Wrestling: NCAA Tournament Preview

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A year after setting a program record for qualifying six student-athletes in the 2014 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, Ohio wrestling matched the mark again for the 2015 national tournament.

Tywan Claxton, Sparty Chino, Harrison Hightower, Cody Walters and Phil Wellington, made the trip to Oklahoma City a season ago and they are all returning to the big dance once again, this time in St. Louis.

Andrew Romanchik, a 184-pounder, is the new addition to the group as the sixth wrestler, a year after heavyweight Jeremy Johnson was named an All-American in his fifth and final season as a Bobcat.

On Thursday, around 20,000 will occupy the Scottrade Center for the first of three days of competition. The Bobcats are aiming to still be competing Saturday night, when the event concludes.

Chino, 157 pounds, Walters, 174, and Wellington, 197, are all redshirt juniors, and have qualified in three consecutive seasons. Claxton, 149, and Hightower, 165, make up a duo of seniors that have qualified for the second straight year. Romanchik, also a redshirt junior, is making his first appearance at the tournament.

Coincidentally, the ‘Cats qualified wrestlers at consecutive weights from 149 to 197. It makes perfect sense to Ohio head coach Joel Greenlee, who chalks it up to his grapplers reaping the benefits of competing with each other in the practice room.

“Cody Walters is obviously one of the best guys on our team,” Greenlee said. “He is going to make the guy above him and the guy below him better … Once you have one guy that is doing well, he makes everyone better.” For Walters, that’s Hightower (below) and Romanchik (above). Each qualifier is able to wrestle with at least one other qualifier in the Bobcats’ wrestling room.

With a number of athletes returning to nationals, Ohio head coach Joel Greenlee said his wrestler have gone “from being the hunter to the hunted.”

In years passed the Bobcat grapplers might have been unknowns on wrestling’s biggest stage, but this year, their opponents are certain to know all about them – and Greenlee said that gives them another reason on a long list of reasons to work harder.

At 30-1, Walters highlights the group of Bobcat wrestlers in St. Louis. At the 2015 Mid-American Conference Championships he captured his third-straight MAC title at 174 pounds. He is looking to reclaim All-American honors after he did so in 2013, but failed to repeat as a sophomore.

“Once you accomplish something like that you only expect to do it again, so to come up short last year and get upset in the first round I was honestly disgusted with myself,” Walters said.

Now he uses that disappointment to fuel him.

When seeds and brackets were announced March 11, the fourth-ranked 174-pounder was awarded just the No. 9 seed in his bracket. Interestingly enough, he is slotted behind Missouri’s John Eblen, a No. 4 seed, and a wrestler Walters defeated in the MAC finals.

Still, Walters doesn’t take much interest in his seeding.

“My plan and goal has been to win a national title, so to be a national champion you have to beat everyone anyway so I didn’t care where I was at, as long as I am in that bracket,” he said.

Walters’ first round opponent is George Pickett a Cornell Big Red that sports a 28-9 record. Ohio’s 174-pounder has gotten a few tips about Pickett from Chino, who wrestled the Cornell grappler two seasons ago at 157 pounds.

Chino is unseeded in the tournament, and will take on The Citadel’s Aaron Walker, the No. 16 seed. The Bobcat middleweight is feeling as prepared as ever heading into his third NCAA tournament. He knows he will be used to the big stage, and the bright lights and big crowd that come with it. His focus is 100 percent on wrestling this time around.

Hightower shares Chino’s sentiment, and the redshirt senior is looking to cap of his career at Ohio at “the biggest show in wrestling.”

After a winless showing at the 2014 tournament, Hightower, this year’s 16th seed at 165, is more focused and ready for a deep run, which starts in a matchup with North Carolina State’s Max Rohskopf.

Also participating in his final tournament is Claxton. Ohio’s 149-pounder grabbed a No. 11 seed with a 27-5 record. In another Ohio matchup with a wrestler from The Citadel, Claxton drew Matthew Frisch in round one.

Besides Walters, the only Bobcat with more than one national tournament win is Phil Wellington, who won two matches in 2013. Last season as a No. 8 seed he went winless while dealing with a torn meniscus in his knee. This year however, he is feeling as healthy as ever (in 2013 he also dealt with a displaced AC in his shoulder).

Wellington’s first round bout is with Eastern Michigan’s Anthony Abro. Welligton beat Abro 6-2 in Ohio’s dual with the Eagles this season.

Unlike his five teammates who qualified at the MAC tournament, Romanchik had to wait to learn his fate on March 11, when he landed an at-large bid.

At the beginning of the 2014-15 campaign, no one could have predicted that Romanchik would become a qualifier at 184 pounds, especially Romachik and Chino. The duo are best friends and were actually battling for the 157 spot to start the year.

But with uncertainty at 184 when dual meets were sets to start Greenlee turned to Romanchik, and since making the switch in December he has gone 15-6 at his new weight.

“Going from ‘57 to ‘84, we didn’t know what to expect,” Chino said. “I don’t think anyone would have expected a ‘57-pounder to go out there and dominate some kids like he did … Hopefully he can make the best of the opportunity and beat some guys he’s not supposed to beat and make his way onto the podium.”

Romanchik is happy to have the opportunity to do just that.

“Every year big seeds go down to unseeded guys,” he said. “That’s why am excited about being there. Once you are there it is all about heart and how badly you want to get it done.”

He will take on No. 7 seed Nathaniel Brown of Lehigh in the opening round.

Greenlee like his team’s chances, and thinks all the opening rounds matches are winnable for the Green and White.

He’s just ready for the ‘Cats to make some noise.

“I think we need to go in there and drop the hammer to be honest,” he said. “We went into the tournament when [most] these guys were freshmen and we were excited. Everyone won matches and did well. Last year we went to the tournament and we didn’t get the results that we wanted. We fell short of our expectations a little bit … Sometimes you have to have a little disappointment to figure what it’s all about and I don’t think our guys will let it happen to them again.

When asked about his expectations, Chino was short and confident. The Bobcats “don’t expect anything but leaving with a couple of All-American plaques.”