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Ohio State's Ryan copes with a Thursday without NCAAs

Tom Ryan just concluded his 13th season as Ohio State's head wrestling coach (Photo/Sam Janicki, SJanickiPhoto.com)

For the past 33 years, Tom Ryan knew exactly where he would be on Thursday morning in the third week of March.

On the mat at the NCAA Wrestling Championships.

But Thursday, March 19, 2020, was different.

For the first time since 1988, Ryan wasn't on the floor wrestling or coaching at the national tournament.

Instead of waking up in Minneapolis on Thursday morning for the start of the 2020 NCAA tournament, Ryan was back home in Columbus, Ohio.

A week has passed since the NCAAs were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

It was just after noon on Thursday when the Ohio State head coach sat down in his living room to conduct a phone interview with a reporter.

"The first session would have just been starting," Ryan said. "It's hard to believe I am sitting on my couch right now instead of being in an arena packed with people and watching guys chase their dreams. It's very surreal. It's still hard to believe."

Ryan woke up at 5:45 a.m. Thursday, grabbed his two dogs and headed out on a brisk 45-minute walk on a trail near his home.

During that walk, Ryan's mind was racing.

"I was thinking about my seniors, and thinking about the eight guys we had qualified for NCAAs," he said. "And I was thinking about the 330 athletes who earned the right to compete at the national tournament. I really feel bad for all of those people.

"At the same time, I am thinking about people in the hospitals who are battling for their lives. There is a much bigger picture. You keep it all in perspective. That's the reality and we have to remember that. We don't want to put anyone's health at risk."

Ryan also thought about the record crowds expected for the tournament at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

"We would've been on the floor competing in front of 40,000 people," he said. "It was the single greatest opportunity in history to showcase the sport and add new fans. Anthony Holman and the NCAA wrestling committee did a fantastic job with the vision of holding it in a football stadium. It was a huge year for our sport. Viewership is way up on the Big Ten Network. The sport was really booming. We were in the midst of this culminating event at the end of an amazing season and then it doesn't happen."

Tom Ryan coaching against Penn State (Photo/Sam Janicki, SJanickiPhoto.com)

Ryan's first NCAA tournament was in 1988 as a wrestler for Syracuse. He hasn't missed a national tournament since.

"Change is challenging -- plus my wife isn't used to having me around so much," Ryan said with a laugh. "I feel almost lost today. I keep saying this, but it's very surreal. It really is. Anybody in the industry, we love to work. It's hard to believe this is happening."

Ryan had more thoughts during that early morning walk Thursday.

"Every year, you have those amazing moments where the 10 national champions are crowned -- and now we won't have that this year," he said. "You go from that amazing high of somebody achieving something great to being isolated from everything. It's an interesting dynamic right now."

Ryan also thought about the events of a week ago.

"Last Thursday, we were in the middle of practice when I heard NCAAs were canceled," he said. "Someone came in the room and told us the NCAAs were shut down. That was a pretty surreal time as a coach and you could see the disappointment on everyone's faces. Watching eight guys cope with that, it was a tough time. It's not tragic, but it's very disappointing. It's just something obviously you can't plan for."

And then Ryan's thoughts were back with his seniors. He said he felt especially bad for Ohio State seniors Luke Pletcher (141 pounds) and Kollin Moore (197). Both wrestlers had earned No. 1 seeds for the NCAA tournament.

"Luke and Kollin possess such a high level of maturity," Ryan said. "They are men, and they've dealt with this really well under the circumstances. They did everything they could to put themselves into position to be the best wrestler in the country. They were both ranked No. 1 and wrestling their best. They should have no regrets with their preparation. They were both ready to win national titles, but it's still heartbreaking for them."

Luke Pletcher was seeded No. 1 at the NCAAs (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)

Pletcher had been ranked No. 1 for much of the season before falling to Penn State's Nick Lee in a dual meet. Pletcher came back to defeat Lee in the Big Ten finals.

