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‘Back in the Fight’: Ohio State’s Talented Freshman Class has Visions of Chasing Big Ten and NCAA Titles

Ohio State's Covelli Center (photos courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)


One by one, Ohio State's "Savages" group text grew over the course of the 2022 recruiting cycle. Each new commitment was added to the thread, which pushed coach Tom Ryan and his staff to higher and higher levels of excitement.

The Buckeyes were tactical and detail-oriented throughout the recruiting process, fully understanding just how important this class would be to the program's future.

They made genuine connections with every prospect at the top of their board, yet they still had to work through that all-too-familiar point of powerlessness when the eventual decision was entirely out of their hands.

So, Ryan and his staff didn't hold back as they got that steady diet of good news.

"We're doing backflips in the hallway," Ryan said with a laugh. "Every time we got another one, it was like, 'It's going to come together. It's going to happen.'"

Fortunately for Ryan, it did come together and it did happen, perhaps even better than he could have reasonably expected at the beginning of the cycle.

The end result was the nation's No. 1 recruiting class and a group that features three of the top-five prospects in the country, in Malvern Prep (Pa.) heavyweight Nick Feldman, Wyoming Seminary (Pa.) 133-pounder Nic Bouzakis and Crown Point (Ind.) 141-pounder Jesse Mendez. MatScouts ranked Feldman No. 1, Mendez No. 4 and Bouzakis No. 5 in its final 2022 big board.

Ohio State also laid claim to No. 22 on the MatScouts list in 184-pounder Luke Geog and No. 51 in 197-pounder Seth Shumate.

The class has a ridiculous amount of talent, but Ryan also views this group as being full of compatible kids who are like-minded and driven toward greatness. The class has all the potential to take Ohio State from a team that was swept by Iowa, Michigan and Penn State last season to one that can become a true Big Ten contender for years to come.

The Buckeyes saw the collection of talent across the country in the '22 class and managed their roster to make a run like this one. Ryan said they competed with 5 ½ scholarships during the 2021-'22 season to save money for just such a recruiting spree, though few saw anything quite like this barrage coming. Ohio State took a calculated risk to take its best shot and was rewarded for it.

"I think there are so many good wrestlers in the country right now, and we happened to get 1-2-3 in the country," Ryan said. "I don't care how good your coaching system is, you need to get talented people who are willing to give so much of themselves in order to make gains. This group gives us that, so we should be back in the fight.

"It was, I guess you could say, a little risky if we didn't get some real horses."

Ohio State DID get some real horses, and they all have big plans for the years ahead.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS

Ohio State's coaching staff; from left, Tom Ryan, Bo Jordan, Logan Stieber, and J Jaggers(photos courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)

Everyone involved in putting this class together has a firm foothold on what it takes to go from backflips over recruiting wins to actual Big Ten titles, so nobody is celebrating anything just yet. One of the first orders of business when the class arrived on campus on June 20 was to immerse the newcomers in basic principles of success at this level.

Most of these kids have lived and breathed a championship lifestyle their entire wrestling careers, but Ryan said the staff will preach expectations versus actions. The desire to win NCAA titles or Olympic gold medals is great, so long as the right work is being done to get them there. That process will be ongoing throughout their Ohio State careers.

"We have constant communication about that," Ryan said. "We start with the fundamentals and believe wisdom ends when you believe you've arrived. A lot of people sign the scholarship and believe they've arrived. You're starting over. You have to do exactly what you did in high school only with a higher rate of tension. It does not get any easier. It needs to be harder.

"It's really important to keep them on edge."

What excites Ryan the most is that he believes the top dogs in this class all walk around with that edge and don't need to learn how to acquire it.

The competitive character is high in Feldman and Bouzakis, who are both set to compete in the U20 World Championships this summer, and with Mendez, a four-time Indiana state champ who lost to Bouzakis in the U20 World Team Trials finals. All three of them are clinical in their approaches to get better and they know how to check their egos at the door.

