A loss to its star freshman came as a surprise, but Ohio State prevailed over a tough challenge from Virginia Tech in its home wrestling debut.
By Chris Miles
Columbus, Ohio – The entire wrestling community was looking forward to one of the first big NCAA doubleheader wrestling matches of the season when No. 6 Ohio State hosted No. 11 Virginia Tech on Friday at the Covelli Center in Columbus. .
Fans were excited for the Buckeyes’ home opener, as were wrestlers and coaches from both top programs. Even three days before the game and 1,200 miles away at the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, things got interesting.
Former OSU All-American Kollin Moore and former Hokie All-American Ty Walz, both members of Team USA Wrestling, had a friendly exchange as they walked back and forth with each other in the office of USA Wrestling’s freestyle wrestling director Joe Russell.
The two members of Team USA retired from practice and took turns highlighting their respective programs during a brief phone call on Tuesday evening. Moore focused on his team’s collection of seasoned veterans and promising youngsters, while Walz was quick to point out Hokie’s own collection of talented first- and second-year wrestlers as well as their All-Americans from return.
The game as a whole was as competitive as those who follow the sport expected. It was Ohio State that received a big boost from its upper classes and used those contributions to edge out the visiting Hokies, 18-13, in a highly entertaining contest.
“We fought against a very tough team tonight,” OSU coach Tom Ryan said. “First of all, well done to Buckeye Nation. It was nice to have a good crowd. It made the difference in some of these matches, to have the crowd behind us.
“We have a very good squad, we have a nice combination of top class men and youngsters. There were a lot of close wins, it could easily have gone the other way.
Things didn’t start out the way many would have expected. Opening at 149 pounds, OSU’s Sammy Sasso, the nation’s No. 2 ranked wrestler, was upset by Tech rookie Caleb Henson in a 5-3 Sudden Victory decision. The victory gave the Hokies a 3-0 advantage.
Ohio State got on the board on the back of redshirt rookie Paddy Gallagher, who beat their opponent, 14-8, to even things up at 3-3 overall.
At 165 pounds, Buckeyes Carson Kharchla picked up a 6-3 win over former Olentangy Liberty High School teammate Connor Brady,
In the first long match of the night, Virgina Tech’s Mekhi Lewis (No. 2) beat OSU’s Ethan Smith (No. 6) 3-2 in a clash between two of America’s best wrestlers. Lewis’ victory tied the team’s score at 6-6. But that’s when the Buckeyes embarked on a game-changing run.
Ohio State went on to win the next four matches, including another Top clash, this time at 184 pounds, where OSU senior standout Kaleb Romero, the nation’s fourth-ranked wrestler, took down. edged out No. 9 Hunter Bolen, 4-2.
“It was a good win,” Romero said. “I’m not too proud of the way I wrestled. I felt that I could have attacked myself a little more. Overall there’s a lot to learn, but yeah, it’s a good win against a good opponent.
As for his team’s ability to pull one off against a quality opponent, Romero was happy to see some fights from his teammates.
“They’re a very good team,” he said. “They fight very hard in all areas. They have a lot of very good wrestlers. We won in a way people probably wouldn’t expect. Some of our stars fell and some of our other guys rose. It was cool to see.
“Me included, we have a lot to learn. It’s the start of the season. Some guys are down on themselves, but we’re not really worried about those who lost. We know how hard they work We know they’re going to do the kind of things they need to do to be on the top step of the podium in March.
Romero’s win was followed by wins by No. 14 Gavin Hoffman at 197 (4-1), No. 7 Tate Orndorff at heavyweight and No. 11 Malik Heinselman escaped with a 3 decision -2 to open OSU’s lead at 18-6.
OSU freshman Jesse Mendez entered the match fresh out of a championship at the Michigan State Invitational last week, a performance that earned him Big Ten Wrestler of the Week honors and propelled him to 11th place in the nation in his 133-pound class. .
But Mendez found himself losing a 3-2 decision to Tech’s Sam Latona in OSU’s home debut.
“Mendez is an exceptional young wrestler,” Ryan said. “I’ve seen a few freshmen lose their first competition and come back and win the NCAA title. This guy is special. He fought a tough opponent tonight.
Ryan said the issues his team had against Virginia Tech are things that can be fixed.
“In general we just need to attack more,” he said. “We have to be more aggressive, but we found a way to win. Their heavyweight was tough. We found a way to win this one. We won most of the close games, but they came to fight tonight. It’s early. We have a great team. Guys just need to hold their heads up high and keep working.
Ohio State and Virginia Tech appear to have several wrestlers capable of earning All-American honors. This is something those at USA Wrestling will continue to watch, as there is a proven link between being the best in college and earning a place in USA Wrestling.
Russell, a former assistant coach at the University of Minnesota and former head coach at George Mason University, helps coach the U.S. national team and he keeps a close eye on the college wrestling scene. That’s because 42 of the 44 U.S. Olympic freestyle wrestling medalists were also NCAA All-Americans.
“NCAA programs and wrestlers are the lifeblood of Team USA,” Russell said. “I am close as a fan, but also in the context of my profession. Our current national team is made up of all current or former wrestlers from NCAA programs.