CLEVELAND (AP) – When Kyle Snyder stepped into Ohio State’s wrestling room last summer, the reigning Olympic champion took a mental note.
This team, buoyed by a handful of former national champions and invigorated by a pair of talented transfers, looked like it could be unstoppable.
“In August, I believed we could be the greatest team in the history of NCAA wrestling,” Snyder said after the Buckeyes surged to the lead on Day 1 of the NCAA Wrestling Championships. “I still think that, and we’re doing a good job of proving that case right now.”
The Buckeyes, one of just two teams to qualify all 10 wrestlers for the championship tournament, led defending champion Penn State 36-28 1/2 after the first two rounds inside Quicken Loans Arena on Thursday.
They built their lead with bonus-point win after bonus-point win. The Buckeyes combined to go 19-1 overall with six pins, four technical falls and five major decisions.
Former NCAA champions Nathan Tomasello (125 pounds), Myles Martin (184) and Snyder (285) combined for five of those bonus-point victories.
“It’s far from over,” Ohio State coach Tom Ryan said. “A lot of these guys, their goals at the beginning of the year were individual championships and we have nine guys that are moving forward and still in the hunt for a national championship.”
The chase for the team title will continue, too.
The Nittany Lions, who’ve won six of the last seven NCAA titles, beat the Buckeyes in a regular season match in Happy Valley but were runners-up to Ohio State at the Big Ten tournament. They were forced to play catchup early when 133- and 141-pounders Corey Keener and Nick Lee, both making their NCAA tournament debuts, were pinned in their opening-round matches.
Still, Penn State’s five defending NCAA champions – Zain Retherford (149), Jason Nolf (157), Vincenzo Joseph (165), Mark Hall (174) and Bo Nickal (184) – all moved on and earned bonus points to keep the Buckeyes within range.
Retherford, who’s won three national championships and 91 straight matches since his last loss in the 2014 tournament, put on an offensive clinic with a 16-1 win in his first bout and then pinned his way into the quarterfinals by fastening Maryland’s Alfred Bannister to the mat in just 2:29.
Nolf’s been a bonus-point machine in previous postseason tournaments. But he suffered a knee injury on Jan. 28 and has had to adjust to wrestling with a brace covering nearly his entire his right leg.
“(Friday’s) the big day,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said. “These bonus points are really huge in the early rounds. We gotta wrestle.”
Iowa and Michigan are in the hunt as well.
The Hawkeyes, who haven’t won an NCAA championship since 2010, had a powerful opening round but suffered a few casualties in the second and are 1 1/2 points behind Penn State. Three of the Hawkeyes’ nine qualifiers advanced to the quarterfinals and five others are still alive in their respective consolation brackets.
The Wolverines, looking for their first team trophy for a Top 4 finish since 2005, are four points behind Iowa and have five of their eight qualifies through to the quarters.
Meanwhile, other former NCAA champions increased their chances of returning to the top of their respective podiums with wins.
Lehigh’s Darian Cruz (125), Oklahoma State’s Dean Heil (141), Illinois’ Isaiah Martinez (165) and Arizona State’s Jason Tsirtsis all moved into quarterfinal bouts.
Heil and Martinez, like Snyder and Retherford, are going for their third titles. Only 26 wrestlers have won three in NCAA history.
Snyder, already the youngest Olympic and world champion in U.S. history, has taken time away from the team to wrestle internationally. He said he’s relished this final collegiate season and looked forward to rejoining the vaunted lineup every time he’s returned.
“It’s pretty awesome, especially being here in Cleveland,” Snyder said. “I’d say 50 percent of the crowd are Buckeye fans and it’s pretty inspiring watching the other guys on the team.”