With a strong freshman class this season and more highly rated wrestlers set to join the program next year, head coach Tom Ryan and his staff elected to redshirt some of the team's best athletes in a no-holds-barred attempt to make a run at the 2015 NCAA championship.
The Buckeyes would never say they sacrificed this season in order to win in the future – after all, at Ohio State, you try to win every match in front of you – but there was a fair bit of wondering just how this season would go.
And after a 21-12 loss to Michigan in Columbus on Jan. 31, the answer didn't look good. The setback dropped OSU to 7-4 overall and 2-4 in the Big Ten, and it was fair to wonder what the direction would be for the final months of the season.
To their credit, the Buckeyes didn't take the situation lying down. OSU closed the Big Ten with wins at Purdue and vs. Michigan State, then took third place at the 16-team NWCA National Duals in St. John Arena, giving top-ranked Minnesota a run for its money in the semifinals before downing No. 11 Oklahoma in the consolation bout.
Add in a 23-16 Senior Day win Feb. 23 vs. 16th-ranked Virginia Tech and the Buckeyes will head this year's Big Ten championships, set for March 8-9 in Madison, at 13-5 overall and having won six of seven duals.
"There was a point there when we were concerned for the team," Ryan said. "You lose to Wisconsin, then we lost to Nebraska, we lost to Michigan – all winnable duals. So you start to head in this direction where it's like, ‘Man, no one is stepping up at all.'
"Then you end up 13-5 in duals, we have a couple of good wins – Oklahoma was a good win, Virgina Tech was a decent win for the amount of guys we had out of the lineup – so overall I think it was all right. All right is not the standard, but it was all right. Overall, I'm proud of the way the guys are competing."
Two-time Big Ten champion Logan Stieber can feel momentum building as the Buckeyes head to the league meet looking to improve on last year's fourth-place finish.
"I think we're all getting a little bit more confident and seeing all the work we've done, it's really helped us," Stieber said. "We're confident and wrestling pretty well right now."
Doing so will be difficult, though, considering the Big Ten is stacked as usual. The top three teams in the Feb. 25 USA Today/NWCA national coaches poll are Big Ten squads – Minnesota is first followed by three-time defending NCAA champ Penn State and Iowa – with Michigan in seventh, Nebraska eighth and OSU rated 11th.
Individually, the Buckeyes will look to Stieber to capture his third consecutive league crown, this time at 141 pounds, while senior Nick Heflin is one of the favorites at 197. After that, ranked wrestlers like Nick Roberts (20th at 125), Johnni DiJulius (eighth at 133), Ian Paddock (18th at 149), Mark Martin (13th at 174), Kenny Courts (12th at 184), and Nick Tavanello (32nd at heavyweight) will also be in the mix as Ryan hopes to qualify at least eight wrestlers to the NCAA tournament.
The following is a weight-by-weight breakdown of the Big Ten. The national top-20 rankings, noted in parentheses, are those bestowed by the NCAA Division I Wrestling Coaches Panel on Feb. 27. In addition, the numbers of automatic qualifiers to the NCAA tournament from each weight class are listed, and additional wild-card spots will be handed out by the NCAA after the meet.
125 Pounds (7 Qualifiers)
• Favorite – Nico Megaludis, Penn State (2)
• Contenders – Jesse Delgado, Illinois (3); Thomas Gilman, Iowa (5); Bradley Taylor, Wisconsin (9); Tim Lambert, Nebraska (12); Conor Youtsey, Michigan (15); Roberts (20)
• Breakdown – Roberts has been ranked for much of this year but finished Big Ten duals at 2-6, though he did add a decision over Minnesota's Sam Brancale at the National Duals. The redshirt freshman is 25-11 overall and had won five straight bouts before losing a decision to Virginia Tech's Joey Dance, who is ranked 18th. Ryan says Roberts and Tavanello have a lot in common despite being on opposite ends of the weight spectrum.
"The bookend Nicks, little Nick and big Nick, it all boils down to their belief system," Ryan said. "If they realized how good they are and what they're capable of, they'll be fine, but if they continue to wrestle with slight hesitation and doubt, you don't know what you're going to get. I've seen both from each of them."
