Welcome to 2020, wrestling fans.
Ohio State starts the new year off with a bang, hosting the toughest opponent on its home slate this season, the No. 4 Arizona State Sun Devils.
5-0, 0-0 PAC-12
ROSTER / SCHEDULE
7 P.M. – MONDAY, JAN. 6
Rolling into Columbus 5-0 in dual meet action, ASU has a little extra swagger this season having knocked off perennial NCAA title winner Penn State and snapping the Nittany Lions' 60-meet win streak.
Ohio State head coach Tom Ryan said early in the season that Arizona State was the best team the Buckeyes would face in a brutal out-of-conference schedule, and the Sun Devils showed why against the reigning NCAA Champions. ASU won five matches, and picked up the decisive bonus point at 184 pounds via forfeit as Cael Sanderson held out No. 2 Shakur Rasheed rather than putting him up against No. 1 Zahid Valencia, an early favorite for the Hodge Trophy this season.
These two teams know each other plenty well as the Buckeyes wrestled Arizona State six times over the past decade, walking away victorious in all six meets. The two programs have scheduled an ongoing home-and-home series over the past four seasons, with last year's matchup taking place in Tempe.
Monday night's dual from Covelli Center will be televised on Fox Sports One, and will be a huge test for a Buckeye squad with several roster questions – like who starts at 133 and 184 – still not entirely answered.
It's been a lengthy layoff for the home team, having last wrestled as a team at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational in the first weekend of December. Jordan Decatur and Rocky Jordan both wrestled over the weekend at the F&M Invitational tournament, winning their respective brackets and more importantly earning wins at new weights as they each look to earn a spot in the starting lineup.
Jordan Decatur (133 lbs) and Rocky Jordan (184 lbs) are both champions at the 2020 F&M Open!#GoBucks— Ohio State Wrestling (@wrestlingbucks) January 4, 2020
Decatur finds his name on the "probable matchups" list for the first time this season. The true freshman from Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy is a three-time Fargo National champion, two-time Ohio high school champion, and 2018 Cadet World freestyle team member; suffice it to say he was one of the most highly-rated recruits in his class.
Decatur is listed as an "OR" on the lineup along with Dylan Koontz. Koontz wrestled for Ohio State at the Cliff Keen last month and acquitted himself rather well, going 3-0 to the semifinals as an unseeded entrant. He upended the No. 5 and No. 4 seeds along the way, including Arizona State's Josh Kramer before falling into the consolation bracket.
As I noted Friday, his entry to the lineup could bring some much-needed spark at 133 since it became clear that Quinn Kinner wasn't handling the cut as well as he had originally anticipated (in an interesting twist, Ryan said Kinner is actually working on going up to 157). If he goes tonight, his first dual-meet match in scarlet and gray will be a big one against a ranked opponent.
The Arizona State Sun Devils
Head Coach: Zeke Jones
A member of ASU’s 1988 NCAA Wrestling Championship team, Jones was a three-time All-American and Pac-10 Champion for the Sun Devils. A national runner-up at 118 pounds, Jones sits at No. 4 in ASU’s career record book in both overall victories (134) and dual victories (59).
|125||Malik Heinselman (9-7, So.)||No. 15 Brandon Courtney (12-4, r-So.)|
Jordan Decatur (4-0 at 133, Fr.) -OR-
Dylan Koontz (8-8, r-So.)
|No. 15 Josh Kramer (7-4, r-Sr.)|
|141||No. 1 Luke Pletcher (14-0, Sr.)||
Cory Crooks (2-3, r-Jr.) -OR-
Navonte Demison (2-6, r-So.)
|149||No. 6 Sammy Sasso (12-2, r-Fr.)||
No. 25 Josh Maruca (7-6, r-Sr.) -OR-
Dillon Ullrey (2-0, Sr.)
|157||Elijah Cleary (11-5, r-Jr.)||Jacori Teemer (4-4, r-Fr.)|
|165||No. 13 Ethan Smith (11-5, r-So.)||No. 5 Josh Shields (10-3, r-Sr.)|
|174||No. 9 Kaleb Romero (9-2, r-So.)||No. 8 Anthony Valencia (10-4, r-Jr.)|
|184||Gavin Hoffman (10-6, r-Fr.)||No. 1 Zahid Valencia (13-0, r-Jr.)|
|197||No. 1 Kollin Moore (14-0, r-Sr.)||
Cade Belshay (3-4, r-So.) -OR-
No. 12 Kordell Norfleet (2-2, Jr.)
|HWT||Gary Traub (15-1, r-Jr.)||No. 6 Tanner Hall (10-3, r-Sr.)|
An Olympic silver medalist for the United States, Jones was the 1991 World Champion at 52 kg, a four-time World-Cup Champion, and coached United States’ Olympians in the 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2012 Olympic Games.
