Rutgers faces tough slate in Tourney
When the Rutgers wrestling team heads to Lewisburg, Pa., this weekend for the EIWA Tournament, the outlook will be different than in years' past. No. 1 Cornell plans to bring home its fifth consecutive conference title, but a handful of programs are in position to dethrone the Big Red.
And that includes the Scarlet Knights.
"If we wrestle to where we are projected to be at, we will be right in the thick of it," said head coach Scott Goodale. "It's going to be hard to catch somebody like Cornell … but if you get some help along the way, you never know."
The Knights certainly look to improve upon last year's sixth-place performance, and to do that, the entire lineup top to bottom will have to wrestle to the best of its ability and then some.
One grappler who gets to show what he is made of is Matt Fusco. The sophomore spent the majority of the year splitting time with classmate Joe Langel at 125 pounds, but moved up to 133 two weeks ago to face Frank Cagnina of Lehigh.
Fusco knocked off Cagnina and Goodale rewarded him with the opportunity to represent Rutgers in the 133-pound bracket in the EIWA Tournament.
"It's really exciting. I feel a lot better up at 133," Fusco said. "I don't have to cut weight and I've got a lot more energy. I feel a lot stronger."
The path for Fusco to reach the NCAA Tournament in Philadelphia in two weeks is not an easy one. The NCAA allotted three automatic qualifying bids to the EIWA for the 133-pound weight class, compared to four and five bids for the rest of the weights.
The move couples with the fact that Fusco does not have a full year's body of work at 133 pounds to fall back on in order to grab one of the precious wildcard bids.
At last year's EIWA Tournament, Billy Ashnault did not receive an automatic bid at 133 pounds, but his solid individual record earned him a trip to the national tournament. Fusco does not have that luxury and needs to place in the top three.
"He's going to have to put together a good tournament," Goodale said. "Who knows? This time of the year there are so many upsets and the guys who believe they can win will end up winning."
And Fusco certainly believes he can win.
"I think I can get an automatic bid," the Belleville, N.J., native said. "I think I can win. I think I can make it to the finals and if not, then definitely top three."
While Fusco knows he has an uphill climb, several Knights face a similar challenge as a tough end of the regular season dropped them from the top of the rankings.
But from sophomore Mario Mason at 149 pounds all the way up to senior D.J. Russo at heavyweight, the EIWA Tournament offers many Knights a chance to redeem themselves and prove they belong on the podium.
"We are going to have guys that get low seeds that have no business being low seeds," Russo said. "I think we are going to look pretty good when they redeem themselves and fix whatever mistakes they made, myself included. I don't mean ‘they' — I mean ‘we.'"
Russo rounded out the year falling to two EIWA counterparts in Lehigh's Zach Rey and American's Ryan Flores. The three will likely finish at the top of the pack this weekend and again when they converge at the Wells Fargo Center for the NCAA Tournament.
Rey and Flores might be seeded higher, just as Cornell and Lehigh may be favored to take the top-two spots this weekend at the EIWA Tournament.
But when push comes to shove, anything can happen. Things do not always follow the projected scheme and any team can triumph in that recipe for chaos.
"Anybody at this time of the year can win," Goodale said. "Anybody can put themselves in a position to win. And when that happens, a lot of things might not go according to plan."