Mendez was the last of that trio to commit, and the Buckeyes got to the finish line, in part, because of the competition in the room. Just as they squared off in the U20's, Bouzakis and Mendez have a chance to be elite training partners for each other, which Ryan said was part of the appeal to Mendez.

And as that iron sharpens iron, they have all subscribed to the belief that they can band together and help lift Ohio State to new heights.

"We all want it," Bouzakis said. "Not one of those kids is just coming to Ohio State to have a good time. We're all here for one purpose, and that's just to be the best Big Ten wrestling school in the next three, four, and five years. We want to own the wrestling world for the next 4-5 years."

By Feldman's estimation, nobody in college wrestling is going to want success more than this young group of Buckeyes. They're setting goals in the realm of national titles and lifting Ohio State back into the national team title conversation.

This group built a bond around those goals and doing what it takes to reach them.

"I think all the guys coming in, we want to be the best," Feldman said. "We want to be national champs, and we will do whatever it takes to get to that point. We want it more than anybody else wants it, and we'll do whatever it takes to get there. I think that's really special, and it's something I'm excited to be around."

Ryan likes to describe the wrestlers in this class as "self-aware" and willing to do what it takes to be successful, but they're also bound by the same sense of purpose.

They're there to work, sure, but they also know what they want ... which is everything.

"I just feel like it's our time," Bouzakis said. "It's Ohio State's time. I think we're going to take the Big Ten by storm. We're going into NCAAs to just dominate in the next couple of years. I'm just so ready to be part of this, to go in there, start grinding and take what's ours."

SEAL THE DEAL

The top recruit in the Class of 2022 Nick Feldman (photos courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)

The truth was on Ohio State's side in its pursuit of Feldman, who was serious about Navy SEAL training as part of the next phase of his life. And the reality, as Ryan searched and found out, was that the prospect of Feldman adding SEAL prep to high-level wrestling training simply wasn't a compatible venture. That goal did send Ryan down a road to learn about the process and figure out where Ohio State best fits into that picture.

Ryan put in some calls and said he spoke directly with the admiral of the Navy SEALs. He also got Ohio State swimming coach Bill Dorenkott involved to address Feldman's questions about that part of SEAL training. The search for answers started with the admiral, who happened to be a wrestling fan and a friend of one of the Buckeyes' biggest supporters.

"I told him I want the truth on being a SEAL," Ryan said. "I'm not lying to this kid. Is it hard being able to do it from Ohio State? I shared that truth with Nick, and the truth was good for Ohio State. It was good for us. It's just two completely different focuses.

"Our swimming coach promised Nick, 'When the time comes, if you trust me, I'll have you ready for the swim.' It just helped widen a young kid's lens of opportunity. I think going the extra mile and talking to the swim coach went a long way with them."

In terms of Feldman's goal of becoming a Navy SEAL, Ryan wasn't surprised by it at all. At the time Ohio State really started pursuing him, Feldman was a high-level prospect but not quite the aspiring Olympic champ that he is today. But when Ryan and the Ohio State coaches got on a Zoom with Feldman and his family for the first time - something that Ryan insists on doing with top prospects - he said he was blown away.

Feldman had obvious potential on the wrestling mat that has since come to look like a near-limitless ceiling in the 285-pound weight class. Even more impressive, Ryan said, was the way he spoke, carried himself and interacted with his own family. From that call forward, Feldman became THE target for the Buckeyes in this cycle.

"I knew he was it when I talked to him," Ryan said. "He blew us away. We got off that Zoom call, and I talked to the other coaches like, 'Are you kidding me? That's the guy.' We rarely jump like that."

Feldman wasn't quite in that can't-miss category as a sophomore who went 47-3 and won the first of his three straight national prep titles at Malvern Prep. That run came at 195 pounds, but the evidence was there to suggest Feldman could not only keep improving but continue growing into his now-massive 235-pound frame. He won national preps as a junior at 215 pounds and truly became a national recruit as he further ascended to 285 as a senior.

