Coaches, wrestlers not shying away from goals

CLEVELAND — Ohio State heavyweight Kyle Snyder says his Big Ten tournament champion Buckeyes are the team to beat at the 2018 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships.

Cael Sanderson, coach of two-time defending NCAA champion Penn State, basically said, “We’ll see.”

A select group of wrestlers and coaches addressed the media Wednesday in Quicken Loans Arena in advance of day one of the tournament today. None of them were terribly shy about sharing their opinions.

“Both teams are really good. Penn State won it last year and wrestled really well. Five champions and all of them are returning. So, obviously they have the firepower to compete at a really high level,” said Snyder, who is a three-time All-American, two-time NCAA champion, world and Olympic champion. “But I would say that we are the favorite. I think just looking at the seeds, looking at our performance from last week, if everyone competes at the best of their ability, the best that they can, then I think it’s our tournament to lose.”

Sanderson’s message remained the same as always.

His team has to pile up points in individual matches and the team race will take care of itself. The Nittany Lions, who have won six of the last seven NCAA championships, have done it by advancing large numbers of wrestlers through the brackets while accumulating copious amounts of bonus points.

“Regardless of where we are and how we got to this point again it comes back to the same idea of we’ve got nine kids in the tournament. They can score points,” Sanderson said. “Regardless of what it took or why we’re here, injuries or no injuries, right, this isn’t who is the healthiest nationals, this is the national wrestling championship. If you want to win you’ve got to go score the most points.”

Much like his coach, Nittany Lion 149-pounder Zain Retherford, a three-time All-American and the champion the previous two seasons, said the Lions need to take care of their individual battles and the rest will take care of itself.

“I think our guys are relaxed and ready to compete. So, I think it will be a fun tournament. But it’s no different than the way we’ve competed all year long,” Retherford said. “It’s just another opportunity that we’re all kind of grateful for and it will all, the way we compete, if we compete hard, the tournament will take care of itself. So just looking forward to (seeing) how it plays out.”

Ohio State coach Tom Ryan wouldn’t go as far as Snyder and call his team the favorites, but he did say his team is ready.

“Penn State has a tremendous team this year, as does Missouri and many others here. When you look at the last competition that occurred, the Big Tens, if we can wrestle like that and our guys can compete to that level, we certainly have a shot,” Ryan said. “So I don’t guarantee anything other than I believe my team is ready. I like where they are physically and mentally. They care about each other, and we’re ready to wrestle. So we’ll see Saturday night how this all shakes out.”

As Ryan said, there are several other teams capable of pushing Penn State and Ohio State. Missouri leads a second group that would include Michigan, Lehigh, Oklahoma State and Virginia Tech.

Mizzou coach Brian Smith said his team would be embracing the role of the underdog when asked if the Tigers should be considered among the favorites.

“You guys won’t, but that’s all right. We’ve been the underdogs all year, so we’ll keep playing that,” Smith said.

While Missouri and others could contend if things go perfect, the two teams with the most firepower are Penn State and Ohio State. Ryan said that was the case before the season and it remains that way.

“Preseason, you look at returning All-Americans, returning national champions. The preseason poll would say that two teams seem to be a little bit better than the other teams. I think to some degree that’s held. The fact that we have the team that we have and we know we’re in a serious dogfight speaks volumes to the team that Cael has,” Ryan said. “I believe that there’s a good chance that on Saturday night the second-place team will be the best second-place team to ever wrestle in the national tournament. That’s the kind of ability that some of these teams have here. Penn State being that team. So, Cael’s been good for the sport. Everyone in life needs that individual or that group that brings them to another level. And I think that Penn State has been that recently.”

Snyder echoed his coach’s thought on the potential historical nature of this year’s team race.

“I think these two teams, Ohio State and Penn State, this is the greatest team race there ever has been in the history of the NCAA. I truly believe that. I thought it was going to be that way in the season, and it’s played out that way. So that’s going to make it really exciting and we all know that it’s such a great opportunity at Ohio State,” Snyder said. “But we definitely know we’re facing a great team in Penn State, and we need to be at the very highest of our level to compete with them and win this title, which is definitely our plan.”