Oct. 30, 2002
Since finishing the 1998-99 campaign with a 40th-place finish at the NCAA Championships, the Ohio State wrestling team has strived to improve each year and make it to the podium as a team when the national event had ended. This year, a talented group of seasoned veterans, led by returning heavyweight national champion Tommy Rowlands, will look to continue the Buckeyes’ climb to the top following national finishes of 34th (1999-00), 16th (2000-01) and sixth last year. Russ Hellickson, the 17th-year OSU head coach and both Big Ten and national coach of the year, believes this will be a banner year for OSU.
“We have enough personnel and talent to be a contending team nationally and I don’t see us doing any worse than last year,” Hellickson said. “Finishing better than a year ago will be determined by how the guys adjust and perform. This is not a year to fall backwards and see if we can prepare people. A majority of our guys are seasoned and know what to expect. I feel good about them heading into this season and feel we will be one of the top teams in the nation.”
Hungry for a Trophy
The loss of three-time All-American Robert Sessley and two-time All-American Nick Preston from the OSU lineup would not translate into high expectations this year, especially with only one All-American returning in Tommy Rowlands. The team, as well as Hellickson, feels it can be a national force with the desire to be standing on the podium at the end of the NCAA tournament.
“I think we expect to be solidly entrenched in the Top 10 throughout the year,” Hellickson said. “The guys are eager to be better than that, break into the Top 5 and stay there. I think we are hungry for a trophy (a Top 4 finish at the NCAA meet). I don’t think we are at that level right now, especially with one All-American returning. Our team thinks we are that good and they will perform up to that level.”
One thing that is fueling their desires is the way their careers have unfolded.
“Several of the guys are carrying around some disappointment about what they have attained so far,” Hellickson said. “I know a few thought they would be All-Americans by now. They have had great careers here and been very productive for us but they don’t have their name on an All-America certificate like they thought they would. Their realization is going to fuel them and that should make them better competitors.”
Tommy Rowlands returns for his junior campaign following a 38-3 season in which he won the heavyweight national title and the Big Ten championship, both over Iowa’s Steve Mocco. The competition will again be fierce as the heavyweight division guns for Rowlands and his title as the top wrestler at heavyweight.
“Tommy always finds a way to improve himself,” Hellickson said. “He has a real good sense of the things he needs to work on and that helped him win his national title. He has a great competitive memory and will be a tough man to defeat this year.”
Rowlands, a two-time national finalist, will look lead the team this year and help it attain its goals.
“Tommy sets the example for the rest of the guys,” Hellickson said. “He wants others to do well and shows them that and they do their best to improve. As he improves, so does the team and visa versa. It is a mutual benefit for all the guys and will be a building block for the season.”
With another year of training and experience under their belts, the 2002-03 Buckeyes should be ready to challenge all teams they face. Six national qualifiers return from last year including Jesse Leng (125), Jeff Ratliff (133), Keaton Anderson (149), John Clark (165), Blake Kaplan (184) and Tommy Rowlands (HWT) as well as Anton Talamantes (184), a qualifier two seasons ago. These seven Buckeyes will be the cornerstones of the team’s success this year.
“They’re hungry for success and training hard to return to the national tournament,” Hellickson said. “When you see these guys and how driven they are to succeed, the team will respond and do better because of that.”
Along with the graduation of Robert Sessley (141), Nick Preston (197) and Josh Janson (157), OSU will have four weights to fill after Ryan Hieber (174) took a medical redshirt. Hellickson has decided to shift several wrestlers from one weight class to another and looking towards the men they have trained with to step in. Leng moves from 125 to 133 leaving the lowest weight class open, possibly for incoming freshman Theo Dotson. Ratliff increases from 133 to 141 and Anderson jumps from 149 to 157. The final move is Talamantes going from 184 to 197. With 125, 141, 174 and 184 up for grabs, Hellickson expects several good competitors to emerge.
“We definitely have great competitors waiting in the wings,” Hellickson said. “Several of these guys will have breakout years on the mats for us that have not had the chance to before and I think the seniors will step up in their final year of competition.”
Hellickson envisions several viable candidates to battle for the openings.
