Wrestling Preview: No. 7 Ohio State Opens Season On The Road, Facing No. 24 Illinois and No. 21 Wisconsin in Champaign

By Andy Vance on January 17, 2021 at 7:45 am
Sammy Sasso

It's been 338 days since Ohio State's last dual meet, and 316 days since the 2019-2020 season ended — unexpectedly — at the Big Ten Championships.

That's a much longer offseason than anyone would have imagined. COVID-19 not only scuttled the 2020 NCAA Wrestling tournament, but also torpedoed any opportunity for out-of-conference dual meets or open tournaments during the fall.

When & Where

  • Sun., Jan. 17, Noon EST
  • State Farm Center, Champaign
  • Streaming Live via BTN+

The Big Ten, as it did with football, opted to contest a conference-only season, wedging nine dual meets into an 8-week schedule. Ohio State gets underway Sunday with a unique tri-meet format, facing ranked opponents Illinois and Wisconsin in Champaign.

"Everybody is excited to compete and do what we love," top-ranked 149-pounder Sammy Sasso said Friday. "You can’t dwell too much on what happened last year, that’s in the past. I try to focus on what’s in front of me; we’re excited, we’re eager to get on the mat."

Sasso is one of seven ranked wrestlers who will suit up for Ohio State to start the season. Two others – Carson Kharchla and Chase Singletary – are also ranked in the top 25 according to FloWrestling's latest standings, but will not start for the Buckeyes. Kharchla is injured, and Gavin Hoffman scored a sudden victory decision over Singletary at the team's wrestle-offs last weekend.

“There are three weights we don’t know what’s going to happen by the end of the year,” head coach Tom Ryan said. “There’s a slight advantage for Hoffman, Orndorff and D’Emilio (due to their wrestle-off victories) but we’re going to see what happens. This weekend will be the first test, and obviously both of these teams are tough.”

Typically Ohio State would wrestle three or four dual meets in November and December, along with the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational and perhaps one other open tournament, giving the coaching staff additional "data points" to decide starting positions when a pair of wrestlers are somewhat evenly matched. This year's unique schedule precludes that, so wrestle-offs and day-to-day practice performances make a bigger difference.

Sunday's meet format – a tri-meet – is essentially a pair of dual meets among three teams held simultaneously. Illinois will have a pair of mats set up in the State Farm Center, and Ohio State's 10 starters will face the 10 wrestlers each from Illinois and Wisconsin, just as in a typical dual, with the team scores in each of the three duals (Ohio State vs. Illinois, Ohio State vs. Wisconsin, and Illinois vs. Wisconsin) being kept separately. 

Ohio State will wrestle in this format again in early February, when it faces Iowa and Purdue in West Lafayette.

Returning Starters

Last year, Tom Ryan's team was fairly young; this year's is a veteran squad by comparison. Seven of 10 starters return to their same weight class as a year ago, and newcomer Tate Orndorff — the transfer heavyweight from Utah Valley — is a two-time NCAA qualifier ranked No. 6 in the country.

Redshirt senior Elijah Cleary, ranked No. 22 in the country at 157, is the elder statesman among Sunday's starters. Orndorff, Kaleb Romero, and Ethan Smith are redshirt juniors, with Malik Heinselman a true junior. Romero is ranked No. 4 in the country at 174, Heinselman is No. 21 at 125, and Ethan Smith finished last season ranked 13th at 165, but was expected to yield the spot to the since-injured Kharchla, so starts the season unranked at his previous weight.

No. 1 Sasso at 149, No. 9 Rocky Jordan at 184, and Gavin Hoffman at 197 are all redshirt sophomores. Sasso and Jordan had excellent seasons a year ago as first-year starters, with Sasso in contention for an NCAA title by year's end. Hoffman traveled a more circuitous path, opening the season at 184 before it became apparent that was too much of a cut for him to make consistently and perform at a high level.

Hoffman would finish the season winning open tournaments as a heavyweight, and will now wrestle at what appears to be his natural weight after upending a ranked Chase Singletary in last week's wrestle-offs.

“Gavin Hoffman has paid his dues here, and now’s his chance,” Ryan said. “He scored a takedown in overtime to win,” the coach explained as to why Hoffman got the nod over Singletary.

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

Hoffman's win over Singletary wasn't the only wrestle-off match that led to a change in the lineup. Dylan D'Emilio established himself as the leader out of the clubhouse at 141, methodically handling freshman phenom Anthony Echemendia, and Orndorff set the tone against local legend "Gas Tank" Gary Traub in the heavyweight bout.

“The wrestle-offs were so close and the biggest difference in two of the weights was mat wrestling,” Ryan said. “D’Emilio is a stud. He’s a four-time state champ; his work ethic is incredible.”

