What is Dispatches from Blogfrica? Pretty simple: I ask questions of a blogger for an opposing team; he (or she) answers. A truly revolutionary idea, no? Today: Andy Vance from Eleven Warriors, the finest Ohio State blog in all the land.
EDIT: My responses to Andy's questions are available over at Eleven Warriors.
1) This seems like a transitional year for Ohio State wrestling -- is that a fair assessment? How have things looked so far this season? How bright is the future in Buckeye-land?
ANDY: That’s probably a fair assessment; it certainly feels like the youngest team Ohio State has fielded in a few years, with only two seniors in the starting lineup – top-ranked captains Luke Pletcher and Kollin Moore. It’s also a year where there have been more weight changes among the starters than we’ve seen in recent years, starting with Pletcher’s move back up to 141, which triggered Quinn Kinner’s move first down to 133 and then up to 157… although he won’t see the mat in this dual, his attempt to move up, like one-time 184-pound starter Gavin Hoffman’s recent tournament entry at 285, is a reminder that there are a number of highly-touted recruits in the room now who are trying to figure out where they fit.
This is definitely a year of learning and growing and trial by fire for guys who will be critical contributors for the Buckeyes for the next few seasons. There isn’t the “title or bust” pressure the Buckeyes have felt at times over the past four or five seasons, so watching the growth has been more interesting and exciting than it would be if expectations were sky-high.
2) This dual is set to feature four #1 ranked wrestlers at their respective weights, which would be the most in a single dual meet in the country this season, I believe. Which of these four top-ranked wrestlers has looked the most impressive to you this season? And which of these four top-ranked wrestlers will be the most vulnerable to a loss on Friday night?
ANDY: I’ve been a big Spencer Lee fan since the first time I saw him run out of the tunnel to the Pokemon theme song. Dude who can be both a stone-cold killer on the mat and still have that level of fun is aces and arrows in my book. I wish Ohio State was throwing someone at him who might put him on genuine upset alert, but that’s not the case. So I’ll look forward to just watching him do his thing as a fan of the sport and of his talent in specific.
I’ll talk more about Luke Pletcher in a moment, but his transformation from plow horse to warhorse has been the story of the season in Columbus. He’s been that guy for three seasons who didn’t lose too many matches, but was the master of the 5-3 decision that made you sweat until the final whistle. This season? He’s hitting bonus in 65% of his matches - double his career average - and already has wins over half of the Top 10 in the class. It’s been a blast to watch.
As far as upset potential, I’m going to go with Pat Lugo versus Sammy Sasso, and that’s no shade to Lugo in the least. But Sasso is a guy who was drawing #Sasso4Hodge tweets early in the season unironically, and although he had a major stumble versus Virginia Tech is a guy who has the tools to go toe-to-toe with pretty much anyone in the country. It feels like he’s due to pop open a big match, and this is pretty much the biggest kind of match on the biggest stage shy of the NCAA tournament. I’m not betting the farm on it, but it’s the match of the four that feels like a horse I could put a couple dollars behind.
3) Tell us a little about Luke Pletcher and Kollin Moore this season. They're both 18-0 on the season and it seems like they've taken their respective performances to another level this season. What's made them so unstoppable this year?
ANDY: Moore has been on the cusp of this type of season it feels like for two or three years. His biggest challenge has always been mastering the muscle in between his ears, because he’s his own worst critic. When he’s stubbed his toe in seasons past, he’s let that get to him. Working with mindset master Tervel Dlagnev has been a big part of his ascendancy, but you can also see that he’s developed tactically and technically as well, adding some skills to his top game to accompany his takedown-to-takedown approach to most matches.
As I mentioned before, Pletcher is the guy who has been my MVP of the year. Who knew 8 pounds could mean so much to a two-time All American? And yet that’s exactly what we’ve seen: the move up has brought with it a wide-open offense rarely seen in past years past early-season tournaments, and a fleetness of foot that has allowed him to out-quick pretty much everyone he’s wrestled. He’s one of the most powerful men in the class, and he’s darn difficult to take down because of his low center of gravity and powerful base.
4) What match (or matches) are you most looking forward to seeing on Friday night?
ANDY: I’ve already gushed enough about Luke Pletcher, so you can probably guess I’m interested to see him wrestle another top-5 opponent. But the guy I’m most interested to watch is Rocky Jordan, to see if he’s ready for primetime. After moving up to 184 he’s looked like just what the doctor ordered to establish a consistent presence at the weight… but this is a different level of competition from what he faced in his last two outings. If he can open up his offense Assad while also not letting himself get run out of the building, it’ll go a long way toward giving the Buckeyes confidence that he can put points on the board in Minneapolis in 50-some days.
5) Ohio State has some interesting things going on at the middle weights this year. Ethan Smith looks improved down at 165 and Kaleb Romero and Rocky Jordan have had some good results at 174 and 184. What's working for that trio of guys this season?
