Rutgers' sophomore grappler learns from losses
Everyone knew that coming to the Big Ten Conference was going to be an upgrade from the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association — the Rutgers wrestling team’s old division that it grappled in for 65 years.
The change in conference was going to be an upgrade from any previous conference that Scarlet Knights had competed in.
While everyone knew it was going to be difficult, perhaps no one has had to endure more of the challenge than sophomore 174-pounder Phillip Bakuckas.
Bakuckas holds a 16-8 record this season — where 16 wins are good for third-best on the team — and all except for one loss came against a ranked Big Ten opponent in the season. Those decisions lost include dropped matches to five out of the top-6 grapplers and two other top-15 ranked guys.
Head coach Scott Goodale said Bakuckas has been through the gauntlet so far this season, and it isn’t over yet. Bakuckas agrees, but understands how different the competition is from a season ago.
“I just try to take it day-by-day. I know all these kids are the best in the nation, so I’m not getting down on myself,” Bakuckas said. “I just know that if I wrestle these kids all year round, it’s only going to get me better for Big Ten’s and Nationals. I’d rather get used to it now and embrace it.”
Despite only one win over a ranked opponent, which was against the then-No. 17 George Pickett of Cornell at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational, Bakuckas finds himself hovering in the top-20 rankings, according to Intermat, The Open Mat and WIN Magazine.
“I don’t think the difference of how he loses matters,” Goodale said of dropping the matches as minor decisions. “I don’t think Phil believes in moral victories at all. You have to get your hand raised. That’s the only thing that matters.”
Facing all of the top opponents prepares Bakuckas for the grind of the regular season and the postseason. The experience of going against the top guys help when having to face them the second time around at the Big Ten Championships and even at the NCAAs.
Junior 157-pounder Anthony Perrotti said that he does not envy Bakuckas for having to face the best of the best at 174-pounds, and agrees the experience will help Bakuckas later in the season.
“I think he’s handled this pretty well,” Perrotti said. “He’s got it. He’s got the power and he’s got the strength. It’s a lot harder to beat someone twice than just one time, so these kids are going to struggle with him come Big Tens and at Nationals.”
Even with success on the mat, Goodale has always stressed the importance of grinding and building for the wrestling postseason in March.
But even with Bakuckas’ accomplishments this season, Goodale sees one aspect of his game that can be improved.
“He does a great job hand fighting, he does a great job defensively — keeping these guys off him — but eventually, because these guys are really good, the more shots they get to, they are going to score,” Goodale said. “We have to do a better job getting to our offense, and that’s what we worked on. We’ve got to get on top, we have to score points from our feet and we can’t let these guys continue to attack us.”
With only one win against Maryland’s Josh Snook during the Big Ten matches, one could expect the losses piling up to affect Bakuckas negatively.
Although, that’s not how he’s taking it according to Goodale. Bakuckas has been extremely optimistic when the hard times have hit this season, and he’s not ready to let them affect him any time soon.
“It’s definitely tough to lose, but I keep my head up,” Bakuckas said. “I’m still young — I’m only a sophomore. All these top guys I’m going against are seniors, and they’ve already been through two more years of matches than me. I just have to keep my head up and keep going. I know by my junior and senior year, I’ll be dominating kids. I’ve just got to wrestle my hardest against these kids.”
For updates on the Rutgers wrestling team, follow @TylerKaralewich and @TargumSports on Twitter.