Feldman beat Indiana's Christian Carroll, the top-ranked 220-pounder in the nation at the time, at Who's Number One last fall. He then dominated his way to Ironman, Powerade and Escape the Rock titles and even toppled the second-best heavyweight in the country in New Jersey's Jimmy Mullen with major decision wins at Powerade and Escape the Rock. Feldman made the leap from great to special and committed to the Buckeyes along the way.

"You don't need to be coaching at Ohio State to recognize that his foot speed is ridiculous and his power is unbelievable," Ryan said. "And then we knew his character. As time went on, it became, 'OK, you actually have world champion, Olympic champion potential, and you need to be in a place where you can really harness that talent.'"

A DEEP CONNECTION

Nic Bouzakis after winning his third straight Super 32 title (photos courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)

Ohio State was the first official visit that Bouzakis and his family took, and the whole experience blew them away from start to finish. His relationship with the Buckeyes went all the way back to eighth grade when Ryan said he first identified him as a target of interest, but there was still the matter of "surviving" four more trips to other schools.

The hope, of course, was that a powerful first impression and their long-standing relationship would be enough for Ohio State to emerge as Bouzakis' school of choice. But in terms of strategy, Ryan and his assistants weren't just sitting back, waiting and hoping for the best. They got the family's travel calendar and were sure to not let them drift too far away.

"Touchpoints were critical," Ryan said. "It's not just going to be this one visit. We never let him go too long without experiencing a touch from Ohio State. After every visit, we set things up. We put a plan together that would never allow him to go on too many dates with somebody else before taking us out."

Bouzakis announced his commitment to Ohio State in September, and in doing so he praised Ryan and their common bond to "overcome challenges and persevere in the face of tragedy." That connection was part of the fabric of the relationship that the whole family shared with Ryan because they endured similar tragedies in their lives.

The Bouzakis family lost their youngest son, Greco, when he was just six years old after a three-year battle with a cancerous tumor on his brainstem. Nic and his younger siblings watched their brother fight for his life and found inspiration through his battle, though it forced them all to see tragedy and grow up far quicker than their parents, Troy and Toni, would have liked.

Ryan also lost a son at a very young age when his then-5-year-old, Teague, died without warning of a heart attack at the dinner table.

"I didn't shy from it," Ryan said. "Some people don't know what to say. What do you say to a family with that loss? I know what people said to help me or not help me. I think I had a good sense of that relationship. We connected over that and had some really cool conversations."

Growing up in New York, Ryan also knew of Troy Bouzakis, who was a multi-time state champion and a nationally ranked freshman at Clemson before he suffered a career-ending neck injury, so the connections ran deep with the entire family.

Ryan also loved that the Bouzakis family was all about wrestling and competition, and it reflected in the way they raised their kids.

Nothing was given, everything was earned.

"Nic Bouzakis told me early on, 'We fight for everything in our house. We fight for food. We fight for love,'" Ryan said laughing. "There was this accountability everywhere in that house. It wasn't, 'You're a superstar so we're going to look the other way on things.'"

THE LAST DOMINO

Jesse Mendez at Who's Number One (photos courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)

The blossoming group of young Buckeyes all participated in a big visit weekend in October, which was a small gamble on the part of Ryan and his staff. Instead of directing all their attention at them individually, they brought them all together and they saw a crew that could be greater than the sum of its individual parts.

That collective feeling was palpable for Mendez, whose family also connected with Ohio State assistants J Jagger and Logan Stieber. So, he bought in and the Buckeyes got an incredible finishing touch to its power trio and a group that also includes a wrestler in Geog that Ryan believed was the best 184-pounder in the country.

That's exactly where this Ohio State class aims to be while getting back to challenging for Big Ten and NCAA titles.

Now, comes the hard part: Doing it.

"They wanted to be part of a winning team," Ryan said. "And you look at the college landscape, like, 'This team has these guys and that team has those guys. Those teams are going to be hard to beat. It's going to be hard to beat Penn State with that group.' Mendez wanted to be part of something really special.

"Penn State wanted all these guys, and we got them. It's not easy to go something-and-0 against them. I think the unity and the desire to bring Ohio State to the top - we've been second six times, first once - they want to be first six times. They want to win it together."

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