End performance shows team needs
In the media room of the Louis Brown Athletic Center on Feb. 24 — after the Rutgers wrestling team’s 34-0 loss to Penn State — senior 157-pounder Scott Winston was asked where he felt the program would be in five years.
“I think we’ll be national champions. I really believe that,” Winston said.
Before the Scarlet Knights can worry about having their first national championship in program history, head coach Scott Goodale is just focused on producing the Knights’ first All-American since 2002.
Confidence was high at the beginning of the season — as six seniors returned to a lineup that Goodale felt was the most talented in recent history.
Even after Mario Mason — a qualifier last season for the NCAAs — quit midway through the season, Rutgers still featured three wrestlers who would eventually collect their 100th career victory.
With the Knights’ debut in the Big Ten Conference just two seasons away, barring a sooner departure by the University, this weekend proved that the program is not ready for the country’s best wrestling conference.
“It’s a whole other world … a whole other world,” Goodale said Friday night. “Right now, we are a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team. I don’t want to be middle-of-the-pack. That’s not what I’m in it for. We need to get better and start putting time into our guys, and they need to understand that this is what it’s all about.”
The performance in Des Moines, Iowa leaves a sour end to Rutgers’ season — a year that still featured positives — and Goodale continues to prepare his program for the move to the new conference.
In the top-25 ranking at the end of the season, the Knights featured seven wrestlers in the national rankings and finished with a 16-4 dual record.
Rutgers registered an upset victory against then No. 12 Bloomsburg on Feb. 8, and its win at home against Lehigh on Jan. 18 was the first for Rutgers against the Mountain Hawks in over 50 years.
It competed in the first ever Grapple at the Garden the first event of its kind held at Madison Square Garden — that featured some of the country’s best programs.
Junior 133-pounder Vincent Dellefave, sophomore 165-pounder Nick Visicaro and redshirt freshman heavyweight Billy Smith all emerged in needed weight classes for Rutgers — as the team will be faced with replacing half of its starting lineup.
Rutgers even held its first ever EIWA Tournament for the first time in the conference’s 109-year history.
But the Penn State match began to highlight the talent disparity between what the program has and what it needs if it ever wants to be a contender in the Big Ten.
Rutgers was shut out against the Nittany Lions, this season’s NCAA Champions — a loss that showed just how good the best team in Rutgers’ new home is.
Rutgers then produced an average showing at the EIWAs, finishing fifth as a team.
A fifth-place finish in the EIWA will not cut it in the Big Ten — as the conference featured 30 All-Americans and six National Champions.
Rutgers had a great season for where the program stands right now — an above-average team who defeats the teams it should and has the talent to pull off occasional upsets.
That is not good enough for its future move to the best wrestling conference in the country and Rutgers will have to improve from where Goodale believes his program is at right now.
Rutgers has and will possess all the tools needed to move the program in that direction. A new facility that will include four practice mats will be part of the renovations to the Louis Brown Athletic Center, providing the Knights with a much-needed upgrade from the basement of the College Avenue Gym.
Assistant Coach Frank Molinaro, last season’s national champion at 149 pounds for Penn State, will provide experience and knowledge only few can give as a coach on the mat.
Rutgers will also bring in its highest-rated recruiting class since Goodale took the reins of the program in 2007 that features the undefeated, four-time state champion Anthony Ashnault.
So it will be up to Goodale to get his team where he believes it could be. While there were many highs for the program this season, the lows provided by the team at the end of it only demonstrates the work that still needs to be done.
“It’s back to the drawing board,” Goodale said. “I’m not going to sit here and run from the challenge. We have to embrace the challenge and as long as I’m at Rutgers, we have to keep getting better, and that’s what we need to strive to do.”