Saturday is a big day for Ohio State athletic teams. The Buckeye bastketballers face Penn State in their conference opener at noon, the football team plays for the Big Ten title tonight in primetime, and the wrestling team is in position to capture a fourth-consecutive Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational tournament title.
Heading into the two-day event at the Las Vegas Convention Center, it looked like Ohio State faced an uphill battle just to place in the top 3, as Nebraska, Arizona State and N.C. State looked like they had better odds based on tournament pre-seeds.
But there's a reason you actually wrestle the matches.
After the tournament quarterfinals Friday the Buckeyes were just a point off Nebraska's lead, and well ahead of third-place Arizona State with five wrestlers still in contention for individual titles and two more alive in the wrestlebacks. Dylan Koontz (133 lbs), Luke Pletcher (141 lbs), Sammy Sasso (149 lbs), Ethan Smith (165 lbs) and Kollin Moore (197 lbs) are all into the semifinals while Malik Heinselman (125 lbs) and Kaleb Romero (174 lbs) remain in contention for the podium through the consolation bracket.
Top-10 teams through Day One. pic.twitter.com/uYqVzNt83T— Ohio State Wrestling (@wrestlingbucks) December 7, 2019
There are two Buckeye vs. Husker semifinal showdowns that could go a long way toward determining which Big Ten team wins the tournament: Pletcher faces Chad Red while Smith takes on Isaiah White. While Nebraska, like Ohio State, has five men in the semifinals, they have five more in the wrestlebacks to Ohio State's two – if too many of those Huskers make it to placement matches, final team placement could come down to bonus points.
Bonus points, it turns out, are part of the reason the Buckeyes are sitting where they are at this stage in the competition. The team recorded three pins, three tech falls, and a major decision in Friday's matches; that major decision came from Dylan Koontz, a recent substitution in the lineup at 133 pounds.
Koontz's surprising run in the tournament is one of the significant storylines of the Buckeyes' performance in the tournament. The redshirt sophomore from Wisconsin is, like his twin brother Brady, known for prowess in Greco-Roman and has wrestled mostly in open tournaments over the past two seasons. Unseeded coming into the tournament, he is outperforming expectations in a major way and putting points on the board for his team.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Ohio State is missing heavyweight Chase Singletary, who medically forfeited out of the tournament after an injury scare in his first match of the tournament. The fourth seed left the tournament in what a spokesman described as a precautionary move, saying the injury was not thought to be serious.
Ohio State's senior captains look as good as ever, particularly Luke Pletcher. The top-ranked man in the country at 141 looks like he's upgraded from workhorse to warhorse this season, finding a higher degree of quickness and agility to go with his power and stability.
A win in his semifinal match with Red will set up either a rematch with Oklahoma's Dom Demas or battle with Minnesota's Mitch McKee. At 197, top-seeded Kollin Moore faces fifth-seeded Thomas Lane of Cal Poly.
Koontz faces a rematch of his own in the semifinals, squaring off against Cornell's top-seeded Chas Tucker. The two men met a week ago when the Buckeyes hosted the Big Red for a dual meet, and Tucker walked away with a 12-5 decision.
Sammy Sasso already avenged his only loss of the season, upending Virginia Tech's Brent Moore in the Round of 16 at 149 pounds. Sasso went on to pin Purdue's Griffin Parriott in the quarterfinals; Parriott was the No. 3 seed in the tournament.
Damn! Who just saw the Sammy Sasso pin??? @FloWrestling— Ben Askren (@Benaskren) December 7, 2019
Next up, Sasso faces No. 2 seed Jarrett Degen in the semis, and potentially top-seeded Max Thomsen of Northern Iowa in the championship round.
The 165-pound bracket has been pretty much chalk, with all four top seeds into the semifinals. Ethan Smith faces Nebraska's Isaiah White, the No. 1 seed.
Consolation round action kicks off at Noon ET. Semifinal matches commence at 1 p.m. with the final round kicking off at 6 p.m.