He is a two-time PAC-12 Coach of the Year, and his program seems firmly on an upward trajectory since he became head coach in 2014. This season the Sun Devils have wins over ranked teams in Purdue, Virginia and the aforementioned upset of then-No. 1 Penn State; eight ASU wrestlers are currently ranked by FloWrestling at their respective weights.
For the first time in recent memory, Ohio State isn't the team in the meet with the most ranked wrestlers on the bench. With heavyweight Chase Singletary out for the season the Buckeyes are down to five starters with a number in front of their name.
Ohio State owns a 6-2 edge in the all-time series with Sun Devil wins coming way back in 1985 and 1990... before almost all of the current members of the roster were born. Almost, I say, because Arizona State has one of the more uplifting stories of the season as former Green Beret Roman Rozell marked his 35th birthday wrestling his first match as a walk-on for the Sun Devils.
As Intermat's Mark Palmer noted in mid-November, combat veteran and father of six earned a standing ovation when he stepped out onto the mat in a dual meet between ASU and Augustana of South Dakota. While the NCAA caps eligibility at 25 years old, that doesn't apply for people who join the military straight out of high school; when Rozell's 14-year Army career ended he came back to school and walked on to the squad.
With five matches going ranked vs. ranked, there are several bouts that will tell the story of how this meet plays out for the Buckeyes. "Gas Tank Gary" Traub faces a Top-10 opponent in Tanner Hall after taking over fulltime for the injured Singletary, for example, while Jordan Decatur may get his first Covelli Center match against a Top-15 guy in Josh Kramer.
165 pounds: No. 13 Ethan Smith vs. No. 5 Josh Shields
Smith became the latest member of the Buckeye squad to earn a "black shirt," the team's new tradition signifying a wrestler is doing the right things on the mat, in the weight room and in the classroom. He has continued to improve as a technician in his second year as a starter, and more importantly has shown the type of aggressive offense the Buckeye coaching staff would like to see from a few more guys in the room.
Shields is a three-time All American who won the PAC-12 title twice at 157 pounds before winning a third after moving up to 165 a year ago. His only losses this season are to two-time NCAA champ Vincenzo Joseph of Penn State and a pair of tournament losses to Nebraska standout Isaiah White.
174 pounds: No. 9 Kaleb Romero vs. No. 8 Anthony Valencia
Romero, like classmate Smith, has really come into his own in his second season as a starter for the Buckeyes. His opponent also wrestled 165 last season and moved up a class and is doing very well.
Valencia's losses this season were all to Top-10 opponents, and like Romero he has plenty of wins to his credit over guys ranked behind him in the class. This match is one Ohio State has to win to have a shot at winning this dual, and one Romero needs to continue cementing his confidence that he belongs in the Top 10 of a really deep Big 10 field.
WrestleStat.com has a fun little tool that lets you compare dual-meet opponents and project a final score. Its algorithms don't give the home team much of a chance to win this dual, giving the Sun Devils seven of 10 bouts.
That feels like a bit of a stretch.
Looking at the tale of the tape, Ohio State knows it will win matches at 141 and 197 because it fields the top man in the country at both spots. Likewise, Arizona State knows Zahid Valencia will win at 184.
While Jones probably feels good about a win at 125 given Malik Heinselman's continued struggles against top-shelf competition, this is a match the embattled Buckeye could steal, as Courtney's resume to date includes mostly wins over guys outside the Top 50 and Heinselman has a stronger record against common opponents.
At 133 if Jordan Decatur takes the mat it could be a really exciting match, but credit also to Dylan Koontz who defeated Kramer at the Keen a month ago. This is one Ohio State needs to steal regardless of which guy gets the nod.
Sammy Sasso should do just fine at 149, and Elijah Cleary has a favorable matchup at 157, facing a redshirt freshman who is just 4-4 on the year so far.
As noted above, a pair of tough contests against similarly-ranked opponents at 165 and 174 could well determine which team goes home happy Monday night.
Perhaps the most intriguing match of the night is at heavyweight. Redshirt senior Tanner hall is a veteran, like many of the Sun Devils wrestling Monday night, and finished third at the NCAA Championships as a sophomore.
Gas Tank Gary is a newly-named starter who has wrestled the best season of his collegiate career in relief of a Top-10 guy in Chase Singletary, and has quickly become a fan favorite. Win, lose or draw, fans will be on their feet for the Buckeye big man when he takes the mat in Covelli Center.
Action kicks off at 7 p.m., and will air live on Fox Sports 1.