Rookie shines as historic year comes to close
From the top of the lineup to the bottom, and from the beginning of the year to the end, this season was truly memorable for the Rutgers wrestling team.
The year started with a 39-0 shutout victory over Sacred Heart and ended with the highest ranking in school history while wrestlers from 125 pounds all the way up to heavyweight garnered national attention and accolades.
But the best part about this year? That next year has the chance to be even better.
"What has me excited for next year is the fact that we came here three years ago and — apart from [heavyweight junior] D.J. Russo — all the guys we brought up are older and more mature," said head coach Scott Goodale.
And although next year has the potential to be the time when the Scarlet Knights are cemented on the map, this year was nothing to scoff at either.
RU finished the year 19-5-1, surprising many teams along the way. No one surprised other teams more than redshirt freshman Joe Langel.
The Howell, N.J., native made the most of his time in the starting lineup and finished the season with 31 wins and a trip to the NCAA Championships.
"Obviously you always want to win, but I didn't expect that I would have hit 30 this year," Langel said. "I was thinking somewhere around 20-25 wins, but 31 is huge. It was a big season for all of us."
Joining Langel in the 30-win club this year is Russo (32) and fellow redshirt freshman Daniel Rinaldi (30). For the Knights, three grapplers over the 30-win plateau is a vast improvement from last year when only then-freshman phenom Scott Winston reached 34. The fact that Rinaldi and Langel did it in their first year makes it all the more impressive.
"To have two freshman accomplish that feat with the schedule that we faced this year is amazing," Goodale said. "They wrestled hard all year long. Now they both have national tournament experience and will be pushing themselves to do even better next year."
The Knights opened and closed the first half of their season on an entire semester-long road trip that saw them face opponents such as then-No. 17 Penn State and three-time national champion Iowa.
Although Rutgers dropped both matches, the team came together while on the road and created a bond that helped pave the way to the record-setting 15 match unbeaten streak they opened up 2010 with.
"You don't belong in a Division I program unless you wrestle or play against a difficult schedule," Goodale said. "To me, the wins and losses aren't nearly as important as the quality of opponents to face. To be the best you have to beat the best."
The bond formed by the team was something evident to Billy Ashnault, who spent his first year with the Knights this season after transferring from Lock Haven.
"Being someone who transferred I was surprised when I came in and everyone was so close, like a family," the South Plainfield, N.J., native said. "I'm 100 percent sure I made the right choice to come to Rutgers. It's great to be back home and be on this team."
The season concluded this week when seven RU grapplers earned a spot in the NCAA Championships in Omaha, Neb. Included in that list was Ashnault who, despite a rough end to the regular season, rebounded at nationals and won two matches.
"The end of the regular season didn't go how I wanted it to," he said. "I just kept training hard even though I didn't know if I was going to nationals. No matter what I train hard from day one to the end of the year, whenever that is."
A rundown of RU's season isn't complete without mentioning the closer who ensured multiple Knight victories in the heavyweight bout — D.J. Russo.
Russo led the team in victories with 32 and scored an astounding 100 dual meet points throughout the year while only yielding nine. He also earned Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association Wrestler of the Week honors following an upset of then-No. 6 Scott Steele of Navy.
However, he came up one match short of All-American status at the national tournament and that is sure to light his fire during the off-season, Goodale said.
"I can't stress enough how important it is to have a good heavyweight and we have one of the best," the third-year coach said. "I know that falling short of being an All-American upset him and he is going to be working hard to get over that hump."