Unlock this article, live events, and more with a subscription!
Already a subscriber? Log In
Ohio State fielded one of its youngest teams in recent memory this season and spent a good percentage of the year figuring out where some of the newcomers best fit in the lineup. By season’s end, the team featured three national title contenders among eight NCAA qualifiers.
What started out as a season of upheaval as the one-time face of the program Kyle Snyder announced he would leave the Ohio Regional Training Center for the wrestling equivalent of the New York Yankees, ended up being a season of tremendous growth for several Buckeyes, including senior captain Luke Pletcher, likely future captain Kaleb Romero, and first-year starter Rocky Jordan.
Here is a look back at 10 of the biggest storylines of Ohio State’s COVID-shortened season.
10. Quinn Kinner’s 3 Weight Classes & Jordan Decatur’s Redshirt
Quinn Kinner really wanted to wrestle 141 this season. Observers assumed that Luke Pletcher would finish his career at 133 after earning All-American honors at the weight two years in a row. But the incredibly stout Pletcher had other plans, opting to move up a class and finish his year at his natural weight (more on him later in the broadcast).
No sweat, said Kinner, who approached assistant head coach J Jaggers about dropping down to 133. That cut ended up being a bridge too far for the former blue-chip recruit and necessitated the burning of Jordan Decatur’s redshirt mid-season. Kinner bumped up to 157 but never quite unseated Elijah Cleary at the spot, and Decatur struggled against a tough slate of highly-ranked Big Ten opponents.
Kinner wasn’t the only man to move classes this season. Rocky Jordan started the year at 174 before bumping up to 184, where he earned an Honorable Mention on the National Wrestling Coaches Association All-American team. Gavin Hoffman started the year at 184 but realized that it was a bigger cut than was sustainable all season; he finished the year wrestling heavyweight in open tournaments, and seems like a future 197 for the Buckeyes.
9. Kerkvliet’s Defection
After committing to multiple programs, it seemed like Minnesota standout Daniel Kerkvliet had found the perfect home at Ohio State given the Ohio RTC’s track record of freestyle successes and the presence of mindset savant and longtime Olympic big man Tervel Dlagnev. Then talk started bubbling after Snyder’s departure that the Buckeyes’ future heavyweight might ride Captain America’s coattails to Happy Valley.
Indeed, just three weeks after Snyder’s announcement and 24 hours ahead of the Michigan State Open, FloWrestling’s Andrew Spey broke the news that Kerkvliet had entered the transfer portal.
The departure set off a series of dominos for Ohio State, as the staff expected Kerkvliet to start at heavyweight as a true freshman. Instead, U23 World Team member Chase Singletary came off the bench from what was anticipated to be an Olympic redshirt season, and ahead of what was expected to be a move down to 197 after Kollin Moore’s graduation. Which leads us to . . .
8. Chase Singletary Suffers A Season-ending Injury
Singletary missed the early-season open meets and November duals while representing Team USA in Budapest at the U23 World Freestyle Championships. He wrestled just three matches for the Buckeyes before sustaining a season-ending injury at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational.
"It's bigger than we thought," head coach Tom Ryan told reporters at the Jennings Wrestling Facility after returning from Sin City. "So we're leaning toward medicalling Chase [sic]. It's that bad. He's missed enough training and it looks like it's going to linger on another 4-6 weeks."
With the April news that top-10 heavyweight Tate Orndorff was transferring to Ohio State, the plan for Singletary to move down to 197 next season is still in play, presuming he is granted a sixth year of eligibility due to his injury.
7. Kaleb Romero’s Second-Year Leap
Four-time Ohio high school wrestling champ Kaleb Romero had an up-and-down season as a first-year starter in 2018-19. He went 11-6 in his redshirt freshman year at 165 pounds, going just 2-3 against Big Ten opponents in dual-meet competition before ultimately losing the job to senior Te’Shan Campbell (now volunteer assistant coach at Kent State).