Echemendia is a huge recruit out of Cuba that was highly sought after by several other elite programs, but D'Emilio showcased his considerable skills on the mat in their head-to-head matchup.

“[Echemendia] is a stud, and Dylan did a really good job tactically, technically,” Ryan said. “He did a really good job holding up physically, and the difference was he rode him. He was able to seal the match.”

D’Emilio scored first in the most-anticipated match of the wrestle-off event, about a minute into the opening round, and his experience and proficiency as a folkstyle wrestler showed. He worked Echemendia over on top, racking up 2 minutes of riding time to close out the period, and as the head coach explained, that was the difference in the match. 

“And the same thing happened at heavyweight,” Ryan explained. “Gary got ridden, and Tate did a really good job tactically holding him down and picking up that bonus point.”

The 197-pound bout between Singletary and Hoffman came down to sudden victory. Tied 2-2 after regulation, Hoffman fired and finished the go-ahead shot, and that was enough for the staff to give him the nod Sunday versus the Illini and the Badgers.

Time to Shine

Ohio State has a raft of ranked wrestlers, but unlike previous years may not have as many household names. Four are currently numbered among the top 10 in the country at their respective weight classes, but three are currently ranked between 20 and 25.

“We know we have some horses,” Ryan said. “We’ve got a couple of guys that are ranked really high that we think can win the Tournament. But that’s not going to be enough for Ohio State to remain among the elite schools, it’s the next level guys that have to step up.”

He said the “staple of our lineup” right now are Sasso at 149, Smith at 165, Romero at 174 and Jordan at 184. From there, for the Buckeyes to be tournament contenders in March, wrestlers like Heinselman, Cleary and Jordan Decatur (No. 25 at 133 pounds) need to show that they've taken a big developmental step over the lengthy offseason. 

“There’s not a weight this weekend that I’m not excited about to see how much improvement they’ve made and how they’ve developed,” Ryan said.

The University of Illinois Fighting Illini

Head Coach: Jim Heffernan

Illinois will host the three-way battle with the Buckeyes and Badgers inside State Farm Center. The Illini return five NCAA qualifiers from last season, and have a half-dozen ranked starters on the probable match list for Sunday's meet. The roster looked very sharp last weekend as they routed Indiana on the Hoosier's own mat, 39-3.

Probable Matchups
125 No. 21 Malik Heinselman (0-0, Jr.) No. 13 Justin Cardani (1-0, r-So.)
133 No. 25 Jordan Decatur (0-0), So.) Lucas Byrd (1-0, So.)
141 Dylan D'Emilio (0-0, r-Fr.) No. 11 Dylan Duncan (1-0, r-Sr.)
149 No. 1 Sammy Sasso (0-0, r-So.) No. 7 Mike Carr (1-0, r-Sr.)
157 No. 22 Elijah Cleary (0-0, r-Sr.) Johnny Mologousis (1-0, r-Jr.)
165 Ethan Smith (0-0, r-Jr.) No. 8 Danny Braunagel (1-0, r-So.)
174 No. 4 Kaleb Romero (0-0, r-Jr.) Trey Sizemore (0-1, So.) -OR-
DJ Shannon (0-0, So.)
184 No. 9 Rocky Jordan (0-0, r-So.) No. 10 Zac Braunagel (1-0, r-So.)
197 Gavin Hoffman (0-0, r-S0.) Matt Wroblewski (1-0, r-Jr.)
HWT No. 6 Tate Orndorff (0-0, r-Jr.) No. 25 Luke Luffman (1-0, So.)

There are several big-time matches on the card here, most notably No. 1 Sammy Sasso versus 2018 Big Ten Runner-Up and two-time NCAA qualifier Mike Carr. The No. 7-ranked senior racked up a 16-5 major decision last weekend over Indiana’s Luke Baughman. For his part, Sasso will take the same approach to his match with Carr as he does every other match.

“I ain’t focused on anybody else,” Sasso said Friday. “I know the guys at the weight, but I’m focused on myself. When I’m being Sammy Sasso and wrestling my best, good things are going to happen.”

That attitude served him well last season, as he faced the toughest guys in the class and earned his lofty standing in the class by toeing the line and wrestling like a title contender.

Counting Ethan Smith, who dead to rights should be ranked given how he finished last season, this dual will feature six ranked vs. ranked matches. No. 13 Justin Cardani will be a good measuring stick for Malik Heinselman at 125, giving him an early chance to show that he is ready to be a consistent performer for the team versus tougher competition; he showed a tremendous amount of promise late in the season, particularly at the Big Ten tournament.

Likewise, Dylan D'Emilio will have an early chance to show that he's the man for the job at 141, facing No. 11 Dylan Duncan. If D'Emilio can walk away from Champaign with his first win of the season — over a ranked senior, no less — he'll vault himself into the rankings and establish himself firmly as a star in the making. Duncan pinned Indiana's Paul Konrath late in the third period last weekend in Bloomington.

