Ohio State freshman star Jesse Mendez (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
Ohio State freshman Jesse Mendez has been working off the same list of goals he wrote when he was 8 years old. The items on it are hyper-ambitious, but Mendez is the type of talent who could make even his loftiest aspirations seem realistic.
The Buckeyes 133-pounder has his sights set on championships and world titles, but he also has one goal that consumes the rest. It drives everything Mendez does and keeps his eyes fixed on developing championship habits over compiling results.
Mindset is an asset for Mendez, and it needs to be as he tempers a hot opening weekend at the Michigan State Open, where he beat Utah Valley's then-No. 19 Hayden Drury and fifth-ranked Illinois All-American Lucas Byrd to cap a 4-0 run and win his first collegiate tournament title.
On the flip side, Mendez is also left to find the lessons in his first loss, a 3-2 decision to No. 19 Sam Latona of Virginia Tech in his dual debut.
"I wrote down a couple goals when I was young," Mendez said. "And I kind of still go by that same list. It was to make as many world teams as I can, win four state titles in high school, win four national titles in college and go undefeated, and then go on to win as many Olympic gold medals as I can and be named the best wrestler of all time."
The list escalates quickly, but the further Mendez goes in his wrestling career, the less outlandish it seems.
The undefeated record is about the only goal that can no longer be obtained after the loss to Latona. Mendez was previously 157-1 at Crown Point High School and became just the 10th wrestler in Indiana history to win four state titles.
Mendez was listed as the No. 4 pound-for-pound recruit in the country and was the headliner of the Buckeyes' top-ranked 2022 class. He was a pupil of former Iowa All-American and four-time Indiana state champ Alex Tsirtsis at Crown Point, so he was trained early in his career to think big.
"I already had some big shoes to follow," Mendez said. "So, I had to set my goals a little bit higher. Setting your goals high is only a good thing. I always had that next step forward."
Those steps forward become more difficult as a true freshman looking to battle the toughest opponents in the nation, but Mendez was clear early in his Ohio State career that was exactly what he wanted. In order to make that arrangement happen, Mendez and classmate Nic Bouzakis had to come to terms on what both wrestlers wanted out of Year 1.
Turns out, Bouzakis was OK presuming a redshirt to develop more behind the scenes and cede the spot at 133 pounds to Mendez, whom Bouzakis beat in the 61-kilogram finals at the U20 World Team Trials.
The thought for 2023-'24 and beyond is that Bouzakis is more likely to stick at or near 133 and Mendez is big enough to move upward in the Buckeyes lineup. So, coach Tom Ryan is giving Mendez what he so badly wanted when he arrived on campus, which was to compete for NCAA titles right away.
"Jesse's in this for the long haul," Ryan said. "Jesse might wrestle until 2032 or 2036. Who knows? He wants to make world and Olympic teams, and he just has a really good perspective. He's got a really big vision for his life, and this is just part of the process.
"It's just about getting better. He's got all the intangibles. If we listed out the traits of all the really, really great ones, I mean, he has those traits, so you feel really good about his development."
Mendez's development since arriving at Ohio State includes a 30 percent jump in his strength numbers, even as he worked his way down to 133 pounds. He also said he made noticeable jumps in his wrestling in his work in the Buckeyes' practice room with Bouzakis and assistant coaches J Jaggers and Logan Stieber.
Mendez put in a ton of work on bottom and needed all of it against Byrd, a two-time All-American with a tough top game he hoped to ride to victory in the Michigan State Open finals. But Mendez busted loose late in the third period to tie the match at 1-1 and then scored the winning takedown.
He summoned his strength and bottom work, but as much as anything, Mendez stayed calm, focused and purposeful with a match on the line. That's something Ryan sees that could help his prized freshman continue to separate from the pack.
When the pressure is on, Ryan says Mendez is an "ultra competitor."
"All these guys are competitive," Ryan said. "If you're wrestling in the Big Ten, you're competitive, but there's something about some of them, that they're just a notch apart from a from a deeply competitive standpoint. I see that in Jesse.
"He wants to win so badly. He hates losing. We saw that last weekend. But we also saw a sense of incredible emotional control and calm. Jesse has that awareness to really quarterback his matches and stay aggressive, but he's a very, very good decision-maker. That's not an easy thing to teach a young guy."
Mendez's freshman season will be full of lessons, peaks and valleys, not unlike his first two weeks on the job. But he and the Ohio State coaching staff have bought into his ability to navigate the challenges with a fair shot to make one of his big goals happen.
Now, the freshman Ryan calls "wildly coachable" has to keep taking the coaching, getting stronger and making optimal in-match decisions. Do that, and he firmly believes he's got a shot to win it all.
"I felt like I was ready," Mendez said. "I felt like I could be a top guy at 133. I felt like I could win a national title, so I just kind of told the coaches I want to go in and I want to be the guy off the bat."