ANDY: Ethan Smith has definitely taken a step, which I think is more about his growth and experience than it is about moving down, while Kaleb Romero’s move up has given him a Pletcher-like burst of energy. The biggest thing for him has been his growth mentally. Romero has talked at length about how he got down on himself a different points last season, and just didn’t have the confidence you would expect from a four-time Ohio high school champion (and one of the most prolific high-school quarterbacks in the state to boot). That isn’t the case this season - he’s going into matches expecting to win, instead of just hoping to win. He’s opening up his offense, at times showcasing a pretty potent blast double that really gets the home crowd going back in Covelli Center.
Without the improvement we’ve seen from these two, and the recent influx of energy Jordan’s brought at 184, this would be a much different – and extremely frustrating – season for the Buckeyes.
6) We've got to know more about the man, the myth, the legend that is "Gas Tank" Gary Traub. Where'd the nickname come from? What's his story?
ANDY: Gary Traub is every man. He’s me if I’d been a college athlete. He’s your best friend. He’s the boy next door. Gary is the avatar for every fan who ever wondered what it would be like to actually lace ‘em up and step inside the circle. The former walk-on heavyweight never expected to crack the lineup; he wrestled behind Kyle Snyder and knew Chase Singletary was the next highly-recruited big man at the spot.
…and Gary was okay knowing he wouldn’t be the big man on campus, because he genuinely loves the sport, genuinely loves the team, and knew his role as a solid practice partner was important to the team and took it seriously. Sometimes life is about being in the right place at the right time and doing the right things when opportunity arises, and that’s what’s happened here. Already filling in for Singletary while he wrestled at the U23 Freestyle World Championships, Traub was more than merely serviceable when Singletary’s injury at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational turned out to be more than originally thought.
As to the nickname and the legend, it stems from Traub’s penchant to come on strong late in the third period. He won 4-3 decisions against both Stanford and Cornell at seemingly the last second, mustering the energy needed to get the go-ahead takedown as time expired. He had the “gas tank” left to get the job done, in other words. His post-match celebrations and boundless enthusiasm – infectious enthusiasm, really – quickly established him as a fan favorite, and from there his legend grew.
Yes, he’s yet to beat the likes of Trent Hillger or Tanner Hall, that’s true. But he’s gotten his hand raised 17 times this season out of 20 tries, so he’s not a total fluke, either. Will he upset Cassioppi? Eh, probably not. But don’t tell him that - he refuses to think that way, so he’ll wrestle to the final whistle regardless.
7) Iowa's 7-0 this season and they have the higher-ranked wrestler in 8 of 10 matches here, so they're favored in the dual. But Ohio State has enough quality wrestlers to make things interesting -- what's the path to an OSU win in this dual look like?
ANDY: The path to a victory? It’s revealed shortly before the match that God is in fact a Buckeye, the heavens open and suddenly Malik Heinselman and Elijah Cleary become future two-time champions, or Nathan Tomasello and Myles Martin are both magically granted an additional meet of eligibility.
Seriously though, for Ohio State to win this meet at least three guys not named Pletcher or Moore have to step up an wrestle like they haven’t wrestled all season. Give Moore and Pletcher their wins, and let’s pencil in Sasso at 149, too. Those are all three reasonable matches for Ohio State to win.
Given that Lee is going to put serious bonus on the board, the Buckeyes probably need to win three more after that, which is a pretty tall task. Let’s say Elijah Cleary feels a newfound confidence after going two for two in last weekend’s duals, can Rocky Jordan catch lightning in a bottle against Assad? Jordan beat Rutgers’ Zach Braunagel last weekend in a 6-4 decision… Assad pinned the same guy a month ago.
That leaves it up to either Smith or Romero to pull off a significant upset. I’d be more likely to count on Romero because I just can’t wrap my head around Smith goring The Bull, and Romero keeping it close against Kemerer is maybe something I can conceptualize, at least a little.
8) OK, prediction time -- what's going to happen?
ANDY: This match is the mirror image of the last time these two teams met: top-ranked team hosting a Top-10 conference foe in front of one of the largest crowds of the season in any gym in the country, the visiting team hoping to pick up an upset or two to establish their bona fides as a would-be NCAA placer.
That time Iowa won four matches and the Buckeyes rolled. I’m more inclined to think Ohio State gets three this trip, and it winds up something like 26-10 in favor of the Hawkeyes.
ED. NOTE: Don't forget to read my answers to Andy's questions over at Eleven Warriors!
Thanks for being a good sport, Andy, but I still hope your squad gets mollywhopped tonight. You can check out Andy and the rest of the 11W crew at Eleven Warriors. You can also follow Andy on Twitter at @AndyVance and Eleven Warriors on Twitter at @11W. The Iowa-Ohio State dual meet is in Iowa City, IA on Friday, January 24, and is scheduled to start at approximately 8:00 pm CT, with TV coverage from BTN.