Ethan Smith and Rocky Jordan both have solid opponents in the Braunagel twins, a pair of redshirt sophomores who start the season inside the Top 10. Smith holds a 1-0 advantage over Danny Braunagel, having won a 3-1 decision in their first meeting a year ago.

Zac Braunagel got off to a hot start last week, pinning Indiana's Drayton Harris just past the 6-minute mark. Jordan defeated Braunagel in a 6-4 decision last season.

The Wisconsin Badgers

Head Coach: Chris Bono

Despite being ranked slightly higher than the Illini in the National Wrestling Coaches Association's latest poll, the Badgers don't field nearly as many ranked individuals at the moment. Wisconsin's roster is headlined by highly-ranked heavyweight Trent Hillger (No. 5 in the class) and No. 13 Chris Weiler at 184 pounds, setting up a pair of evenly-matched battles for Ohio State's ranked men in those classes.

Probable Matchups
125 No. 21 Malik Heinselman (0-0, Jr.) Eric Barnett (0-0, So.) -OR-
Ethan Rotondo (0-0, r-Jr.)
133 No. 25 Jordan Decatur (0-0), So.) Kyle Burwick (0-0, r-Fr.)
141 Dylan D'Emilio (0-0, r-Fr.) Trey Escobar (0-0, r-Fr.) -OR-
Dominic Dentino (0-0, r-So.)
149 No. 1 Sammy Sasso (0-0, r-So.) Dan Stilling (0-0, So.) -OR-
Drew Scharenbrock (0-0, r-So.) -OR-
Aiden Medora (0-0, Fr.)
157 No. 22 Elijah Cleary (0-0, r-Sr.) Garrett Model (0-0, Fr..) -OR-
Devin Bahr (0-0, r-Jr.) -OR-
Cody Anderson (0-0, Fr.)
165 Ethan Smith (0-0, r-Jr.) Josh Otto (0-0, r-Fr.) -OR-
Patrick Spray (0-0, r-Sr.)
174 No. 4 Kaleb Romero (0-0, r-Jr.) Jared Krattinger (0-0, r-So.) -OR-
Seth Vosters (0-0, r-Sr.)
184 No. 9 Rocky Jordan (0-0, r-So.) No. 13 Chris Weiler (0-0, r-Sr.)
197 Gavin Hoffman (0-0, r-S0.) Andrew Salemme (0-0, r-So.)
HWT No. 6 Tate Orndorff (0-0, r-Jr.) No. 5 Trent Hillger (0-0, r-Jr.) -OR-
Peter Christensen (0-0, So.)

Like the Buckeyes, Sunday's pair of meets marks the first go of the year for the team from Madison.

“It's a sprint,” Wisconsin head coach Chris Bono said last week on the University's Jump Around YouTube series. “Nine dual meets over six weeks is truly a sprint before the Big Ten tournament. It's a shortened season, if you want to be an All-American or national champion you have to be able to perform every week.”

Bono could trot out a few different combinations this season; the probable match list has 19 different names listed for the 10 weight classes. Only three spots seemed to be settled at press time.

The match of the night will be the battle of the bigs, Hillger versus Orndorff. Hillger gets forgotten in a conference with phenomenal heavyweights like Gable Steveson, Mason Parris and Greg Kerkvliet, but there's a reason he's ranked No. 5 in the country. In this matchup he has a 2-0 lead all-time over Orndorff, coming up with a 9-7 sudden victory decision back in November 2018, and then landing a feet-to-back fall in the first tiebreaker period in November 2019.

At 184 Rocky Jordan may have the toughest weekend of any Buckeye on the roster, with top-15 matchups in both his bouts. Weiler is an offseason transfer from Lehigh, where the redshirt-senior qualified for the NCAA tournament last year. 

How It Plays Out

On paper, the Buckeyes have the upper hand in both duals. But there's a reason they wrestle the matches, especially in a season like this with so much uncertainty.

“We’ve been really fortunate so far,” Ryan told the press Friday. “As of today, everyone’s good to go, our team can wrestle. But as we all know, tomorrow, we could lose a starter and not have that weight class represented ... We’re super grateful we’re going to have a chance to wrestle this year. We’re taking it one day at a time."

Asked if COVID-19 and the added stresses of testing and trying to stay healthy would change his approach to the season, Sasso put it succinctly.

"You make it as simple as it can be; it’s another season, another chance to go wrestle," Sasso said. "Every time I step out there to compete, whether there’s fans there or not, it’s the same thing: there’s two guys going out there and they want to get their hand raised, and I’m going to do everything in my power to get my hand raised."

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