PHILADELPHIA — It was meant to be an exclamation point on a banner year, but instead the Rutgers wrestling team's season ended at the NCAA Championships with one major question mark.
How did a team poised to make a serious run at a top-10 spot fail to come away with an All-American?
"I thought we were in a good spot to have All-Americans," said head coach Scott Goodale, whose team finished 27th overall. "We lost a lot of overtime matches. The [talent] levels are all even and it's finding a way to win. We were on the wrong end of a lot of matches [Friday]."
The Scarlet Knights entered the Round of 12 on Friday with two wrestlers just one win away from becoming the first All-Americans on the Banks since 2002.
But after sophomores Mario Mason and Scott Winston won each of their two bouts on Day 1 at the Wells Fargo Center, both dropped a pair of decisions the next day to fall just short of reaching the podium.
"That's the biggest letdown that I have had in my wrestling career," Winston said. "Being an All-American has been a goal of mine since I was a little boy. I feel like I put all of the hard work necessary into it, but I just let the opportunity slip away."
Winston worked his way into the quarterfinals of the 165-pound bracket to start Day 2, but ran into a daunting task in top-seeded Jordan Burroughs of Nebraska. Burroughs breezed through Winston with a 23-8 technical fall on his way to a second national championship.
The loss sent Winston to the wrestlebacks, where he met a familiar foe in Lehigh's Brandon Hatchett.
Winston got off to a great start, scoring a takedown on the mat's edge one minute into the contest. But Hatchett tied the score with a pair of escapes and kept Winston's offensive attack at bay.
"He's just a very good defensive wrestler," Winston said of Hatchett. "The longer I let the match go, the more it started to turn into the kind of match that he wanted."
The two entered sudden victory overtime and after nothing could be resolved after one minute, Winston and Hatchett began the 30-second tiebreaks.
Hatchett successfully rode out Winston and the EIWA champ was unable to do the same. The final score read, 3-2, in favor of Hatchett.
"It's not a good matchup for Scottie," Goodale said. "It comes down to one takedown in our best position and we weren't able to get it. We had three minutes to get it and weren't able to get it. You have to find a way at this level, that's all I can say."
Mason also began Friday in the quarterfinals of the 149-pound bracket as the seventh seed and faced second-seeded Frank Molinaro of Penn State. The two split a pair of bouts during the regular season and met this time with a trip to the semifinals on the line.
Molinaro entered the third period with a 3-0 lead, but Mason cut that deficit to one when he converted on a takedown. A Molinaro escape sealed the deal on a 4-2 decision as Mason fell to the wrestlebacks.
"It's about putting together two or three moves together at a time and not just getting one score, but multiple scores," Goodale said. "We're just struggling with that right now and it's upsetting."
In the consolation bracket, Mason met Northwestern's Andrew Nadhir for the right to be named an All-American.
While both wrestlers looked to be the aggressor early on, Nadhir scored the first period's lone takedown. The Wildcat controlled the match the rest of the way and Mason fell, 7-3.
"I just need to get better," Mason said. "I need to get better at wrestling in every position. This will make me hungrier. I never want it to happen to me again."
The sun does not set on the All-American dreams of Mason and Winston, as both have two more years to reach the final eight.
But senior DJ Russo cannot avenge a disappointing finish to the season.
Russo entered the weekend as the fourth seed in the heavyweight bracket, but quickly dug himself a hole with a 5-2 loss to unranked Levi Cooper of Arizona State.
The Netcong, N.J., native fought his way back in the consolation bracket but ran into a tough opponent in Indiana's Ricardo Alcala. The Hoosier held a two-point lead late in the third period, but two stall points on Alcala breathed new life for Russo with an overtime period on the way.
But in the sudden victory period, Alcala scored another takedown and came away with the 9-7 decision, ending Russo's collegiate career.
The Knights' season ended hours later and all that remains are question marks.
"Did [Russo] do everything in his power? Does he feel like he put his best foot forward? If he feels like that, then we can live with it," Goodale said. "He had a good career for us. He's part of the foundation and laid the road for other guys, but he's disappointed. We all are."