Conference battles to determine NCAA lineup
In the sport of wrestling, momentum has the ability to carry an athlete all the way to the NCAA Wrestling Championships.
Just ask the Rutgers wrestling team's D.J. Russo.
The junior heavyweight vaulted himself into the national tournament after placing fourth in the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association conference tournament last year — an event he entered seeded seventh.
"Last year I wasn't even planning on making it to Nationals," Russo said. "That was when I realized that I was on a better level than I thought I was during the season."
Russo went on to win two matches at the national tournament and he looks to make his return to the NCAA's this year after he hits the mat this weekend in the EIWA tournament in Bethlehem, Pa.
Only this year he won't be taking anyone by surprise.
"We are in a spot now where he has a bull's-eye on his back," said head coach Scott Goodale. "He is one of the favorites. He had a good end of the year last season and that set him up for this year."
The Netcong, N.J., native enters this weekend seeded second in the tournament, behind Lehigh's Zach Rey and in front of Navy's Scott Steele. But seeding means nothing when it comes to these three heavy-hitters.
Not one owns a victory of each of the two other nationally ranked grapplers.
Russo lost to Rey twice this season and Rey fell to Steele. After Steele defeated Rey, the Midshipmen traveled to New Brunswick one week later, where Russo promptly dropped Steele in late January by a 7-6 score.
Broken down into plain English, Russo must beat Rey or Steele — probably both — in order to become an EIWA champion.
"The three [wrestlers] are all so close and so good, it's about [Russo] believing that he can win," Goodale said. "If he believes it, he can win."
The history between Russo and Rey traces back to high school, when the two faced each other often. Russo wrestled for Lenape Valley High School and Rey, taking time out from blocking for current Knights' running back Joe Martinek, wrestled for Hopatcong.
If the key to defeating the Irish giant from Lehigh is confidence, then Russo has the right attitude.
"I am capable of winning," he said. "I have beaten everyone in this conference, besides [Rey], but I know that I am capable of beating him."
The entire Knights' starting lineup competes this weekend with the chance to punch its tickets to the national tournament in Omaha, Neb. Some grapplers are in a better position than others, but once a wrestler gets on a roll, they are capable of anything.
"For some guys it's all about getting hot at the right time and having it carry through," Goodale said. "In other cases it's about survival. It all depends on who the wrestler is. For us, it's a momentum thing."
Momentum is a factor that Russo can attest to, having upset a handful of wrestlers last year on his way to a national tournament berth.
"If you knock off someone you aren't supposed to beat at EIWA's it definitely carries over to the national tournament, especially if it was someone who is ranked high," he said.
In prior years, trips to the national tournament were few and far between, and often it was only one wrestler representing RU. The tides shifted on the Banks, and the Knights look to take advantage of their conference tournament this weekend to catapult a handful of wrestlers onto the national stage.
"Am I looking for one guy to break through? No, I'm looking for a couple of guys," Goodale said. "Our whole lineup has a great opportunity to break through and earn a trip to the national tournament."