The Road to the Podium Part I
After the first day of the 2014 EIWA Championships, the road to the NCAAs was paved with a No. 1 spot on the podium for sophomore heavyweight Billy Smith.
After handily winning two bouts Saturday — gaining bonus points by a pin and a major decision — Smith eyed a successful second day.
After running to the cooler full of drinks in the media room at The Palestra, exclaiming how excited he was to drink a soda, Smith expressed his confidence entering the second day.
“Coach [John] Leo[nardis] has me pretty pumped for this tournament. Everything he is preaching I think I’m doing correctly. That last win was pretty big,” Smith said after Saturday’s competition. “I lost to [Steven Graziano] last year, and to come out and just dominate him was pretty special. But I’m not done. I have a long way to go and have to finish it off right with one more good day.”
The tournament did not go as expected for Smith on the second day.
After escaping the semifinal match with a 2-1 decision over American’s Blake Herrin, Smith wrestled Bucknell’s Joe Stolfi for the Championship at 285 pounds.
Smith and Stolfi exchanged takedowns and escapes to trade the match lead six times before they parted ways.
Stolfi got the better hand, taking the decision, 9-7, with a riding time bonus.
Smith’s decision was inadequate not only for the Wantage, N.J., native, but also for head coach Scott Goodale.
“It’s disappointing because he gave up some positions way too easy. A high-paced match really benefited that kid,” Goodale said. “Not that [Billy] is not in shape, but he needs to be more solid rolling around. That’s disappointing.”
Finishing as the runner up is not all that poor of a finish for Smith, although he wanted more knowing he would be an NCAA Qualifier before his final bout.
“Obviously second place wasn’t what we were shooting for, but he and I have spoken and this weekend coming up was what we were ultimately preparing for,” said assistant coach John Leonardis. “If he fell short of that EIWA Championship, but becomes an All-American, then he won’t feel too bad about that. We have to prepare as if we won or lost, it doesn’t really matter at this point.”
But for Goodale, there have been positive changes from when Smith qualified a season ago.
“He’s just a different kid — a whole different kid,” Goodale said. “He has a whole different mindset. He’s got to continue to carry that forward.”
Entering the NCAA Tournament, Leonardis, who works with the higher weight classes including heavyweight, is confident in Smith’s chances.
“I thought he did a nice job throughout the course of the tournament, especially wrestling guys he had never faced before. He has really become a student of the sport and has developed his skills to make him the best he can be,” Leonardis said. “He is beginning to realize that his offense is his biggest asset, and the more he focuses on his offense, the better chance he has at winning.”
Goodale believes the challenges will only become more difficult for Smith in Oklahoma because of the depth at the 285-pound weight class.
“The heavyweight weight class, for the first time in a long time, may be the best weight in the country,” Goodale said. “He has to be prepared to wrestle seven minutes unbelievably hard. The best guys in the country are going to wrestle him hard and wrestle him back. It’s not going to be a boring match.”
With the weight class as highly touted as it is, Smith will need to bring forth his best performance.
His best wrestling is still to come, though, according to Leonardis.
“I think the 33-man bracket is going to be grueling, but we have prepared for that. He’s only going to face each guy one at a time,” Leonardis said. “Last season he didn’t finish as strong as he did throughout the course of the year. This year, he has done a lot of extra work and has gone above and beyond. He is trying to develop his skills to make him the best he can be.”
For updates on the Rutgers wrestling team, follow Tyler Karalewich on Twitter @TylerKaralewich. For general Rutgers sports updates, follow @TargumSports.