Ohio wrestling’s recent history has been filled with major success. The more the past is brought up around this year’s wrestlers, however, the more they want to talk about the future.
Though many teams can only hope for one star, maybe two, Ohio has trotted them out in bunches. It maintained its status as a top tier Mid-American Conference team by assembling a wrecking crew made up of guys including Harrison Hightower, Phil Wellington, Spartak Chino and two-time All-American Cody Walters, all of whom entered the 2012-13 season as freshmen or sophomores.
Over the course of four years, the Bobcats sent a total of 24 wrestlers to the national tournament, posted three All-American seasons and won four individual MAC tournament titles, with top three team finishes in the MAC tournament in each of the last two seasons.
After years of the same group of guys running roughshod through duals and cruising into season-ending tournaments with sky-high goals and expectations, a mass graduation of sorts took place at the end of last season. Those who entered the program as a group suddenly left as a group, too.
They left behind a team full of youth and inexperience that hopes to carve its own path to supremacy. After being picked to finish eighth in the MAC preseason poll, the team must figure out how to learn quickly.
“I’ve been here all summer and I know a lot of the people who have put in work into the finite details,” redshirt junior Noah Forrider said. “I think I’ve made huge gains and I think a lot of other guys could have huge gains. At the end of the day, I don’t think this team is any worse than (past) teams. I think we have the potential to do some things that have never been done here before.”
The man in charge of leading that young group is Joel Greenlee, who will enter his 20th season as the program’s head coach. Greenlee was just a few years removed from an All-American wrestling career at Northern Iowa when he first joined Ohio for the 1997-98 season, a year in which the Bobcats placed ninth in the NCAA tournament.
He has led several teams like this to success, most recently in 2012-13, when six freshmen helped lead Ohio to a fifth-place finish in the MAC tournament, with one of them finishing the year as an All-American.
This year’s team has only one senior, as well as one freshman.
“I think you just have to take a couple steps backward in the way you do things,” Greenlee said. “(The wrestlers who graduated) really knew what to expect in what they were facing. These guys don’t really know. So you just have to explain a little more.”
Lack of experience is certainly a feature of this year’s Ohio team, but it is not universal to all wrestlers. Of the seven Bobcats to reach the national tournament last year, three were freshmen. If Ohio is set up to surprise in 2017, that trio of 125-pound Shakur Laney, 133-pound Cameron Kelly and 165-pound Austin Reese will be crucial in leading that charge.
“I think that we have a lot of young talent that guys don’t know about on our team,” Kelly said.
“Maybe they haven’t peaked yet, or had their moment yet, but I think they will. We have guys that are right there and some new guys stepping in. It’s really exciting. ... I think we’re gonna shock a lot of people this year.”
Kelly, who has a clean bill of health after wrestling half of last season with a torn hip labrum, enters the season as the highest ranked individual on the team, earning a No. 13 ranking on the website InterMat Wrestling’s preseason list. Reese is the only other Bobcat ranked, coming in at No. 19 in his respective weight class.
Beyond the returning core, however, is an array of weight classes that will have new Ohio wrestlers in them for the first time in nearly half a decade, and that’s where the uncertainty really takes form. After graduating mainstays at 157-pound, 174-pound, 184-pound and 197-pound positions, Ohio will look to fresh faces to advance the team’s run of prosperity.
“It’s some big shoes to fill, for sure,” sophomore Kade Kowalski, who will replace Chino in the 157-pound class, said. “(Chino) showed me the intensity you had to have to compete at this level. In high school, I sort of just beat the hell out of everybody and didn’t have anyone to wrestle with on a day-to-day basis. Facing him all last year showed me the improvements I had to make.”
While replacing the departed wrestlers’ in-match talents can be its own difficult task, replacing the influence they had in the locker room and elsewhere can be even more of a challenge. For this year’s Bobcats, the pressure to lead falls on everyone, rather than just those with the most experience.
That could be a quick shift for young wrestlers like Kelly or Reese, who are only a couple of years removed from being vocal leaders on their respective high school teams. For Forrider, however, it has meant taking a more vocal role on the team that he hasn’t shown during his first three years at Ohio.
“I feel like I’ve always sort of led by example as far as work ethic and things like that go,” Forrider said. “Since I’m one of the older people this year, I’ve tried to focus more on communicating more with the team in terms of what they should be doing. I’m trying to be a more vocal leader now that we might lack some of that with the seniors that graduated.”
Every program must go through those transitional times occasionally, and every program handles them differently. It is how they handle those times that determines whether it truly is a transitional period or a rebuilding one.
“I expect the same thing every year, to be honest,” Greenlee said. “Our goal last year was to win a MAC championship, to win the MAC regular season, to win the MAC tournament, and that’s our goal again this year. It’s just time for the younger guys to step up.”
That goal will be a daunting task, as it is every year. While the MAC can be thought of as a second or third tier conference in sports such as football, basketball and baseball, the conference thrives in wrestling, arguably one of the best wrestling conferences in the country outside of the dominant Big Ten.
To excel in the regular season, which begins Nov. 6, as well as tournament play this year, Ohio will need to find a way to compete with top-five ranked Missouri, led by two-time national champion J’den Cox. Two other top 25 teams from the MAC, Northern Iowa and Central Michigan, will come to Athens to wrestle the Bobcats this season.
Greenlee’s goal of winning the conference is a lofty one, but if it is one they fall short of, don’t expect the team to use youth as an excuse.
“Cody, Phil, Sparty … those guys were young at one point too,” Greenlee said. “And we were pretty good then.”