Rutgers gears up 10 wrestlers for EIWA Tournament
The experience level is alarmingly low. Of the 10 Rutgers wrestlers competing at this weekend's Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association Tournament in Philadelphia, only three have been there before.
The expectations for the Scarlet Knights, whether experienced or inexperienced, are as high as they have ever been.
"A lot of people have different expectations [than last year], which is a good thing," said assistant coach John Leonardis. "We have higher expectations of ourselves, we have a young team but we expect to compete at every weight."
After a disappointing 11th place finish in last year's EIWA Tournament, the Knights expect to not only top last year's mark, but to finally establish themselves as one of the elite teams in their conference.
Their third place finish out of the 14 teams in their league over the regular season is already a vast improvement over last year and shows that the Knights' lofty goals are not unfounded.
"The one thing about this tournament is that you never know what's going to happen," said head coach Scott Goodale. "You never know who's going to get caught or pinned. There are so many crazy things that will take place on Saturday and Sunday. You just have to go out there and wrestle, keep yourself in the game, give yourself an opportunity to win matches and just keep advancing."
Individually, the Knights put themselves in a good position to have as many as six wrestlers qualifying for the national tournament this weekend.
They are coming into the tournament with three nationally ranked wrestlers: 141 lbs. freshman Trevor Melde, 165 lbs. senior Matt Pletcher and 157 lbs. freshman Scott Winston.
In addition to those three, the Knights have three other wrestlers who have beaten ranked opponents this year in 174 lbs. senior Mike Whalen, 125 lbs. freshman Matt Fusco and sophomore heavyweight DJ Russo.
Russo ended the season on a tear that saw him single-handedly secure victories for his team with pinfalls in the final bouts against American and Navy. He is hoping to build on that momentum in Philadelphia.
"I think DJ Russo can win the tournament," Leonardis said. "I may be biased because I'm an upper-weight guy and I wrestle with DJ, but I've seen DJ when he's at his best and I think he can wrestle with anybody. It's a matter of how he feels, and he feels confident and healthy and when he does that, he has the ability to beat anybody."
While a national tournament bid may not be a realistic goal for every RU wrestler in this weekend's tournament, the coaching staff fully expects an improvement in nearly every weight class.
"We finished 11th last year as a team, but I think that what was most disappointing is that we only had three guys wrestling in day two," Leonardis said. "We want to have 10 guys wrestling in day two and we want to finish a lot higher than 11th place. We expect our younger guys to go out there with a lot more intensity and go out and step on the mat like they should win regardless of experience."