Coaches convince N.J. wrestlers there's no place like home
In order to instill an attitude of greatness, sometimes you have to think outside the box.
For Rutgers wrestling to achieve national prominence, head coach Scott Goodale and the coaching staff had to reach outside of New Jersey to bring back some of the state's high-profile wrestlers.
Former state champs at the high school level jumped ship from the Garden State to take their talents to any number of programs nationwide. But with the rise of the Scarlet Knights over the past few years — including a 20-win season in 2009 — these grapplers might not have to travel too far to reach the top.
With the ability to draw Jersey talent back in state, Rutgers boasts a lineup of former high-profile recruits looking to attain national prominence.
The biggest catch reeled back took the longest rope, stretching halfway across America to the state of Minnesota.
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Exactly 1,199 miles away from his hometown of Moorestown, N.J., Mario Mason felt out of place.
He was a member of the Minnesota wrestling team after becoming a four-time state champion at the prestigious Blair Academy and was admittedly miles away from his comfort zone.
"On the wrestling side of things I was just not happy at all last year," Mason said.
When Mason decided it was time for a change of scenery, he turned to a longtime friend whose advice Mason always held in high regard.
The advisor, fellow Blair alum Cory Cooperman, just happened to be an assistant coach at Rutgers.
"Off the mat he's more of a friend, but in the room he's on my back all the time," said Mason of his relationship with Cooperman. "He's coming to beat me up all practice. It's just because he expects so much from me that he wants me to work at it."
When Cooperman talked to Mason, his advice was to do whatever made him comfortable. Cooperman did not beg Mason to join the Knights, but rather to make the best decision for himself — the decision that would help Mason realize his full potential.
"I just said, ‘You've got to be comfortable, Mario,'" Cooperman said. "If you're not comfortable, you're not going to be able to wrestle to your potential.
"Mario is the type of kid that could go to China and a day later, eight guys would be following him around. He makes lifelong friends right away."
And what Mason brings on the mat cannot be taught: lightning-quick reflexes and a Big Ten pedigree.
"He brings such a different style to the table," Cooperman said. "He's very technical and he's so slick and fast. One second he is in the stalemate position and then — boom — he pulls something out and scores. He's just a very dangerous wrestler and he's been my brother for the longest time."
Mason decided to come back East and now, less than 50 miles away from where he first got in the circle, the 149-pounder headlines a bevy of former New Jersey transfers returning to the Garden State to join the Knights.
"He told me he wishes he would have came here from the get-go," Cooperman said. "And I didn't even go to Rutgers. He talks about this place like it's gold."
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Before playing the role of head coach at Rutgers, Goodale spent seven years at the helm of his alma mater, Jackson Memorial High School.
During his stint, the Jaguars earned the top ranking in the state twice and churned out 41 district champions — one of them was Dan Hopkins, who pursued a career in football at Rowan before transferring to Middlesex Community College to revive his wrestling career.
"I decided to transfer out of Rowan to wrestle at Middlesex and I knew Goodale from high school, so right away it was an automatic, ‘I wanted to wrestle for him again,'" Hopkins said. "So that's why I decided to come to Rutgers."
Hopkins comes to Rutgers in the only weight class vacated by a senior from last year's squad in Lamar Brown.
The 197-pounder will have his hands full getting a stranglehold on the starting job due to the emergence of freshman Michael Wagner at Wrestle-Offs, but Goodale knows that Hopkins has what it takes to make an impact.
"I have always known him and first and foremost I think he's a good kid," Goodale said. "There's a lot of trust between us because I've known him for so long. He needs to realize that this is a different level than [junior college]. That's something that he is going to have to get used to, but the easiest thing is that he knows what I expect from my guys. He's going to be just fine."
It was his relationship with Goodale that made Hopkins leave junior college behind to pursue a career on the Banks. It is a jump with which Hopkins feels comfortable because he is making it with a coach who has been there through the good and the bad.
"I feel like Goodale and I have a relationship where he is a close friend and almost a father figure," Hopkins said. "I can go to him with anything that I need to talk about. I just like wrestling for Goodale."
It is the dual role of coach and friend that has wrestlers leaving schools to join Goodale at Rutgers. And with arguably the best lineup in school history, the Knights look to buck a trend of losing to a certain EIWA foe.
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The rivalry between Lehigh and Rutgers has always been a tad one-sided.
The Mountain Hawks own a 39-1 all-time advantage over the Knights, including last year's 28-3 throttling in Bethlehem, Pa. But this year figures to be the exception to the rule.
And for one fifth-year senior who knows the rivalry better than anyone else, it is personal.
Prior to coming to Rutgers in the offseason, Alex Caruso spent four years with the Lehigh program. For certain reasons, Caruso decided to forego his final year in Pennsylvania and continue his search for a national title back in his home state.
"Last winter, I decided that I wanted to leave Lehigh," the Green Brook, N.J., native said. "I took a couple of visits here and by then, the decision was a pretty easy one. I'm literally at home here with the coaching staff and everyone."
Caruso is now one of nine wrestlers with NCAA Tournament appearances — all of which are Jersey-raised and now representing the State University of New Jersey.
"This is what we envisioned. This is what the state's university should be," said assistant coach John Leonardis, who came on board with Goodale. "This is a great university where you can get a great education and we have some of the best facilities."
With the program now engrained in the New Jersey wrestling community, wrestlers may start taking the Scott Winston route.
Winston, the No. 2 recruit in the nation, received offers from programs all over the country, but instead decided to come to Rutgers since Day 1.
He is happy to see that other wrestlers are starting to realize the potential that Rutgers has.
"We were very fortunate to have these guys coming back," Winston said. "It's showing to kids on the high school level here in Jersey that get recruited by the big schools out West that things are different out there.
"[Mason] still has the goal of being a national champion. Alex Caruso still has the goal of being a national champion. You can come to Rutgers and still have a shot at attaining your goal of a national championship, so why even jump the East and experiment out there?"