to an All American at fifth place and the poetry of his National Title clinching win, captured the imagination of all. The points added Mark Martin and Johnni DiJulius, while not generated with the same drama, also serve as launching points for next year, and of course their Big Ten performances were solid. Josh Demas was never able to pull it together after so much injury. He deserved better, but goes out a fighter and a key member of a National Champion.
While Buckeyes had wrapped up the title before the final night's championship bouts, there was no lack for excitement. During the earlier medal rounds, second place Iowa threatened to surge into the lead when Thomas Gilman walked away with two extra pin bonus points in the consolation semis. Iowa inched closer, but first Bo Jordan finished his week with a dramatic pin in the third place match and then Kenny Courts delivered the tie clincher with his heroics in the fifth place match. When Iowa failed to earn a pins in their last consolation matches, the Buckeye lead became insurmountable.
The Buckeyes claimed five All Americans including Courts and Jordan--Bo avenging his Big Ten loss to cousin Isaac, dominating their consolation semi match. The other three, Tomasello, Stieber and Snyder were all headed to the finals.
So there can be a nice feature of wrestling. In this case, Buckeye fans could sit back and enjoy the three finals, including as part of a record national TV audience, all the while comfortable in the knowledge the team had already won the national title (technically it was not true that Ohio State had clinched before the end of the tournament--as Missouri learned earlier when Johnny Eblen was disqualified for head butting his opponent in desperation--a team loses all the points a wrestler has earned if he is DQd--fortunately Logan resisted the opportunity to haul off and hit someone in the finals--that's a joke--haha).
The world seemed to descend on the Ohio State wrestling team as the likeable, modest Logan Stieber from Monroeville High sought to become only the fourth wrestler in history to win four national titles. As has become common in recent years, the wrestling order for the final night was set so that the biggest match of the night would be the last, and on this night there was never any real doubt that Logan Stieber would wrestle last, against number two Mitchell Port of Edinboro.
Accordingly, the final night would begin at 149, which meant for Buckeye fans, five championship matches would take place before a Buckeye would step up the stage and into the spotlight--Kyle Snyder of Ohio State.
I know combatants don't feel this way, but I always think that all a wrestler can ask is that he get a shot--that he make it to that final match, win or lose. Anything can happen, and in Kyle's case it did. Freshman Kyle Snyder went up against senior Kyven Gadson of Iowa State. Snyder had already beaten J'Den Cox, the unquestioned king of the class. Gadson is no slouch. In fact he is great and fully capable of giving Kyle a rough go--after all he had beaten Kyle way back in early December. But Kyle had advanced, had clearly gotten more comfortable as a collegiate wrestler.
197 is a unique weight class. Because it is the last stopping point before the long uncertain gap to 285, any wrestler who can get down to 197 does so to avoid going against the bigger taller guys who fight to stay under 285. So 197 is a strong man's class--the one most noticeably so. There is not a lot of scoring at the highest level, even if there is tremendous agility. It is tough to get past the defenses of guys so strong. It is also pretty rare at the top to see a lot of backpoints--when you see it, there is often a lot of drama.
Former Buckeye great JD Bergman is now a two time national freestyle champion at a very comparable class, 97 kilos (which at over 214 pounds is 50 pounds below the next highest class). In the 2013 World Team Trials on the campus of Oklahoma State, JD was up against former OSU Cowboy star Chris Pendleton. Very early in the match Pendleton went in for a double leg. Bergman, caught him with an over (the shoulder)-under (the other shoulder) hook, throwing Pendleton to the mat for the quick pin. Two months later at the World Championships, Bergman was comfortably ahead. He too went in for a double league and he too was quickly dispatched with a dramatic throw and pin--same over-under hook.
Kyle Snyder is a rare one: world gold and bronze medalist, a guy who rarely gets taken down but who can get to almost anyone's legs for a takedown--as he did to Cox. After a scoreless first against Gadson, Kyle struck, firmly getting a single leg and pulling it up for the takedown to follow. Pretty amazingly Gadson was able to straighten his leg out of the hold. Probably surprised, Snyder kept his hunched over form, perhaps not quite giving up on the kill he expected, or perhaps just not moving quickly enough from the danger that lurked. Either way, just as Pendleton was leaning, just as Bergman leaned, there was Snyder, in perfect position for the over-under. With Gadson's two feet both now both firmly returned to the mat, he twisted on the over-under and shockingly Kyle Snyder was on his back and quickly pinned. I have to imagine Kyle Snyder has to go back a long, long time to recall such a thing happening to him.
In stunned disbelief, Snyder shook Gadson's hand and dismounted the stage without a word to coachRoss Thathcer. That long walk back up the green carpet must have been the longest in his life. I doubt Kyle Snyder will ever be caught off guard again. He will be back and there may come a time when he cherishes the lesson learned. He has been an amazing man to follow and Buckeye fans can count on seeing him compete for many years to come, in college and internationally.
Nathan Tomasello followed two matches after Snyder's. A four seed, Nathan started with a fall, then took out Ben Willeford of Cleveland State and Cory Mines of Edinboro in the quarter finals. It was not entirely certain Nathan would face undefeated number one Alan Waters of Missouri. Waters would likely have to defeat two time defending champion Delgado, who went unseeded because of his time off for a shoulder injury. As noted, it was a hamstring that did Delgado in, so the matchup with Waters never occurred. If Waters were to go, Nathan would have to do it himself.
