Jake Wentzel (left) and Carson Kharchla (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
On Sunday afternoon, the #7 Ohio State will host the #22 Pittsburgh Panthers in yet another challenging out-of-conference dual for the Buckeyes. In the first month-plus of the year, Ohio State has done battle with three ranked ACC opponents. Thus far, they have come out unscathed with wins over #9 Virginia Tech (17-13) and #20 North Carolina (23-12).
While the Buckeyes have frequently wrestled Virginia Tech, it seems like the right time to plant the seeds for an ongoing rivalry with Pittsburgh. Only about 160 miles separate the two school's and each has reminders of the other's home state. Three Pennsylvania natives are expected to be in Ohio State's starting lineup Sunday, including one (Ethan Smith - 174 lbs) from Pittsburgh's backyard. Additionally, two of the Buckeyes Class of 2023 recruits are from Western Pennsylvania, one of the most fertile recruiting grounds in the nation. On the Pittsburgh bench is volunteer assistant Luke Pletcher, a two-time NCAA All-American for the Buckeyes, who graduated in 2020. The Panthers also have an Ohio State transfer expected to start, but we'll get to him later.
The spotlight bout for this dual will come at 165 lbs as Ohio State's Carson Kharchla will face a stern test from returning NCAA runner-up Jake Wentzel.
Kharchla comes into this meeting fresh off a third-place finish at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational. His bracket was one of the deepest in the tournament and contained two of the top-four wrestlers in the country. Kharchla's only loss of the event came to 2021 NCAA champion Shane Griffith (Stanford), the wrestler that downed Wentzel in the national finals, 6-2. Kharchla was able to get an early takedown on Griffith, but it wasn't enough to hold up, as the Cardinal fought back for a 5-4 win. In Vegas, Kharchla picked up notable wins over #10 Julian Ramirez x2 (Cornell) and #16 Phil Conigliaro (Harvard).
A two-time Ohio state champion and a Junior National freestyle champ, Kharchla was considered one of the top recruits in the high school class of 2019. He redshirted during his initial year in Columbus and amassed an impressive 16-0 record. Hopes were high for Kharchla heading into the 2021 season; however, he suffered a knee injury that ended his season before it started.
Kharchla has generally seen no lingering effects from his knee injury and compiled a 7-0 record, prior to Vegas. Now at 12-1 and ranked eighth in the country, Kharchla has shown he can compete against the best 165 lbs has to offer and could be a title threat this season. Before turning his full attention to the brutal Big Ten schedule, Kharchla has a unique challenge from Wentzel.
Typically Kharchla does his damage with an impressive array of attacks from his feet. At this point, his mat wrestling is not on the same level as his neutral offense. Wentzel is a bit of the opposite. He is brutal from the top position and is capable of getting a point from riding time on almost anyone in the country. The Panther senior can also score with a shoulder-ripping powerhalf. Whose strength will prevail?
Wentzel comes into Columbus sporting a 3-1 record this season. His lone loss came to #28 Brian Meyer, during the Panther's uncharacteristically down performance against Lehigh. Not only is Wentzel good on the mat, but he's also stingy defensively. The four points Meyer scored in his 4-3 win over Wentzel, represents the highest scoring match he's been involved with this season.
Last year, Wentzel went 13-2 and captured his second consecutive ACC crown, which resulted in the #3 seed at the NCAA Championships. Wentzel tore through a tough 165 lb bracket, that included a 4-2 win over Kharchla's teammate, Ethan Smith, in the national semifinals.
This match represents a significant step up in competition for Wentzel. Meyer is the only ranked opponent that he has faced thus far. The loss to Meyer dropped the Pitt vet in the rankings and he currently sits right behind Kharchla at #9.
The rest of the card
125 - #25 Gage Curry (Pittsburgh) vs. #14 Malik Heinselman (Ohio State)
Graduate transfer Gage Curry returned to his hometown to finish his collegiate career. Curry qualified for the NCAA Championships on four occasions while competing for American University. Malik Heinselman is off to his best start despite suffering an upset loss in the quarterfinals at Vegas. Heinselman's 5-2 win over Virginia Tech All-American Sam Latona, helped set the tone for a tense dual between top-ten teams.
133 - #6 Micky Phillipi (Pittsburgh) vs. Dylan Koontz (Ohio State)
The two-time ACC champion, is one of Pittsburgh's most dangerous grapplers. He is adept defensively and is an excellent scrambler. Phillipi is another Panther wrestler capable of blowing the match open from the top position. Koontz is coming off a 1-2 showing at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational. He did push #15 Chance Rich (CSU Bakersfield) to sudden victory, before giving up a match-deciding takedown. Koontz has been the victim of a demanding schedule and has already dropped matches to three top-15 opponents.