Delgado is the defending champion but lost a decision to Megaludis on Jan. 24.
133 Pounds (8)
• Favorite – Tony Ramos (3)
• Contenders – Tyler Graff, Wisconsin (5); David Thorn, Minnesota (7); DiJulius (8); Cashé Quiroga, Purdue (9); Zane Richards, Illinois (10); James Guilbon, Penn State (15); Rosario Bruno, Michigan (17)
• Breakdown – This is one of the toughest weights in the Big Ten, which makes DiJulius' road a difficult one out of the sixth seed.
He's had an excellent bounce-back season as a junior, going 23-4 overall and posting a win at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invite in December over top-ranked Joe Colon of Northern Iowa as well as two victories over No. 11 Cody Brewer of Oklahoma, a returning All-American. But DiJulius has also dropped matches to Bruno, Thorn and Quiroga, though he did best Bruno at the CKLV meet.
"Johnni has had a really solid year overall," Ryan said. "The weight at the Big Ten is brutal. Heck, the top eight are ranked really high in the country, but he's had a great season. He's capable of doing really big things this year."
Ramos, meanwhile, will be dead set on capturing a Big Ten title after losing to Stieber in each of the last two seasons.
141 Pounds (6)
• Co-Favorites – Zain Retherford, Penn State (2); Logan Stieber (3)
• Contenders – Chris Dardanes, Minnesota (5); Stephen Dutton III, Michigan (11); Josh Dziwea, Iowa (13); Danny Sabatello, Purdue (20)
• Breakdown – Retherford probably should be the favorite considering the freshman is the lone wrestler to beat Stieber (22-1) this year, but betting against the two-time defending league and national champion come tournament time is a fool's errand.
The two seem to be on a collision course to meet again, with Stieber wanting to earn revenge for the 4-2, overtime loss he absorbed Dec. 15. "I wasn't as fully prepared as I should have been the first time," Stieber said. "If I get a takedown, I will try to ride him a little longer and control him. Last time, I didn't ride him as long as I should have. If I happen to be on bottom, I just have to be smart. I've been working on a lot of stuff on getting off the bottom."
Stieber – whose brother, Hunter, won at this weight last year before taking a redshirt this season – has posted bonus points in every win, including eight pins and nine technical falls.
"Logan is an offensive wrestler," Ryan said. "He's extremely dominant. Retherford is more defensive, controls the pace of the match. I see that as a final, and Logan is at another level now than he was at the time they competed."
149 Pounds (6)
• Favorite – Nick Dardanes, Minnesota (2)
• Contenders – Jake Sueflohn, Nebraska (4); Jason Tsirtsis, Northwestern (6); Brody Grothus, Iowa (7); Eric Grajales, Michigan (8); Paddock (18)
• Breakdown – Paddock boasts a 22-12 record overall and was 3-5 in Big Ten duals during his senior campaign. He has had trouble with top competition, though he did down Grajales at the CKLV meet in December. This will be his fourth conference meet, with his best finish fifth place at 133 in 2010.
Sueflohn (27-3) was last year's Big Ten runner-up, while Dardanes is 28-2.
157 Pounds (8)
• Co-Favorites – James Green, Nebraska (1); Isaac Jordan, Wisconsin (3)
• Contenders – Derek St. John, Iowa (4); Dylan Ness, Minnesota (7); Taylor Walsh, Indiana (8); Dylan Alton, Penn State (11); Brian Murphy, Michigan (13)
• Breakdown – Trying to make an impact for Ohio State will be junior Randy Languis, who went 18-18 overall and 1-7 in the Big Ten. He comes in with some momentum, though, including two wins at the National Duals and a close loss to Ness at that meet.
"Randy has wrestled really well at times," Ryan said. "He's one position away from beating Ness. But the thing about Randy to this point is he's lost close to a lot of people. Losing close and winning close are worlds apart."
