Sammy Sasso was a single takedown away from winning the Big Ten Championship as a redshirt freshman, dropping a 2-1 classic to Iowa's Pat Lugo a year ago. The sport's Freshman of the Year had a fantastic season, and — until COVID scuttled everything — appeared on track to challenge Lugo for an NCAA title.
That match, of course, never happened.
But after the strangest offseason in memory, Sasso entered a condensed Big Ten season poised to be the man to beat in 2021. And he's lived up to the billing every step of the way, winning the 149-pound Big Ten Championship Sunday in State College, Penn., defeating Nebraska's Ridge Lovett in a 5-2 decision.
He was joined by Ethan Smith (165 pounds), Malik Heinselman (125), Kaleb Romero (174) and Tate Orndorff (HWT) in earning automatic qualifications to the NCAA Tournament later this month in St. Louis. Four other team members failed to place high enough to earn an auto-bid, and Jordan Decatur was scratched at 133, so they will wait and hope for wild card entries.
After the match, Sasso made his pitch to the "young savages" among the sport's elite high school recruits:
“I love this program and I love everybody in it,” Sasso said. “I'm going to keep trying to do my best to start a new legacy here Ohio State. I want to start winning team titles and I want to try and get young savages from high school to come be a part of this, because we have something special here at Ohio State.”
The season isn't over yet — Sasso is a lock for the top seed at the NCAA Wrestling Championships in St. Louis — but it's clear he needs some help to fulfill his goal of scrapping for team titles. Ohio State finished 9th in the team standings at the conference tourney, the program's poorest finish since finishing 9th in the 2006-2007 season; the team has only finished outside of the Top 5 twice in the 14 seasons since, and finished in the Top 3 in each of the past 6 years.
This time, the Buckeyes simply didn't have enough "savages" to get the job done again. Sasso was the only Buckeye to finish atop the medal stand, while Smith was a takedown away from upending top-seeded Alex Marinelli of Iowa in the 165-pound finals. Heinselman finished 4th at 125, Romero won the 5th-place match and Orndorff finished 6th at 285.
Dylan D’Emilio (141) and Elijah Cleary (157) both ended up winning the 9th-place matches on Sunday afternoon, but Rocky Jordan came up short in his 9th-place bout. After winning his opening match in Sudden Victory, Gavin Hoffman (197) dropped two straight to make an early exit from the tournament.
Focusing on the positives, Sasso, Smith, Heinselman and Romero continue to anchor the team, and all seem poised to finish on the All American podium in St. Louis. Smith held pace with Marinelli, and if Romero can get a little stronger on his injured ankle over the next 12 days, he'll be pushing to wrestle on the last day of the tournament, too. Heinselman isn't likely to upset Iowa's Spencer Lee any time soon, but it's not crazy to think he'll again find himself in a 3rd-place match.
Orndorff hasn't quite been Mr. Wonderful this season, but that is in part because there is a clear upper echelon of Big Ten heavyweights that are far better than anyone else in the country. Orndorff can very much finish in the Top 8 and win some valuable team points for the Buckeyes along the way.
The question that remains is how many of the five team members hoping for wildcards actually get them, and then how much they contribute to the team score if they make it to the tournament. Cumulatively they added 3 points this weekend in State College (acknowledging that Decatur didn't wrestle at all). That won't cut it if the Buckeyes want to finish better than they did Sunday.
Seeding will have a lot to say about what kind of noise a Rocky Jordan or Gavin Hoffman might make two weekends from now, and it's clear their seeds will not be overly favorable. But it's a big tournament, and upsets happen every year.
Regardless of what happens in the team race, one thing is clear: Ohio State has at least one national title contender on the roster, and three or four more who have what it takes to make it to the final session of the season.
The NCAA Wrestling Championship will be held at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis, Missouri, March 18-20.
Results: Big Ten Tournament
125 pounds – Malik Heinselman
- R1 | Def. Zach Spence (MD) | PIN 2:56
- QF | Def. Eric Barnett (WIS) | D, 3-2
- SF | Lost to Devin Schroder (PUR) | MD, 10-0
- Con SF | Def. Robert Howard (PSU) | D, 5-2
- 3rd-Place Match | Lost to Rayvon Foley | D, 8-2
141 pounds – Dylan D’Emilio
- R1 | Def. Danny Bertoni (MD) | D, 3-1
- QF | Lost to Nick Lee (PSU) | TF, 3:12 (17-1)
- Con Rd 2 | Lost to Drew Mattin (MICH) | D, 2-1
- Con (1) | Def. Danny Bertoni (MD) | D, 9-4
- 9th-Place Match | Def. Cayden Rooks | D, 4-3
149 pounds – Sammy Sasso
- R1 | BYE
- QF | Def. Peyton Omania (MSU) | MD, 9-1
- SF | Def. Kanen Storr (MICH) | D, 5-0
- F | Def. Ridge Lovett (NEB) | D, 5-2
157 pounds – Elijah Cleary
- R1 | Def. Garrett Model (WISC) | D, 9-6
- QF | Lost to Ryan Deakin (NU) | MD, 8-0
- Con Rd 2 | Lost to Caleb Licking (NEB) | D, 2-1
- Con (1) | Def. Michael Doetsch (MD) | Forfeit
- 9th-Place Match | Def. Garrett Model (WIS) | D, 6-3
165 pounds – Ethan Smith
- R1 | Def. Josh Otto (WISC) | D, 8-4
- QF | Def. Jonathan Spadafora (MD) | MD 15-6
- SF | Peyton Robb (NEB) | SV1, 5-3
- F | Lost to Alex Marinelli (IOWA) | D, 3-2
174 pounds – Kaleb Romero
- R1 | Def. DJ Shannon (Ill) | D, 4-1
- QF | Lost to Carter Starocci (PSU) | D, 2-0
- Con Rd 2 | Def. Emil Soehnlen (PUR) | D 4-1
- Con Rd 3 | Def. Jake Allar (MINN) | D, 9-4
- Con SF | Lost to Logan Massa (MICH) | D, 4-3
- 5th-Place Match | Def. Donnell Washington (IND) | D, 5-0
184 pounds – Rocky Jordan
- R1 | Lost to Max Lyon (PUR) | D, 3-2
- Con R2 | Lost to Nelson Brands (IOWA) | D, 5-2
- Con (1) | Def. Kyle Cochran (MD) |TF, 2:53 (16-0)
- 9th-Place Match | Lost to Zach Braunagel (ILL) | D, 5-4
197 pounds – Gavin Hoffman
- R1 | Def. Matt Wroblewski (Ill) | SV1, 3-1
- QF | Lost to Eric Schultz (NEB) | D, 2-0
- Con R2 | Lost to Billy Janzer (RUT) | D, 3-2
285 pounds – Tate Orndorff
- R1 | Def. Christian Rebottaro (MSU) | D, 6-0
- QF | Lost to Gable Steveson (MINN) | TF, 5:34 (19-4)
- Con Rd 2 | Def. Jack Heyob (NU) | D, 5-2
- Con Rd 3 | Def. Luke Luffman (ILL) | SV1, 3-1
- Con SF | Lost to Tony Cassioppi (IOWA) | PIN 2:24
- 5th-Place Match | Lost to Christian Lance (NEB) | D, 3-2