Wrestle-offs give first glimpse of new-look squad
When the Rutgers wrestling team hits the mat at the College Avenue Gym tonight for its annual Wrestle-Offs, it will be a much different lineup than the squad sent out last season.
But sometimes change is good.
"There's a lot of competition [in the practice room], which is a good thing," said fourth-year head coach Scott Goodale. "Guys are fighting hard to survive on that mat and you have to. There are just too many good guys, and there are no breaks. That's the difference — that has to be the difference. It's the only way you get to be a great program."
The Scarlet Knights are on their way to becoming a great program, boasting nine wrestlers with NCAA Tournament experience — three of which weren't wrestling last season with Rutgers.
Goodale and Co. welcome transfers Mario Mason and Alex Caruso to the Banks and Scott Winston returns to the lineup after redshirting last season following a phenomenal freshman campaign.
"It was the first time that I wasn't in the starting lineup in my entire life," Winston said. "It was something to get used to from a life standpoint — not having to compete every week. It was an adjustment all around, basically, to my life."
Mason, a Blair Academy product, returns to New Jersey after spending two seasons in Minnesota with the Golden Gophers' program.
"I wasn't wrestling well out there. I just wasn't comfortable I guess," the Moorestown, N.J., native said. "Coming back here with coaches and wrestlers that I know has been great."
As a redshirt freshman last year, Mason placed fifth at the Big Ten Championship and qualified for the NCAA Tournament.
While Mason was not happy with his performance, Goodale believes that hunger will only make the 149-pounder better.
"He finished fifth in the Big Ten Championship. Fifth in the Big Ten is almost harder than the national tournament," Goodale said. "[Mario] wasn't happy with the year he had, and he's hungry. So now you have one of the top wrestlers in the country, and he's hungry."
Caruso is a little more familiar with the Knights' rise over recent years. Wrestling at fellow EIWA school Lehigh for the past four years, Caruso was a part of the Mountain Hawk program that is 39-1 against Rutgers.
But Caruso's 174-pound spot in the lineup at Lehigh fell in favor of upstart Robert Hamlin, making the Green Brook, N.J., native's decision to return to the Garden State much easier.
"We've got a tremendous work ethic along with incredible talent," Goodale said. "It just makes it a much better room and it's reached the point where guys are watching. Our younger guys are watching how they work, train and prepare. It's been awesome."
Winston, Mason and Caruso all are set to wrestle in tonight's Wrestle-Offs to determine the starting lineup.
While tonight may show who has made the most strides in the offseason in order to make the starting 10, it might not necessarily be those wrestlers who compete when Rutgers opens its season Sunday against Sacred Heart and East Stroudsburg.
The duals may be taking place at the Louis Brown Athletic Center, but the opposing sides are a far cry from the toughest opponents that test the Knights this season.
Rutgers opened its season last year against Sacred Heart and blanked the Pioneers, 43-0. The Knights also took down East Stroudsburg, 20-15, later in the year while resting most of their starters.
Still, it is a prime opportunity to kick the season off on the right note.
"It probably won't draw a huge crowd like some of our other matches later in the year will," Goodale said. "But it's still at the RAC. It's still our opener, so let's go. We are at least excited to wrestle somebody else, that's for sure."