Tom Ryan was so close to the college wrestling mountaintop that he could almost reach out and plant an Ohio State flag at the summit.
In fact, Ryan stood in a back hallway on a Friday night two years ago at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, answering questions about the Buckeyes? climb to the top as the second day of the NCAA Championships wound down.
At the time, Ryan was in his third season as Ohio State?s coach. The Buckeyes finished a distant second to Iowa the previous year at the national tournament and they were positioned to take the next step in 2009. They held a 20-point lead over the Hawkeyes at one point after the semifinal round and they were seemingly one victory or one key Iowa defeat away from locking up Ohio State?s first national title.
Then the Hawkeyes went 9-1 in a stretch of consolation matches that started late Friday night and continued into Saturday?s morning session, rallying to finish 4.5 points ahead of the Buckeyes.
The summit was a couple steps away for Ohio State then. It?s nowhere in sight for Ryan and the Buckeyes this season.
Ohio State is 2-5 in duals and unranked coming into a 3 p.m. dual against the No. 8 Hawkeyes (8-0-1) inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The Buckeyes got throttled 42-3 on Dec. 19 at Penn State, and they made a quick exit from the National Duals after losses to Cornell and Northern Iowa.
?Is the goal to win a national championship? Of course,? said Ryan, a two-time All-American and 1991 NCAA runner-up at Iowa. ?You?ve got to through Iowa and Oklahoma State and Minnesota and Penn State now. Really, the ultimate standard is every guy on the team living up to the best of their ability. That?s kind of clich? and kind of corny I guess, but that?s just the truth. Are we as good as we can be? For this particular group in this particular year, to say we?re fighting for a national championship would be ridiculous.?
Ohio State?s lineup doesn?t have the same kind of octane it possessed the last three seasons when the Buckeyes went 51-8 in duals and a dormant rivalry against Iowa began to bubble.
?I don?t see it any differently (now),? Iowa?s 125-pound NCAA champion Matt McDonough said. ?They?re always going to be a good team with a lot of individuals coming out ready to compete. We?ve got the same thing where we?ve got some new guys in the lineup, and it?s another chance to get that (high) seed late in the season for the Big Ten Tournament and hammer down on the opponents.?
Ryan constructed a team at the start of the season with four-time Ohio state high school champions Logan Stieber, Collin Palmer and Tony Jameson locking down spots at 125, 141 and 165, respectively. All three are out for the rest of the season with medical issues. Ryan said the wrestling careers of Palmer and Jameson likely are finished.
The Buckeyes have since shuffled their lineup. They toyed early in the year with Sean Nemec at 149 and Colt Sponseller at 157. Both have gone back up a weight to where they wrestled last season, and Ohio State has geared its lineup toward the postseason. *
?We?ve got to get some guys on the (NCAA awards) podium,? Ryan said. ?There are guys who are good enough and have the talent and work ethic to be All-Americans, and that?s the goal this year. Realistically, I think a top-10 finish would be an outstanding performance for Ohio State this year.?
The Buckeyes have help on the way after signing four of InterMat?s top 23 recruits in the 2011 class. In the meantime, they?re piecing together a lineup that Ryan says includes ?several young men who probably didn?t foresee themselves in the starting lineup at the start of the year.?
?We?re in the middle of a college season,? Ryan said in a candid video interview in December with Buckeyewrestling.com. ?I can?t recruit anyone else at this point in time to come help the program, so these are the guys we have. They?re upbeat, they?re positive and we?re staying positive with them because it makes no sense to be anything other than that.?
Ryan won?t get any sympathy from his former Iowa teammate, Tom Brands. No coach in college wrestling lost more firepower at the end of last season than Brands, whose lineup after McDonough went through a complete overhaul.
Yet the only blemish on Iowa?s record came Sunday when the Hawkeyes wrestled Oklahoma State to a 15-15 tie in Stillwater.
Brands and the Hawkeyes still are thinking about the mountaintop. Iowa, with ranked wrestlers at eight weights, is in pursuit of its 34th consecutive win against Ohio State and its 26th straight Big Ten dual win.**
*?We need to make more progress ? quicker,? Brands said. ?We need to see some things happen. We talked about it. All radar is on Saturday. Remember, we?ve got nine new weights too.?
Tags: Iowa wrestling, Tom Brands