Ohio State's senior captains stepped up and showed out on the final day of the Big Ten Wrestling Championships.
Luke Pletcher and Kollin Moore rolled into the Rutgers Athletic Center with one goal on their mind: winning a conference title. For Pletcher, it would be his first. For Moore, it was the third in four years.
Moore remains undefeated on the season, and has gone wire-to-wire as the No. 1 man in the country. He showed no weakness in the two-day tournament, dispatching his first two foes via major decision and then controlling Nebraska's Eric Shultz, the No. 2 seed in the tournament, from the opening whistle of the championship match.
"[I'm] just trying to stay consistent as possible and be a leader on the team," Moore said in his typically understated fashion after the match. "I’m ready for anything anybody throws at me this year."
Despite a trophy case full of Big Ten titles, Moore has yet to win an NCAA championship. He won the third-place match as a redshirt freshman, finished in fourth the following year and came up short in the national finals a year ago.
He'll be the heavy favorite to win it all this time.
Pletcher never finished worse than fourth at the Big Ten Championships; after going fourth his freshman year at 141 and then finishing as runner up two years in row at 133, the senior captain captured the 141-pound title with a 6-5 decision over No. 1 Nick Lee of Penn State.
Pletcher flipped the script from the last meeting between the two titans in the class, a decision Lee won to earn the top ranking in the class from Pletcher. The two will enter the NCAA Wrestling Championships as the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, and it feels like a certainty they'll meet again in Minneapolis with a national title on the line.
"When you study the elite, there is a level of emotional control and he's had that aggression, bringing the action to your opponent," Ohio State head coach Tom Ryan said Thursday ahead of the conference tourney. "And in the dual meet we saw him bring action in the first period, and then we saw him not do that [later in the match]."
Lee was able to dominate Pletcher on top in that match, but couldn't keep Pletcher in check this time. Ryan said getting off bottom would be crucial to Pletcher's success, and the senior took the coaching to heart.
Ryan said he told Pletcher to treat the highly-anticipated rematch with Lee like "just another match."
"We just need to see the Luke Pletcher that attacks," he explained. "He's got a ton of offense and he's hard to wrestle."
After winning his first conference title, Pletcher told Big Ten Network reporter Shane Sparks that he focused on a few key points in preparation for the finals.
"Staying in my position, keep attacking where I want to be and don’t let him dictate the pace," Pletcher said. When asked what put him over the top this time he offered, "a lot of work, that’s all I can say."
Speaking of Rematches
If Pletcher versus Lee was the most-anticipated rematch of the day, the 149-pound final was a close second. Sammy Sasso walked into Carver-Hawkeye Arena six weeks ago as the sixth-ranked wrestler in the class and upset then-No. 1 Pat Lugo, sparking his rise to the top spot in the class.
Sasso won that match with a combination of stifling defense and simply refusing to lose. The bout went into extra innings, and Sasso was able to escape when he needed to and then hold on to Lugo to pick up the win.
Lugo turned the tables this time, scoring the only takedown of the match midway in the first period. He rode Sasso to the whistle, taking more than a minute of riding time into the second.
Sasso was masterful on top, however, riding Lugo the entire two minutes. He escaped quickly enough in the third to narrow the score to a 1-point Lugo advantage, but wasn't able to mount a credible offense until the waning seconds of the match.
Despite a great shot in short time and an Ohio State challenge at the whistle, officials determined Sasso didn't finish the takedown and Lugo won the title. As with Pletcher vs. Lee, it seems highly likely that Sasso versus Lugo will be a best-of-three series with the NCAA finals as the rubber match.
Team Standings: Another B1G Trophy
Iowa is light years ahead of every other team in the country this season, and will be the heavy favorite to win their first NCAA Championship in a decade. Penn State was expected to have the inside track on second place, but the Big Ten team standings hinted at some other possibilities.
Nebraska, the team that won the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational way back in December, finished 20 points ahead of third-place Ohio State. The Buckeyes brought home another team trophy as eight Buckeyes placed in the Top 7 of the Conference, with each earning an automatic qualification to the NCAA tournament.
Ethan Smith and Kaleb Romero each wrestled above their seed, finishing in fourth; Smith was the 5-seed and Romero the 6 at their respective weight classes. Ditto Rocky Jordan, who won the fifth-place match as a 6-seed.
Gas Tank Gary Traub wrestled to seed, finishing in 6th-place at heavyweight. Considering that Traub started the season as a walk-on who never expected to start at Ohio State, it's been a storybook year for the big man from Cincinnati.
The story of the weekend, however, was lightweight Malik Heinselman. Coach Ryan was very complimentary of Heinselman heading into the tournament. When Eleven Warriors asked him which of his wrestlers was most likely to pleasantly surprise fans at the tournament, Heinselman was the first man he mentioned.
"I really like Malik's spot," Ryan said Thursday. He said Heinselman had really focused on being more aggressive on offense, and finishing his shots. That effort paid off in spades, as the 11-seed won the 7th-place match Sunday, rebounding from eating a fall early in the tournament and upending the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds in the consolation bracket.
Most importantly, Heinselman earned an automatic qualification to the NCAA tournament.
Ohio State did not accomplish its stated objective of qualifying all 10 wrestlers for the big dance this weekend, but with eight of 10 men earning automatic bids, they'll wait patiently for Wednesday's selection show to see if Jordan Decatur and Elijah Cleary did enough this season to earn at-large invitations.
Two weeks from today, Pletcher, Sasso and Moore all expect to be wrestling on the sport's biggest stage. How many of their teammates join them on the tournament's final day will go a long way toward determining how this season's story ends.