Rutgers leaves tournament short of goal
ST. LOUIS — As Rutgers wrestlers fell in the early rounds last week at the NCAA Championships, head coach Scott Goodale knew one Scarlet Knight could will himself to All-American honors.
Senior 141-pounder Billy Ashnault fell one match short of the podium — the only goal for the Knights this season. But after facing seeded wrestlers in four of his five bouts at the Scottrade Center, it was not for a lack of effort.
“Have a fight and pride in what you’re doing … that’s what he does,” Goodale said. “That’s what I would like our program to be about. The kid wrestles his ass off. He’s not the best wrestler out there, but he fights hard all the time.”
Third-place finisher Boris Novachkov of Cal Poly simply proved too much.
A third-period takedown was the difference in a 6-3 decision for Novachkov, but Ashnault and Goodale believe a pair of first-period calls shifted the match.
Ashnault scored the first takedown and attempted to turn Novachkov for back points when officials stopped the match for a potentially dangerous situation. But the whistle was absent when Novachkov brought his foot down on Ashnault’s head.
If called a technical violation, Ashnault would receive a point and have a 3-2 lead with 1:12 of riding time entering the final period. Instead it was tied, and Ashnault’s riding time disappeared after Novachkov took him down.
“I thought there were a lot of chances for us to score points, but for whatever reason, it just didn’t go our way,” Goodale said. “That’s not an excuse. I thought [Ashnault] did a good job of making his own breaks. He did a great job of scrambling and won that first takedown. That, I thought, was the match.”
It was Ashnault’s third matchup of the day against a ranked opponent, and second rematch from the dual-meet season.
He lost to Novachkov and Kent State’s Tyler Small in February at the Louis Brown Athletic Center, but beat Small in St. Louis to advance to the Round of 12.
A year after both junior 149-pounder Mario Mason and junior 165-pounder Scott Winston represented Rutgers in the All-American-deciding round, only Ashnault remained.
Mason and Winston, the favorites for Rutgers to reach the podium entering the season, each exited on Day 1. But Goodale was not surprised.
Ashnault, junior 174-pounder Greg Zannetti and junior 197-pounder Dan Rinaldi were the steadiest wrestlers for Rutgers this season, and each advanced to Day 2.
Mason lost his first-round match, then took a medical forfeit to end his tournament, two weeks after he sprained his ankle at the EIWA Tournament.
Winston dropped his first-round matchup with Hofstra’s 12th-seeded P.J. Gillespie, 3-2, with riding time as the difference, then fell to Appalachian State’s Kyle Blevins, 4-1.
“It hurts when you lose like that, especially going 0-2,” said Winston, who said entering the tournament it was two-time All-American or bust for him. “I haven’t gone 0-2 in my life at anything. It’s an experience and I guess I have to learn from it.”
Goodale said Winston lacked energy and excitement entering the national tournament, something he saw in Ashnault as he arrived to his third national tournament as a fifth-year senior.
“I just got that in my head that I could be an All-American,” said Ashnault, who will remain at Rutgers next year as a member of the coaching staff. “I obviously fell short, but I had that positive mindset. All year I was focused on that.”
The entire team stressed it all season, as Goodale and his staff focused on March throughout the dual-meet season after falling short of the podium last year.
It did not matter, as Tom Tanis in 2002 remains the last Rutgers All-American.
They will attempt to change that again next season, this time without Ashnault — the one wrestler Goodale saw with the mindset to make the jump.
“The kid worked so hard I thought he would gut it out and find a way to win that match,” Goodale said. “He wrestled hard. It’s a shame. I knew that he really wanted to do it.”