Knights continue growth despite disappointing finish
The Rutgers wrestling team does not get another chance to bring home an All-American for at least another calendar year.
Scott Winston has to wait 12 months before he can avenge his triple-overtime loss in the Round of 12 to Lehigh's Brandon Hatchett. Fellow sophomore Mario Mason has to wait the same amount of time before he gets another crack at reaching the podium.
And head coach Scott Goodale must spend that time answering skeptics who question when this team will break through and become a legitimate title contender.
Goodale and the Scarlet Knights know the answer can be found as soon as now, in an offseason dedicated to building up a mental toughness to not be denied.
"The one thing we take away from the national tournament is that we just need to be tougher," Goodale said. "Wrestling-wise, we are right on par with everyone else in the country. We just have to find a way to break through. That might mean a 6 o'clock run every morning in the middle of July. It's about putting yourself through hell now, so you won't give in as easily in a match when it counts."
The Knights proved their talent is among the best of the country during a regular season that saw the squad post a school-record 21 wins with just a pair of losses.
The wins occurred against some easy opponents, but also against prominent national programs such as Virginia Tech, Missouri and upstart American.
"There were some great highlights from this year, both as a team and individually," said Goodale, whose squad is The Daily Targum's Team of the Year for the second straight year. "We beat All-Americans across the board and 21-2 is nothing to hold your head down about. It's just the way it ended that leaves a sour taste in my mouth."
That sour taste not only resides in Goodale's mouth, but also transcends the coaching staff and wrestlers who came so close to bringing Rutgers its first All-American in a decade.
With two years of eligibility left, Winston leads the charge for next year's team despite offseason reconstructive knee surgery.
"I need to take some time off to let my body heal, but if it were up to me, I'd be in the room right away," the 165-pounder said. "I can't wait to be back on the mat. I can't wait to work out all summer. I can't wait to be in the room everyday. I'm not going to be happy if I'm just an All-American next year. I'm only going to be happy if I'm a national champ."
Both on and off the mat, Winston headlines a trio of grapplers responsible for installing the toughness Goodale wants to see in his entire lineup.
The fourth-year coach turned to Winston, Mason and rising senior Billy Ashnault to take on the coaching responsibilities.
"We are doing a little bit of an experiment with these next three weeks where it's going to be Mason, Ashnault and Winston's team," Goodale said. "We, as a staff, are around, but they are in charge of the workouts. We just ask that they invite us to practice."
This laissez-faire approach occurs at a time of re-evaluation for all, including the head coach.
"[The toughness is] something we have to fix, and honestly, it's the first time that I felt like I have to handle this adversity," Goodale said. "I never had this adversity at Jackson [Memorial High School] because we always won. I wasn't worried my first three years at Rutgers because nobody expected anything. Now, there is adversity and how we handle it over the course of this summer and into the fall is going to be huge for this program."
Looking ahead to next season, the Knights will certainly be tested. The team signed a four-year contract to schedule Oklahoma State and will also host the National Duals.
To help bolster its roster, Rutgers also welcomes three highly-touted recruits to its ranks. New Jersey state champs Billy Smith and Anthony Perrotti along with New York state champion Steven Rodrigues will all compete for starting spots in areas of need.
But the storyline for next season picks up where this year's left off: How does the team respond and take the next step toward being a consistent national force?
"This sport is all about confidence, and at the end of the day, it's all about how you handle pressure," Goodale said. "We handled it at the EIWA Tournament, but we didn't handle it at the national tournament — the biggest stage of wrestling."