Streaks collide in conference showdown
The Rutgers wrestling team has not lost since Dec. 12, 2009, and Lehigh has a 35-game winning streak against the Scarlet Knights.
Something has to give.
The newly ranked No. 23 Knights (16-4-1, 5-1) head into the little town of Bethlehem, Pa., Saturday afternoon for a conference showdown with the No. 7 Mountain Hawks (11-3-1, 1-0-1).
RU looks to reach lucky number 13 in its historic unbeaten streak that stood tall against the likes of Michigan St. and then-No. 23 Virginia.
But Lehigh is a completely different animal.
"This is the match of the year for us," said head coach Scott Goodale. "It's an unbelievable atmosphere [at the Stabler Arena] and they have some of the most loyal fans in the country. It's a hard challenge for us, but a good challenge."
Boasting wrestlers from top to bottom — and almost everywhere in between — in the national rankings, Lehigh brings a balanced attack that tests the Knights at every turn.
"They don't have an All-American, but from a dual meet standpoint, from a total team balance, Lehigh has it," Goodale said.
For the past two years, Lehigh has been the cream of the crop in the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association, a point evident by the dominating 27-6 performance it put on in New Brunswick last season.
The program — led by second-year head coach Pat Santoro — competes at the level Goodale hopes is not far down the road for RU.
"They aren't far away from becoming a signature program and that's where we want to be," said the third-year coach. "Not to put them on a pedestal, but they have a national ranking [of seven]. It's consistency and they have done it for two straight years now."
The bout that headlines tomorrow's bill is the heavyweight matchup between No. 9 D.J. Russo of RU and No. 5 Zach Rey.
For the second time in his career, the EIWA named Russo Wrestler of the Week after two solid wins over Jack Danilkowicz of Virginia and No. 6 Scott Steele from Navy. The win over Steele comes just one week after the Midshipman defeated Rey the previous week.
However, Rey had the upper hand on Russo during winter break when the two met in the Quarterfinals of the Midlands Tournament.
Russo lost by a 7-2 decision.
"Steele is a lot closer to my body weight and people in my own weight I tend to have a better time with," he said. "It's a little harder to figure out a strategy against someone who is bigger than me [like Rey]. They tend to wrestle slower and I don't do real well in slow paced matches. I'm going to have to wrestle smart."
Since the Russo-Rey tilt does not come until the end of the match, for it to have a relevant impact on the dual meet many RU grapplers have to win matches that — on paper — they are the underdogs.
"We are going to have to win a couple matches that we aren't supposed to — on paper," Russo said. "And that happens all the time in this sport. I have faith in every single person in this lineup that they can knock off a ranked guy. We are that good."
One wrestler who can certainly get the ball rolling early for the Knights is sophomore Trevor Melde.
At the Midlands, Melde upset Lehigh's Seth Ciasulli in the round of 16 in the 141-pound bracket by an 8-6 decision.
The DePaul Catholic product had a roller coaster-type weekend, being called for a defensive pin in his match against Virginia and then bouncing back to score a major decision in the win over Navy.
"I had to put [the pin] behind me right away and get back in the right mindset," he said. "It was a questionable call, but you can't keep thinking about it."
Melde holds a 21-6 individual mark and is 15-3 in dual meets.
"[Melde] just has to finish," Goodale said. "When he doesn't finish it costs himself major decisions, and [against Virginia] it cost him the entire match. You've got to finish and he did against Navy."
Whether it is Melde who sparks the Knights, someone has got to make a statement early and then the rest of the lineup will follow suit.
"When there is a big win and the ball gets rolling, it's contagious," Goodale said. "If we can get that going, we will have an opportunity. We certainly believe we can do it. There are a bunch of guys in that [locker] room that know we can do it and that's more than half the battle."