Going from a small town to Ohio State has its pros and cons.
On the bright side, the massive campus with more than 61,000 people holds almost limitless possibilities.
Whatever major, class, club or social group one wants to find is probably available if you know where to look.
There’s the potential to get lost, but also the possibility of great reward for finding one’s best path, be it academically or socially.
This is especially true of Ohio State athletics, a 36-sport behemoth with national name recognition that offers a huge platform for those who find success on the fields, courts, mats, etc. of the Big Ten and beyond.
Of course, success is also harder to obtain when competing at the highest level of college sports, something Kaleb Romero has learned the hard way over the past three years.
After redshirting his first year on campus, the Mechanicsburg High School graduate went 11-6 last season, including 3-5 in dual meets and 2-3 in the Big Ten.
As a sophomore this season, Romero has made a leap, notching a 15-4 mark overall so far. That includes a 9-2 dual-match record and a 5-2 mark in the Big Ten.
He’s ranked No. 7 at his weight by FloWrestling and has victories over eight ranked foes.
“I’m feeling pretty good about this season so far,” he said. “I feel like I’m finally showing the skills and just showing my ability of what I’m able to do. Last year, I didn’t really paint a good picture of that. I was dealing with a lot of things, and this year I’m just back on track and wrestling how I want to wrestle.”
Finding a home at 174 pounds has helped, as has building on the lessons of failure that are sometimes elusive for an athlete such as Romero who knew almost nothing but domination at previous levels.
“It’s amazing: You can compete your whole life and not really understand how to compete,” Ohio State wrestling coach Tom Ryan said. “There’s competing and then there’s fighting for every morsel. There’s a learning of how to truly compete, and sometimes when you’re just that much more dominant than everyone, you think you know how to compete, but you really don’t know yet.
“You’ve got a big fish from a small town in Ohio that’s crushed everybody and then, hello, meet this fish. He’s a tough dude, too. The more big fish you get to fight, the better chance you have at figuring out how to really compete and win matches, and I think that’s been the case for Romero as well.”
>>FLASHBACK: Romero commits to Ohio State
Many Ohio State athletes achieve much in high school, but Romero’s accomplishments are still eye-popping.
A star quarterback and defensive back for the Indians, he both threw and ran for over 5,000 yards. He had a hand in more than 100 touchdowns, too, but his winters were even better.
Romero went 202-3 as a wrestler for Mechanicsburg, including back-to-back unbeaten seasons as a junior and a senior.
A four-time individual state champion, he also led the Indians to their first team title in 2017 and was named the state’s Most Outstanding Wrestler in Division III.
>>FLASHBACK: 4th state title a dream come true for Romero
“At this level it’s so intense and so competitive that I believe you’ve got to be healthy and training hard, and his redshirt year he couldn’t (because he was injured), so (last season) he struggled a little bit,” Ryan said. “He didn’t have this massive base, and he didn’t get a lot better because of his injuries.
“It just takes a lot to be elite at this level, and now we’re seeing a guy who’s up a weight, feels strong, not cutting any weight. We knew he was a tremendous athlete and he’s wrestling like the Romero that eventually we expected him to. So we’re really happy with him.”
In addition to wrestling for the Buckeyes, Romero had a chance to walk on to the Ohio State football team but resisted for fear it would be too hard to juggle the responsibilities of the gridiron and the wrestling mat.
Today he appears to have made the right choice, and there is reason to believe Romero is only scratching the surface of what he could do as a wrestler.
“Obviously, it would be awesome to play football for Ohio State, but the bonds and relationships and the impact that this program has made on me not only in wrestling but just in my everyday life, I mean, I never take it for granted,” he said. “It’s pretty awesome.”
As for the pros of coming from a place like Mechaniscburg fewer than 2,000 people call home?
All of those people are behind you.
“I have a very big support system back home, and I’m very grateful for that,” he said. “Because a lot of people before and after every match, win or lose, I’m constantly getting texts, ‘Good job. Keep battling. You’re right there. You’re gonna be an All-American this year.’ Just always supporting and kind of picking me up and it’s awesome. I love everyone from back there and of course I’ll never forget where I came from.”
The next challenge comes Saturday night when Romero and the sixth-ranked Buckeyes travel to No. 2 Penn State. The Big Ten Network will broadcast the final dual meet of the season beginning at 7:30.
Romero is set to take on second-ranked Mark Hall, a senior who is 18-1.
“Obviously that’s a huge match,” Ryan said. “He’ll do as well as he thinks he will. The outcome that he really believes in, that’s what’s going to happen.”
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