No All-Americans cues bittersweet ending
The season came to a close for the final seven members of the Rutgers wrestling team this weekend at the 80th NCAA Championships in Omaha, Neb. And although the Scarlet Knights sent the most wrestlers to nationals since 1960, their quest to bring home an All-American fell short.
"I'm a little disappointed we didn't bring home an All-American, but that's not on any one of our wrestlers, they all did a great job," said head coach Scott Goodale. "Something we learned as a coaching staff is that it's all about being tough. We can compete from a technical and a talent standpoint, but you have to be mentally tough. We are going to stress that area."
All year long the frontrunner to reach All-American status on the RU roster was heavyweight D.J. Russo. The junior fell one match short of earning the honor, when he dropped a 4-2 decision in overtime to defending champion Mark Ellis of Missouri.
For the Knights, their drought without an All-American extended to eight years with the loss, not having an All-American since 2002 when Tom Tanis earned the distinction.
"This will drive [Russo]," Goodale said. "We have come a long way but we have to break through on that level. There are guys out there that believe they are always going to win, we have to work on spreading that mentality to our guys."
The road in the tournament became tougher for Russo when he was upset 3-0 by West Virginia's Brandon Williamson. Falling into the consolation bracket, the Netcong, N.J., native rebounded by pinning two opponents to set a date with Ellis.
"I just wrestled stupid [against Williamson]," Russo said. "After that I got on kind of a roll but then they took a break after my second match on Friday, which threw me off. You don't want to take a break when you have momentum."
Of the six other Knights that competed in the tournament, two grapplers — Dan Rinaldi and Joe Langel — took part in their first NCAA championship and neither disappointed.
In the 174-pound bracket, Rinaldi advanced to the second day after winning his opening match but falling to eventual champion Jay Borschel of Iowa, knocking him into the consolation bracket.
In the second day of competition, Rinaldi dropped a hard-fought 5-4 decision to fifth-seeded Scott Glaser of Minnesota.
"It was definitely a great experience," Rinaldi said. "I used to go to tournaments to watch my brother wrestle but I can't put into words how different it is being out on the mat in that atmosphere."
Langel, wrestling in the 125-pound bracket, got off on the right foot in his first tournament by upsetting 10th-seeded Christopher Ntee with an impressive 11-5 score. The redshirt freshman dropped his next bout, moving him to the consolation bracket and on to the second day where Ross Gitomer of Virginia eliminated him.
"I think [the freshmen] did a great job," Russo said. "They got experience and that is the most important thing to take away from the national tournament. You see guys who have big years in the regular season but then malfunction mentally at the tournament and they defeat themselves. Experience is something you can't have enough of."
Junior Billy Ashnault also advanced to the second day of competition after a rough end to his regular season. After not placing at the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association conference tournament one-week prior, Ashnault was given an at-large bid to compete in the national tournament.
The Lock Haven transfer made the most of his opportunity, going 2-2 in Omaha highlighted by his opening round technical fall over Joe Pantaleo of Liberty.
"We always stress that you want to wrestle your best in March, and for [Ashnault], it was late March," Goodale said. "He was only a few wins away from doing something special. He was in a great mindset, and once you get to that level, anything can happen."
Junior Daryl Cocozzo, senior Lamar Brown and sophomore Trevor Melde did not make it to the second day, dropping the first two matches in their respective brackets on the first day of competition.
Top-ranked Iowa won its third-straight team title with 134.5 points. Fellow EIWA squad Cornell came in second with 90 points. The Knights finished in 32nd place with 18 points.
The Knights' quest for an All-American leads them to the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia, the site of next years' NCAA Championships.
"I can't wait," Rinaldi said. "I already have a lot of friends and family telling me that they want to come out to the tournament and watch me wrestle. It's going to be incredible being so close to Rutgers. Hopefully I'll be able to make it and wrestle hard for everyone."