“Blake (Kaplan) did well last year filling in for an injured Anton at the Big Tens and qualified for the NCAA tournament while (Anthony) Magistrelli should be ready to compete after a redshirt year,” Hellickson said. “I know Anderson, Talamantes and Daugherty are ready to have banner years as seniors. Daugherty will be ready after not getting much competition time last year though he did pin the eventual national champion while taking third at the Midlands. These guys are not set in stone as the starters and there is a lot of talent behind them so we will have to see who emerges.”
The 2002-03 recruiting class is again filled with several talented wrestlers to compliment the solid lineup of veterans.
“There are several guys coming in the year that could have an immediate impact on the team if they want,” Hellickson said. “I am inclined to believe we are solid enough with the experienced wrestlers on the team that I want to give the newcomers redshirts and allow them to adapt to a higher level of competition and grow stronger for next year.”
The class is comprised of Jeff Costello (Canastota, N.Y.), Theo Dotson (Columbus, Ohio), Jordan Humphrey (Indianapolis, Ind.), Marques Johnson (West Chester, Ohio), Jermaine Jones (West Chester, Pa.), Matt Kallai (Wadsworth, Ohio), Phillip Lazar (Hinckley, Ohio), Mike Linsker (Woodmere, Ohio), Joey Pflug (Maple Heights, Ohio), Pasquale Razzano (Columbus, Ohio) and Ryan Rhodes (Toledo, Ohio).
Once again, the National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA) National Duals highlights a talent-filled schedule for the Buckeyes this year. OSU also will battle two-time defending national champion Minnesota at home and has tough road matches with nationally ranked West Virginia, Penn State and Michigan.
“Our schedule is pretty good, but I think I would have liked to have had a few more home duals,” Hellickson said. “We are competing in a few more tournaments this year that are set up for individual competition. It is a tough schedule and a great test for our guys because it will challenge us to compete with the best in the nation and prepare us for the national tournament.”
OSU’s four tournaments are the Michigan State Open, the Oklahoma Gold Classic (Brockport, N.Y.), the Las Vegas Invitational and the Midlands before diving into dual action. The Buckeyes Duals (Jan. 4) opens the dual season before a road test at WVU. Following the National Duals, the Buckeyes will travel to Cornell and help christen the Big Red’s new facility prior to the start of Big Ten action.
In the opening week of conference action, OSU plays host to Indiana and Minnesota, travels to PSU and then plays host to its final duals of the year at St. John Arena with Purdue and Illinois.
The Buckeyes close out the year with road duals at Michigan, Northwestern and Wisconsin before returning to Madison, Wis., for the Big Ten Championships March 8-9. The season culminates with the NCAA Championships March 20-22 at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Mo.
For the second year in a row under the NWCA’s new format, the OSU campus will play host to the top teams in collegiate wrestling in Divisions I, II and III. The Duals come to Columbus for one of the premier collegiate events, Jan. 18-19, where OSU hopes to excite the home crowd with another solid performance after a second-place finish last year.
“I think it would be very difficult for us to believe we would have an equally surprising performance as we did at the Duals last year,” Hellickson said. “We came in ranked seventh and made it the finals where no one ever thought we would be. I don’t think we are going to be one of the Top 2 teams in the tournament this year but I think we can finish among the Top 5 again. We would like to see a replay of the success we enjoyed last year with one more win added at the end.”
With the renovations of Larkins Hall set to begin, the wrestling team’s training room has been displaced and relocated to the new Steelwood Facility (where it is). The room will be a welcomed change for Hellickson and his team following a 16-year stint in the student recreation hall.
“We are all fired up about our new room,” Hellickson said. “I think it is going to have a tremendous impact on our program in every possible way. We have adequate space to train and get the athletes to their peak level of performance. The guys are fired up and inspired and that will only help them. They want to be there and practice harder and that only translates to better performances on the competitive mats.”
Aside from its ample training area, the new room will house a weight facility and exercise equipment for the student-athletes, both injured and healthy to use.
“We will do all of our core lifting with Anthony (Glass, strength and conditioning coach) so they guys learn the techniques,” Hellickson said. “We also can use the weights for training circuits as well as rehabilitation assignments. This will allow the entire team to train and rehabilitate in the same room and at the same time as a team.”