Romero is the first to admit that he got in his own head far too often in his debutante season, letting nerves get the better of him and focusing too much on his losses and not enough on just wrestling to his ability.
“Last year I lost confidence in myself . . . I didn't really believe in myself,” he said early in the season. “This year I'm just going out with nothing to lose, just going out and wrestling and trying to make things happen.”
Moving up to 174, he entered the top 10 of the Flo rankings after the Cliff Keen and finished fourth at the Big Ten tournament in March. His breakout performance was one of several positive developments for the Buckeyes that also portend good things for Ohio State’s future: the rising junior is No. 4 in the country in Flo’s preseason rankings for 2020-21.
6. Breaking In Covelli Center & Creating A Home-Mat Advantage
Ohio State inaugurated a new training facility and competition venue this season. The Jennings Family Wrestling Facility is one of the premier training centers in the sport, and the intimate Covelli Center arena was a huge hit with fans and athletes alike.
"Shout-out to the crowd, definitely a difference throughout the season," Ryan said of the swell of team support after the final meet of the year. He called Covelli “a special home venue,” and there’s little question that the venue and home crowd played a significant role in the birth of the “Gas Tank Gary” legend (again, more on him in a minute).
According to Ohio State's ticketing office, Covelli's official seating capacity is 4,177, so anything beyond that is considered a sell-out. The Buckeyes sold out four meets in a row to close the season, selling every last "standing room only" ticket for the home finale as well.
Prior to building Covelli, Ohio State wrestled in historic St. John Arena with a capacity of more than 13,000 seats. According to data compiled at the Mat Talk Almanac, the Buckeyes averaged between 4,387 and 6,681 attendees from the 2014-15 season forward – painting a pretty good picture of why Covelli was sized the way it was. Wrestling consistently in front of a sold-out crowd provides a much tougher environment than does a basketball arena with 7,000 empty seats.
5. Anthony Echemendia’s Commitment and Admittance
Tom Ryan and Anthony Ralph have done better than most at attracting the best talent in the country to Columbus. Their star-studded class a year ago may have been the best in the country. So it wasn’t a huge stretch to see why generational talent Anthony Echemendia pledged his services to the Buckeyes last fall.
The Cuban immigrant took the sport by storm last summer with his double-championship performance at Fargo. His international freestyle experience fit right in with Ohio State’s strengths, and he appears to be either a logical successor to Luke Pletcher at 141 or an answer at 157 next year.
Ohio State originally expected Echemendia to enroll in January and get to work right away. The process of getting him officially admitted to the university took much longer than anticipated, however, eventually coming in March and paving the way for him to join the team officially.
"We should have had him in December, but there was a lot to process with admissions and with his status as a citizen," Tom Ryan told Eleven Warriors in March. "They’ve had the time to sort it out now, and the legal team weighed in and they’ve had time to evaluate it and admit him."
Make sure to check out the FloFilm on Echemendia, The Crossing.
4. Sammy Sasso’s Coming Out Party
Pennsylvania standout Sammy Sasso was expected to be a big-time performer for Ohio State, and he delivered in his first season as a starter. FloWrestling named him its Freshman of the Year.
After stumbling against Virginia Tech early in the season, Sasso stepped up big in some of the biggest matches of the season, famously upending No. 1 Pat Lugo of Iowa inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena, and less than 48 hours later shutting down No. 4 Brayton Lee of Minnesota in the Twin Cities.
That weekend of top-five victories on the road vaulted Sasso atop the rankings and solidified him as a legitimate NCAA title contender. Lugo avenged his loss to Sasso in a narrow Big Ten finals match, and the two looked primed to meet for the rubber match in the NCAA tournament. Sasso currently sits at the top of Flo’s preseason rankings at 149.
He finished the year 24-3 overall, going a perfect 9-0 in Big Ten dual meet action, and was one of four Buckeyes named first-time All-Americans by the NWCA.