141 - #16 Cole Matthews (Pittsburgh) vs. #24 Dylan D'Emilio (Ohio State)
Expect to see one of the most up-for-grabs matches of this dual here at 141 lbs. Pittsburgh is expected to send out Cole Matthews, a two-time NCAA qualifier. Matthews missed the first couple weeks of competition, but returned to pick up dual wins over Lehigh and Maryland during his most recent outing. D'Emilio sports a 13-3 record, which features a tournament title at the Ohio Intercollegiate Open and a 5-1 performance at the Michigan State Open. Perhaps D'Emilio's best sign of things to come, was a 3-2 loss to three-time NCAA All-American Chad Red Jr. (Nebraska) in Vegas.
149 - Luke Kemerer/Dan Mancini (Pittsburgh) vs. #2 Sammy Sasso (Ohio State)
Pittsburgh sent out Luke Kemerer and Dan Mancini during their four duals this season. Mancini got the first two and went winless, while Kemerer split the most recent meets. Whoever Pitt head coach Keith Gavin sends out, is likely to have their hands full with 2021 NCAA runner-up Sammy Sasso. Sasso looks to get back on the winning track after suffering his first loss of the year in the Vegas finals to two-time NCAA champion Yianni Diakomihalis (Cornell). The 2021 Big Ten champion will look to tack on bonus points here, something he's done in â…” of his bouts this season.
157 - #30 Elijah Cleary (Pittsburgh) vs. #26 Bryce Hepner (Ohio State)
Pittsburgh's 157 lber will be a familiar face to the Ohio State bench. Elijah Cleary is a graduate transfer from Ohio State, who competed in the Big Ten Championships twice for the Buckeyes. Cleary has always been solid, but is still seeking his first trip to the national tournament. His transition to Pitt has been smooth, as he is 3-1, with his only loss coming to #10 Josh Humphreys (Lehigh). Ohio State counters with freshman Bryce Hepner, who is 11-4 this season. Expect this to be a tentative low-scoring affair as both of these two are likely familiar with the other's style and tendencies.
174 - Hunter Kernan (Pittsburgh) vs. #6 Ethan Smith (Ohio State)
Hunter Kernan has been a nice development for the Panthers this season. Coming into the year, Kernan had only seen action in three dual meets and had a 14-10 career record. He grabbed ahold of the 174 lb spot by winning the Clarion Open the first week of the year, then his first two duals. Now Kernan's looking to snap a two-match dual losing streak and he'll do so against a formidable opponent, 2021 NCAA fifth-place finisher, Ethan Smith. So far in 2021-22, Smith has a pair of losses; however, they were both two-point defeats to #3 and #4 wrestlers in the country. He is as steady as they come and is fresh off a runner-up finish in Vegas.
184 - #31 Gregg Harvey/James Lledo (Pittsburgh) vs. #10 Kaleb Romero (Ohio State)
So far, Pittsburgh has gone between Gregg Harvey and James Lledo at 184 lbs. Harvey's only action of the year resulted in a 5-2 win during the Panthers dual with Lehigh. Lledo has gone 10-5, but is still seeking his first win in dual competition. Last week, at the CKLV Invitational, Kaleb Romero made his season debut and his first career appearance at 184 lbs. The new weight proved to be a non-factor as Romero grinded his way to a title with decision wins in his final three matches. For the title, he downed All-American and four-time Vegas placer, Taylor Venz (Nebraska).
197 - #2 Nino Bonaccorsi (Pittsburgh) vs. #21 Gavin Hoffman (Ohio State)
The second of two returning NCAA finalists for Pittsburgh is Nino Bonaccorsi. Nino isn't your typical 197 lber. He is a high-volume shooter that is always looking for an opening. Bonaccorsi's collegiate season was delayed as he earned a spot on the U23 world team and traveled to Serbia for the competition. The second-ranked Panther has put up double-digits in both of his 2021-22 matches. His opponent will be Gavin Hoffman. A highly regarded recruit out of Pennsylvania, Hoffman is starting to show the promise he flashed in high school. In Vegas, Hoffman started with a huge win over Tanner Sloan (South Dakota State), but a deep bracket got the best of him and he lost his next two bouts to top-eight finishers.
285 - #31 Jake Slinger (Pittsburgh) vs. #13 Tate Orndorff (Ohio State)
Twice Jake Slinger has taken the mat for Pittsburgh this season, with the match hanging in the balance, and both times he's come through with a pin. Not only has Slinger been able to end matches via fall, but he's also come through in tight matches. In his most recent bout, Slinger prevailed over a ranked opponent (Zach Schrader - Maryland) in sudden victory. Hoping that it doesn't come down to extra time is 2021 NCAA eighth-place finisher, Tate Orndorff. Recently, Orndorff placed fourth in Vegas, which marked the third time in his career he was top-four at that meatgrinder of a tournament. Orndoff came up big himself in the Buckeyes dual with Virginia Tech. His 3-2 win over Nathan Traxler sealed the deal for his team.