Green took second at last year's meet and is 26-1, though his lone loss was in overtime Feb. 21 vs. Jordan (24-4).
165 Pounds (8)
• Favorite – David Taylor, Penn State (1)
• Contenders – Nick Moore, Iowa (4); Pierce Harger, Northwestern (6); Daniel Yates, Michigan (10); Jackson Morse, Illinois (13); Austin Wilson, Nebraska (20)
• Breakdown – Ohio State junior Joe Grandominico went 10-21 overall and 1-7 in Big Ten duals, besting only Michigan State's Bobby Nash. He'll have his work cut out to be one of the national qualifiers despite the fact this isn't the league's best weight.
Taylor, a native of St. Paris, Ohio, won last year's Hodge Trophy as the best wrestler in the nation, is 26-0 and has never lost to Big Ten opposition.
174 Pounds (7)
• Favorite – Robert Kokesh, Nebraska (3)
• Contenders – Logan Storley, Minnesota (4); Matt Brown, Penn State (5); Michael Evans, Iowa (6); Martin (13); Leroy Munster, Northwestern (20)
• Breakdown – Martin is 24-9 overall and 5-3 in Big Ten duals, though breaking through into the top class of wrestlers at this meet will mean he'll have to post a quarterfinals upset. The junior has won five matches in a row heading to Madison but has losses to Kokesh (6-2) and Brown (16-4) on his résumé.
Brown won last year's meet over Evans, but Kokesh is 29-1 and has decisions over both of them this year.
184 Pounds (7)
• Favorite – Ed Ruth, Penn State (2)
• Contenders – Ethen Lofthouse, Iowa (4); Kevin Steinhaus, Minnesota (7); Timothy Dudley, Nebraska (8); Courts (12).
• Breakdown – Courts has been banged up, though Ryan expects him to be ready to go. He is 25-5 this year, was 5-3 in league duals and has won five matches in a row. Courts was on the receiving end of a major decision vs. Ruth and was pinned by Dudley. The sixth seed, he'll have some tough competition early in the bracket with a quarterfinal bout with Lofthouse on the docket.
Ruth, who beat Steinhaus last year for the Big Ten crown, is a two-time national champion, though his 84-match win streak was snapped in January.
197 Pounds (8)
• Favorite – Morgan McIntosh, Penn State (3)
• Contenders – Scott Schiller, Minnesota (4); Heflin (5); Mario Gonzalez, Illinois (9); Braden Atwood, Purdue (12); Nathan Burak, Iowa (13); Alex Polizzi, Northwestern (16)
• Breakdown – Heflin is 21-1 this year, with his lone loss coming in overtime to Wisconsin's Tim McCall on Jan. 10. He has not faced McIntosh but bested the third-seeded Schiller, 8-4, at the National Duals. Having moved up from 174 – where he had a second-place Big Ten finish in 2011 – to 197, the second-seeded Heflin is poised to make a run at a title in his final season.
"He's ready to win it," Ryan said. "I think that he's been strength training all year long, the fact that he's not been cutting weight at all, he has climbed as the season has gone on. He's gotten stronger, and I would say he also learned how to wrestle '97-pounders and not '74-pounders. I feel like he's wrestling as well as he's ever wrestled."
Schiller was last year's Big Ten runner-up, while McIntosh is 25-2 this season with his only losses coming vs. No. 2 J'Den Cox of Missouri.
• Favorite – Adam Coon, Michigan (1)
• Contenders – Mike McMullen, Northwestern (2); Adam Chalfant, Indiana (4); Bobby Telford, Iowa (5); Anthony Nelson, Minnesota (6); Mike McClure, Michigan State (7); Connor Medbery, Wisconsin (8); Jonathan Gingrich, Penn State (14)
• Breakdown – Tavanello went 20-14 this season but was just 2-6 in league duals, which makes sense given the depth at the top of the league. He has losses vs. Medbery, McMullan, Coon (in overtime) and McClure on the season.
Nelson won last year's conference crown vs. McMullen on the way to his second national title, but Coon has moved to up No. 1 on the strength of a 28-1 record.