It's been a full month since Ohio State last wrestled in competition.
Head coach Tom Ryan's philosophy is that he wants his athletes to enjoy the holidays with family, and to use the final month of the calendar year to get healthy for the meat of the collegiate wrestling season. When his team returns to the mats in St. John Arena Sunday evening, they'll face one of the toughest opponents of their schedule in No. 4 North Carolina State.
|NC STATE WOLFPACK|
9-1, 0-0 Atlantic Coast Conference
ROSTER / SCHEDULE
6 P.M. – SUNDAY, JAN. 6
ST. JOHN ARENA
"[For] the crowd as a spectator, this is a pretty good dual to watch," Ryan said. "You're going to see a lot of good wrestling, and hopefully we compete like animals. We want to see a group of guys who are really hungry the whole time, win or lose."
The Wolfpack certainly present the type of opponent the Buckeyes can't afford to sleep on, with five top-10 wrestlers among seven ranked in the top 20 of the FloWrestling standings. Ohio State holds the edge in every ranked vs. ranked matchup save one, but in most cases it's a difference of only a couple of places rather than a major gap.
"We just need to keep getting better and we need to show a higher attack rate, a higher rate of dealing with the threshold of discomfort," Ryan said. "We want to make our opponents feel really uncomfortable out there and deal with it really well."
The NC State Wolfpack
Head Coach: Pat Popolizio
Sunday marks the first time the Wolfpack has wrestled inside St. John Arena, and is just the fifth dual between the two teams since their initial contest in 1964. The Buckeyes hold a 3-0-1 edge in the series, including last year's 29-6 victory in Raleigh.
Even with history on their side, the home team knows how tough the Wolfpack wrestle against big-time teams. Over the past four seasons NC State has won 8 of 10 duals versus Big Ten opponents, including a record of 7-2 versus ranked foes.
Already this season Popolizio's team has downed No. 11 Nebraska in an 18-17 grinder in Raleigh, and defeated both No. 13 Purdue and Indiana in the South Beach Duals a week ago.
Popolizio was named the 2018 Dan Gable co-NCAA Coach of the Year and 2018 ACC Coach of the Year, and was also named the 2016 National Coach of the Year by FloWrestling.
Over the past five seasons, NC State has had three national champions and four of the last five ACC Wrestlers of the Year were members of the Wolfpack. He has led his team to five straight top-20 finishes at the NCAA Championships, tied for most top-20 finishes in a row in school history (1980-84).
"It's going to be very entertaining matches across the board; I don't think there are too many mismatches," Popolizio said of Sunday's contest. "This dual you're going to see a lot of really good, close, tough competition matches that you're probably going to see in the quarterfinals, semifinals or even NCAA finals."
Notable NC State Wrestlers
184 pounds: No. 3 Nick Reenan (10-0, r-So.)
Reenan vs. Myles Martin presents the toughest match of the night on paper, with two of the top-three guys in the country at 184. Reenan was an NCAA qualifier as a freshman before taking a redshirt season last year, going 21-4 in open tournaments and placing third at the 2018 U.S. Open at 86 kg.
149 pounds: No. 4 Justin Oliver (10-0, Gr.)
Oliver transferred to NC State as a grad student from Central Michigan, where he was a three-year NCAA qualifier. His best finish was seventh place at the 2016 NCAA Championships; he fell one match short of All American placement the past two years. He is off to a blistering start since transferring to Popolizio's program, though he is 0-2 versus Micah Jordan over the course of his career.
157 pounds: No. 5 Hayden Hidlay (9-2, r-So.)
Hidlay is the lone North Carolina wrestler to hold a ranking advantage over the Buckeyes in ranked-versus-ranked battles Sunday night. During last season's dual with Ohio State, he downed Jordan in a 6-3 decision. The 2018 ACC champ at 157 was also an NCAA finalist, finishing 26-1 on the season.
133 pounds: No. 7 Tariq Wilson (11-1, r-So.)
Wilson is one of only two Ohio natives on the NC State roster, and he's one of the top competitors on his team. "He's in his home state, so he's got to be excited," Popolizio said of the Steubenville product. "Right now he's got a chip on his shoulder." Wilson's match versus Luke Pletcher is a rematch of the 3rd-place match at last year's NCAA Tournament, a match Wilson won. Pletcher won their meeting in Raleigh, so Sunday night is the rubber match.
Ohio State opened its Big Ten slate with a 23-13 victory over Wisconsin way back on Dec. 9, a victory highlighted by redshirt freshman Ethan Smith’s thrilling come-from-behind win over No. 9 Ryan Christensen in the 174-pound bout. That match is the reason 174 isn't quite settled in the lineup yet; Ryan said Friday that Te'Shan Campbell will get the start, but that he and Smith are still battling for the position.
|125||Brakan Mead (4-6, So.)||
No. 10 Sean Fausz (2-1, r-Sr.)
-OR- Zurich Storm (9-2, r-Fr.)
|133||No. 5 Luke Pletcher (13-1, Jr.)||No. 7 Tariq Wilson (11-1, r-So.)|
|141||No. 2 Joey McKenna (10-0, Sr.)||Jamal Morris (8-4, r-Sr.)|
|149||No. 3 Micah Jordan (12-1, r-Sr.)||No. 4 Justin Oliver (10-0, Gr.)|
|157||No. 8 Ke-Shawn Hayes (12-2 r-Jr.)||No. 5 Hayden Hidlay (9-2, r-So.)|
|165||Kaleb Romero (6-2, r-Fr.)||No. 18 Thomas Bullard (10-4, r-So.)|
Te'Shan Campbell (6-2, Sr.)
-OR- No. 19 Ethan Smith (11-4, r-Fr.)
|Daniel Bullard (12-4, r-So.)|
|184||No. 1 Myles Martin (7-0, Sr.)||No. 3 Nick Reenan (10-0, r-So.)|
|197||No. 2 Kollin Moore (7-0, r-Jr.)||No. 19 Malik McDonald (9-5, r-Sr.)|
|HWT||No. 17 Chase Singletary (12-3, r-Fr.)||
Deonte Wilson (11-6, Fr.)
-OR- Colin Lawler (0-0, Fr.)
Ryan also said that he continues to evaluate if the team will pull Malik Heinselman's redshirt at 125 pounds. Brakan Mead will get the nod again Sunday, as the staff continues to consider the possibility of Heinseman placing in Pittsburgh come March.
Ohio State still has several ranked opponents on its schedule, including home duals versus Michigan and Penn State, but N.C. State is the toughest battle this team has faced yet this season. How the team fares against a hungry opponent on the road will tell fans a lot about what to expect from this team against top competitors.
"Historically after a long break, [our] team has been a little flat and we're looking to not be flat against a tough team" Ryan said. "Our team did a really good job over break...They came back on the 27th really fit, their weight was under control so I'm really excited about this meet. We're ready to go."
Ryan said the time off benefited guys like Campbell and Kaleb Romero, both of whom were a bit battered heading into December. He said the team is fully healthy to start the new year thanks to the time away from competition.
What to Expect
Ohio State should have sure victories at 141, 197 and heavyweight, and given their history, at 149. Likewise NC State is counting on wins at 125, 157 and 165 to keep the meet competitive.
With close battles coming at 133 and 184, and question marks at 165 and 174, there are plenty of opportunities for both teams to steal a match and make the meet very entertaining for fans.
Odds are that the team score won't be as lopsided as it was a year ago, but with the home-mat advantage and quintet of top-five guys anchoring the lineup, the Buckeyes should prevail with wins in at least six matches.