CLEVELAND — With two sessions remaining in the NCAA wrestling championships and a slim chance at a team title for Ohio State, 141-pound junior Joey McKenna still did all that was asked and more than what was expected of him.
McKenna was brought in via transfer in the offseason to win matches at the lower weights in the postseason and close the gap with perennial powerhouse Penn State.
He has done just that. McKenna went undefeated in the Big Ten and NCAA championships until his loss to Wyoming’s Bryce Meredith in the semifinals Friday and surrendered just five points in that span of three matches.
He then found it tough to get the taste of winning — as a team — out of his mouth.
“My performance has direct implications on the team race, which actually makes me more excited to compete,” McKenna said. “Because not only am I contending for a national title myself but, what I do out on the mat pertains directly to how we’re going to do as a team.”
McKenna picked up two early-round technical-fall decisions by a combined total of 31-1 in the first two round of the tournament and an 8-3 decision win in the quarterfinals before his slim 1-0 semifinals loss.
Stanford, McKenna’s former school, was never in a team race near the level of the NCAA championships during the lightweight’s time there. Any match he wrestled had more individual than team implications. McKenna expressed to his team during a meeting this week that his level of enthusiasm had increased since joining Ohio State. It’s no longer just about him.
Ohio State was left reeling last season after scoring one of the highest second-place point totals at the NCAA championships in history, yet still losing to Penn State. The program turned to a 141-pound transfer from Stanford who was homesick for New Jersey and looking for a change. That weight class was a weakness for both the Buckeyes and the Nittany Lions.
McKenna’s transfer process was not a one-horse race. Among the competition for Ohio State was Penn State and Lehigh. But McKenna said the close-knit culture of the Buckeyes won out in the end. If McKenna had become a Nittany Lion, the national championship could have already been decided.
“I was looking more at top programs, national contending programs,” McKenna said. “But really it was about having the best fit. If I would have went to Penn State it would have been a lock, but here I am and we’re contending right now. It’s a different outlook.”
McKenna had been mostly foreign to raucous environments in dual meets and tournaments before arriving in Columbus. He said he experienced a dual meet in the Schottenstein Center that outclassed any meet he had at Stanford. That environment traveled to the nearby national tournament in Cleveland.
“We were practicing all week in Columbus and I was just like, ‘This feels like a home outing.’ And it really is,” McKenna said. “Fifty percent of the fans it seems like are rooting for the Buckeyes every time we’re out on the mat. It’s just really fun.”
On top of his undefeated performance at the Big Ten tournament and a semifinals run in the national tournament, McKenna also won a close match in a dual meet between Ohio State and Penn State on Feb. 3. Ranked 11th at the time, he upset No. 6 Nick Lee by a 7-6 decision and gave the Buckeyes an early lead they later relinquished.
“[McKenna’s] been a blessing to the team,” Ohio State head coach Tom Ryan said. “He’s a great leader. It was hard to see him lose. He was wrestling extremely well. He ran into someone that was wrestling well, also. Just a great leader for us, and he’s blended into the team extremely well.”
Despite a 19-1 regular-season record, McKenna feels he’s been an underdog for most of the season in a loaded Big Ten conference. He’s also found himself in a star-studded locker room full of accomplished veterans. But it won’t be that way for long.
McKenna will soon take the place of many seniors departing the team, and become the veteran leader.
“Obviously on the team you’ve got big heads like [senior] Kyle [Snyder] and [junior] Myles [Martin] and [redshirt sophomore] Kollin [Moore]. A lot of big shoes to live up to,” McKenna said. “That’s what I’m trying to do right now, just make a place for my name. I’m going to be a senior next year. Only being here one year so far, my second year I want to go ahead and lead the team next year.”
Another reason McKenna said he chose Ohio State was Snyder, whom he knew beforehand through the northeast and international wrestling scene. The bond of the two has grown stronger since his transfer, much like McKenna’s resume.
Snyder was impressed with his teammates both new and old, despite a losing streak that came early in the semifinals.
“We had two close matches that we dropped and then a couple other close,” Snyder said. “Joey was close, Nate and Lee, they go back and forth, and then [Micah Jordan]. So I’m happy with all my teammates. I love them. They’re doing everything they can do, you know. But just stinks that we’re losing right now.”
Ohio State had a championship-caliber team on paper thanks to the addition of McKenna.
On Day Two of the NCAA championships, the Buckeyes entered loud and left quiet. The opposite is true of McKenna’s first season with Ohio State.
“He didn’t say much for a while,” Ryan said. “He just worked really hard. And he earned the respect of his team with his work rather than his words. He’s been a pleasure to have.”