3. Luke Pletcher’s Best Season Yet
I frequently described senior captain Luke Pletcher’s final season as a Buckeye as watching a plow horse turn into a warhorse. The stout Pennsylvanian was always one of the better wrestlers on the team, finishing no worse than fourth in the Big Ten at any point in his career, but was known more for grinding out low-scoring decisions than for being a dominant offensive presence.
This season he looked like a different animal entirely, posting his best record as a college athlete (26-1) and more than doubling his career bonus rate (59.26 percent vs 29.55 percent). He launched himself to the top of the 141-pound rankings a the Michigan State Open by handling then-No. 1 Dom Demas of Oklahoma, and held that spot until dropping a tough bout – his only loss of the season – to Penn State’s Nick Lee.
Pletcher avenged that loss a month later at the Big Ten Championships, earning his first Big Ten title after making his way to the finals in back-to-back years at 133 pounds. He was named a first-team All-American by the NWCA.
2. Kollin Moore Goes Wire-to-Wire At No. 1
Kollin Moore was the best man on the mat for the Buckeyes all season long, and the best in the country at 197 pounds, too. The three-time Big Ten champion started the season as the top-ranked ’97 in the country and finished the season as the top seed to the aborted NCAA championship.
Moore was the only man on the squad to go undefeated, becoming just the fourth Buckeye in school history to achieve that feat. He won 110 of his 121 career matches as a Buckeye, was a finalist for the Dan Hodge Trophy, and was named Ohio State’s male Big Ten Medal of Honor recipient, becoming the sixth wrestler in school history to earn that prestigious award.
In his final campaign, Moore's 27 wins included 10 major decisions, six tech falls, and four pins. Nearly half of his wins came against opponents ranked in the top 25, and he earned bonus points in eight of those 13 bouts. Setting aside his four wins by fall, he outscored the competition 341-116 (+225).
1. The Legend of Gas Tank Gary
When Chase Singletary went down with an injury in Las Vegas, walk-on heavyweight Gary Traub got the call from the bullpen. The Cincinnati native never expected to be a starter at Ohio State, but his irrepressible spirit not only won over the Covelli Center crowd, but it also won him a lot of matches and the respect of fans across the country.
Starting with a November match against Stanford’s David Sowunmi, Traub won the first of several last-second victories on his home mat. As Ohio State’s history of “The Legend of Gas Tank Gary” puts it:
Trailing 3-2 with less 90 seconds to go, Traub fired off a shot and grinded out the go-ahead takedown culminated by dragging his fleeing foe back into the circle by his ankle. Showunmi mustered little fight from there, empty, as Traub rode him out for the remainder of the bout.
Traub had broken him and looked to be ready for another seven minutes of action, prompting a fan tweet suggesting the sobriquet of “Gas Tank Gary.” From there, the nickname spread . . . rapidly.
“Rapidly” is putting it mildly.
Against Cornell a few weeks later, Traub earned the go-ahead takedown as time expired. At the Cleveland State Open, he overcame a 5-3 deficit in the tournament finals with a second-period pin. Again and again, the legend built.
The home crowd adopted what would become Gas Tank Gary’s signature ovation: a raucous chant of “GARY! GARY! GARY!” emphasizing each syllable like the audience of the Jerry Springer Show.
Traub became a fan favorite and a media darling because of his everyman likability and never-say-die attitude on the mat. He finished the season with a record of 23-9, including a 7-5 mark in dual meets and a sixth-place finish at the Big Ten Championship, earning an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
With Tate Orndorff moving from Utah to the Buckeye State, fans may be worried that Gas Tank Gary’s days as Ohio State’s heavyweight are over. Regardless of how things play out in the months to come, there’s no question that his presence on the mat this season was one of the best storylines of the year.
Andy Vance is a Columbus-based journalist who covers the Ohio State University wrestling program for Eleven Warriors, the largest independent sports site on the internet for Ohio State news, analysis, and community. He is co-host of the site’s Eleven Dubcast podcast. Follow him on Twitter @AndyVance.