After a scoreless first, Nathan chose to go neutral, remembering how hard Waters had ridden him three months earlier. When the second period ended with no takedown, the strategy seemed to have gone for naught. Waters quickly escaped but then Nathan gave a jerk of Waters head and reached around to secure Waters right leg with Nathan's left hand. He quickly pulled it in and secured Waters' left ankle to complete the necessary control. Waters second escape came quickly and knotted the match at 2.
With under a half minute, Waters hit a strong double leg but Nathan muscled out a pancake and then launched his patented left hand swipe to the inside of Waters' left leg as time went under 20 seconds. Waters maneuvered to the seeming safety of the edge. Tomasello spent his efforts working up the leg to the point where his hips were about equal with Waters. As Waters tried to stretch the pair out of bounds, Nathan elevated both, weakening Waters' base. At that point, Nathan gave a push down and OUT OF BOUNDS, crumpling Waters underneath, and earning the takedown as Nathan's feet remained in bounds. That flawless execution, with time expiring, sent Nathan to the finals 4-2.
In the finals, Nathan went up against unseeded Zeke Moisey of West Virginia. Going for a takedown in their semi-final match, Moisey had caught Thomas Gilman with his head to close to his knee. When he locked up the standing cradle and pinned Gilman in less than a minute he set up a third match against Tomasello in the finals. Tomasello had beaten Moisey 19-6 and 15-10 before New Year's Day.
Nathan Tomasello won his first NCAA title, but not without a real scare. On top, Moisey spotted an opportunity, turned, caught Tomasello's head and one shoulder and in a continuous "cement mixer" roll put Tomasello on his back. The scare and the danger were real, but in the end, Tomasello is so strong it is unlikely he is going to get pinned by just the head and shoulder. Caught for a two count, Tomasello spun right out, earning a one point escape that with Moisey's two backpoints put the match at 6-4. Adding another takedown, Tomasello earned an NCAA title in his first year, keeping the possibility of following in Stieber footprints alive.
Two matches later, in the final match of the night, Logan Stieber did in fact achieve history. One commentator had suggested, incorrectly, that Stieber has trouble with "length'--you know, taller wrestlers. I sympathize with the problem, when it seems all superlatives have been used with regard to Logan and so much has been written, perhaps there is a temptation to just find something to say--I mean add some zest because Logan just plugs along annihilating the competition. But near perfection is never mundane. In the finals we watched the unofficial coronation of a man who has gone from teenager to legend right in front of us.
For the record, Stieber added two tech falls, one pin and a major decision to get to the finals, where he destroyed Mitchell Port of Edinboro. As he looked to be coasting to a major decision win, he was actually taken down late and Port rode him out to finish the match--an unusual occurrence. I really don't think that would have happened to a concerned Stieber, but the match was never in doubt. Things were scary earlier when Port let out a blood curling scream as Stieber twisted him to the match. Port offered little thereafter, but in truth he had not offered much before. Mitchell Port is a very, very good wrestler, but no one was going to touch Logan Stieber.
Logan Stieber, with direction and assists from Tom Ryan and Gene Smith have changed the direction of Ohio State wrestling for years to come. He also had three main goals, probably in this order: see his brother Hunter win a national title, win a team title and finish with four titles of his own. Only two Tommy John elbow surgeries stand in the way of completing that list. But Logan will be there watching next year, just as he will watch over the program he has built. I fully expect to be writing from Rio next year as he goes for gold.
Often we walked from Scotttrade to the hotel by the Arch with Ammon Butcher, the young wrestler who has become a near quadriplegic as a result of a high school wrestling accident. When he got to the Ohio State campus to begin his studies as an honors graduate at the Fisher School he sought out coach Ryan who embraced him and made him an integral part of the team. He was assisted by his dad, a man who has embraced Ammon's courage and optimism. Wrestlers would wrap their arms around Ammon on the floor of St. John Arena to celebrate big moments at the Big Ten tournament.
I know it's corny to admit this, but it's always been true, so here goes. I cannot sing Carmen Ohio without choking up and I never have the voice to finish with "how firm thy friendship." I think of family alive and passed, friends from school, friends just from Ohio. I think of all I have missed in the years I've been away and the love I feel whenever I return.
I think of my brother Ken fighting his last battle from the James Cancer Center overlooking Ohio Stadium, where I had earlier taken my dad to see one of his last games in person--when the Buckeyes struck late in the third quarter to dominate against Notre Dame, their gold helmets reflecting in the late afternoon sun.
I think of the joys and sorrows of being an athlete in Ohio and I think of Ohio sports, the times I have enjoyed doing so and how they have connected me to those I love. I think of friends with passion for Ohio State opponents and how our friendship thrives in part because of our conflicting passion.
I think of people who have always been straight with me and people who only ask the same in return.
The warmth of this championship year began for me in the summer with a call from Coach Ryan. It continued with summer interviews with Nathan Tomasello, Hunter Stieber and the unforgettable Ammon Butcher. This journey continued with the joyous yet sorrowful night in a Las Vegas casino as the wrestlers watched their football brothers win the Big Ten championship game.
It continued to New Orleans and Dallas, then picked up in Norwalk, Ohio, St. John's and finished celebrating by the Arch--the gateway to dreams. There likely will be more of these kind of celebrations, things you cannot take for granted. Regardless, nothing will match what has happened in these magical months. O-HI-O.