"Luke is the ultimate Buckeye," Ryan said. "He had a lot of other offers before he committed to Ohio State. He had a great career. We pulled his redshirt his first year at 141. He placed high twice at 133 before moving back up to 141 this season. We wanted it so badly for him. He lived the right lifestyle and did everything right. He didn't get the chance to win the national championship, which we all believed he was going to do. That's tough to think about."

Moore had dominated the competition during an unbeaten senior campaign.

"Kollin grew up about 80 minutes from Columbus," Ryan said. "The first time I saw him in the room I knew he was going to be special. His work ethic and commitment were really impressive. He placed third and second at NCAAs. He was going to win it this year, but six days before weigh-ins a virus sweeps across the world and steals his opportunity. It's so unfortunate."

Ryan also has pondered the possibility of athletes being granted another year of eligibility after missing the NCAA tournament.

"It's all very complex," he said. "You're talking about the seniors having another year. What about the underclassmen who lost out on the end of their season? Here is what I hope: whatever the best option is, it should be applied. There has to be some way better than where we are now. It's incomprehensible to end it this way. Give these guys another year. I think about Spencer Lee. He's trying to win four national titles. We have Sammy Sasso, who is a freshman and a guy we believed could win a national title. If you don't wrestle the national tournament, do you make the No. 1 guy the champion? There has to be closure. To move on without closure is wrong. There is going to be no perfect solution."

Ryan said the Big Ten is set to meet in early April and the eligibility issue is on the agenda.

"There is a lot that still needs to be discussed," Ryan said. "The NCAA just lost a billion-dollar event with men's basketball. The NCAA obviously has a lot on its plate right now. I just hope, for wrestling, we can have clarity at some point."

Ryan has plenty on his own plate right now. Not only is he dealing with the NCAA tournament being canceled, the Ohio State campus is shut down, the wrestling room is closed and students are taking online classes.

In addition to the athletes on the Ohio State team, there are a number of top Senior-level freestyle wrestlers at the Ohio Regional Training Center in Columbus. Among them is two-time world champion and Olympic medalist J'den Cox.

Tom Ryan coaching with assistant J Jaggers at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)

The Olympic Trials were scheduled for early April, but were postponed and may not be held until late May.

"We have a number of guys training for the Olympic Trials and the Olympics," Ryan said. "God willing, we will be able to move forward and have an Olympic Games. But the health of our population is the most important thing. We need to take care of that situation before we can do anything else."

Ryan's Ohio State teams have consistently battled Penn State and Iowa for Big Ten and NCAA supremacy. Ryan's alma mater, Iowa, was ranked No. 1, won the Big Ten tournament and would have been heavily favored to win NCAAs this week.

"You really feel bad for a team like Iowa," Ryan said. "(Iowa coach) Tom Brands had a great team and they were in the driver's seat. And Spencer Lee was on course to win four titles -- he was probably the most likely wrestler to win a national title this week. That's tough to see them miss out on the opportunity. I can't imagine what Tom is experiencing. It's tough -- I really feel for him."

Ryan envisions the NCAA bringing the national tournament back to venues like the one in Minneapolis.

"The sport was going to experience something incredibly unique," he said. "It's difficult that we are going to miss out on that. It was a brilliant move to put it in a football stadium. Hopefully, they will do that again.

Ryan, who has a strong faith, understands the impact this situation has had on people in wrestling.

"I tell anyone who is struggling with it to make sure and talk to somebody," he said. "It's very therapeutic and helpful to let someone know how you are feeling. If you're really hurting, just talk about it and trust people. This is a really tough situation for everyone and we all need to lean on each other for support."

Ryan said the magnitude of what happened hasn't fully sunk in.

"It's still difficult to process," he said. "Some of these guys have worked their whole lives to achieve these goals and dreams. I've never had a season canceled until now. As much as you try to comprehend and understand what our athletes are feeling, you really can't. It's just heartbreaking -- it really is."

Craig Sesker has written about wrestling for more than three decades. He's covered three Olympic Games and is a two-time national wrestling writer of the year.

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