Ashnault injures hamstring, falls short in All-American campaign
ST. LOUIS — Standing in the Morgan Street Brewery, a small pub in the historic Laclede’s Landing neighborhood of downtown St. Louis, head coach Scott Goodale took the chance to make a speech. In front of roughly 50 fans, coaches and student athletes Saturday night, the Rutgers wrestling coach had many people to thank.
Among the gratitude he expressed for the fans for making the trip to the NCAA Championships, and the thanks he gave to his fellow coaches, Goodale acknowledged the Scarlet Knights — which included the five NCAA qualifiers.
Goodale recognized them not only for their hard work and dedication this season, but their commitment to the Rutgers program — which included believing in him and his vision.
Redshirt-freshman Anthony Ashnault was one of them. He had a decision to make after his four New Jersey State Championship career at South Plainfield. With the option to go essentially wherever he wanted for college wrestling, Ashnault made the choice to follow Goodale with the Knights, and it paid off in his first year of competition.
After the Friday morning of wrestling at the 2015 National Championships, Ashnault was the only Rutgers wrestler alive in the tournament. Following his 9-4 decision over Appalachian State’s Mike Longo and his 6-3 decision against 10th-seeded Zachary Horan of Central Michigan, Ashnault was in the semifinals.
Although Ashnault drew 2nd-seeded Mitchell Port of Edinboro, the eventual runner-up at 141 pounds, he said he felt confident after the first day of competition.
Ashnault would trade leads with Port early in the first period as both grapplers collected takedowns. Port reversed Ashnault 15 seconds after being taken to the mat and rode out the rest of the period — Port gained a 4-3 lead he would not surrender.
After a second and third period dominated by Port, Ashnault would drop the decision, 9-4, against the three-time All-American. Ashnault would still need just one more victory to become Goodale’s second All-American in as many years.
With the opportunity to win the consolation bracket, Ashnault shifted his expectations from winning the whole tournament to taking third place — the highest podium spot he could obtain. His first obstacle in the wrestle-back bracket was Randy Cruz of Lehigh.
Trailing 1-0 entering the third period against Cruz, Ashnault made the risky decision to choose neutral against Cruz — thus giving up the sure point he would get from an escape if he started on bottom.
Ashnault looked for his chance for nearly a minute and then found Cruz’s leg. With over one minute remaining, Ashnault secured the takedown, going up, 2-1. After securing the riding time point, Cruz escaped and put Ashnault on the defensive.
With a decision of 3-2, Ashnault became just the second All-American under Goodale. For the first time in program history, the Knights would have someone on the podium in back-to-back years.
Later that day, Goodale was pleased to have his second All-American and to have the program brought to new heights, but he was thinking about Ashnault. Ashnault would not have the chance to compete for the third place spot.
"It's good,” Goodale said of getting his second All-American. “That's where this thing is going. I don't think, as a team, we wrestled great all weekend, but it's good to get one and keep building on it. We’re going to keep getting better kids and keep building on what we're doing. There's guys back home certainly capable and the future is definitely exciting. But I'm in the moment right now thinking about Anthony, and that's kind of where I'm at."
Back at the Morgan Street Brewery, it was junior 157-pounder Anthony Perrotti’s turn to make a speech. As Rutgers' returning All-American, he did not have to tournament that he wanted.
Perrotti balked in his only two matches of the tournament, failing to record a takedown in the key moments. After both of Perrotti’s matches went to sudden victory, his opponents, Noel Blanco of Drexel and Markus Scheidel of Columbia, took Perrotti down to end the matches.
But when Perrotti spoke Saturday night, it was not about his misfortune this tournament. It wasn’t about how he shocked the wrestling bracket a year ago to become an All-American as an unseeded in Oklahoma City at the NCAAs.
Perrotti said how proud he was of his best friend Ashnault for starting his career on a high note and achieving his own goal of being an All-American.
After Ashnault kept alive his goal of becoming an All-American and making it one step closer to third place, he would be confronted with Dean Heil of Oklahoma State. The first period started with as much normalcy as possible before disaster struck.
With just around a minute remaining in the first stanza, Ashnault suffered an injury to his left hamstring. After an injury stoppage, Ashnault tried to walk it off, but none of his best efforts would stop his noticeable limping. Ashnault then made the decision to wrestle on one leg, noticeably favoring his left hindquarter.
Battling through the whole second period, Ashnault would resort to wrestling on his hips in his bout, seemingly unable to bear any weight on his legs. Ashnault denied trying to forfeit the match on an injury default, eventually losing the 9-4 decision to Heil.
Ashnault was distraught after losing his chance at third and having his tournament ended on something that was out of his control. Following the bout, Ashnault needed only a few words to express his emotions.
“It sucks — I don’t know,” Ashnault said about the injury with tears fresh on his face and an ice pack wrapped around his leg after the bout Friday night. When he was asked about if he was pleased being an All-American, Ashnault responded, “Not really.”
Ashnault walked away in disgust before being asked any more questions. On Saturday, he used a medical forfeit and dropped to eighth place.
In room 42 on the event level of the Scottrade Center on Saturday morning in St. Louis, Ashnault and Goodale had a day to get over the hardship that had faced them a day before. While Ashnault was not pleased, he was in better spirits than the day prior and was able to reflect on his first NCAA Tournament.
"I'm a little over (the disappointment) at this point,” he said. “I wanted to come back for third. I wanted to come here and win the national title. But things happen — it’s part of the sport and it’s part of life. It's great to be an All-American, it's just eighth is kind of like the bottom of the totem pole of All-Americans. It's good, I'm grateful and I'm proud of myself. I'm happy, but I think I've got a lot more potential in me."
Goodale cried tears of joy last year after Perrotti became the first All-American under his tutelage. With what happened to Ashnault, it wouldn’t be surprising if he shed a tear for a different reason.
It wasn’t exactly what Goodale expected of Ashnault, either. He said he believed the redshirt-freshman was the third-best 141-pounder at the tournament, but the injury leaves a curious feeling of what could have been at this tournament.
"If you remember us last year, there's a whole different feel. Yeah he's an All-American, but we truly believe he's one of the best guys at the weight,” Goodale said. “That's the difference. Last year, it was very celebratory and exciting and now here we are — the highs of him being an All-American, now let's go get third place and then the injury. That's just the way we feel about this guy (Ashnault) and knowing what he can do. It ends up being a disappointment.”
When it was Ashnault’s turn to speak at the Rutgers wrestling social, he had already limped through the parade of All-Americans, stood on the bottom of the podium and self-reflected on his tournament that ended the day before.
There were no more feelings of discomfort. He was with his team, fans and every member of the Ashnault family was in attendance.
Despite not accomplishing his goal, when Ashnault spoke he said coming to Rutgers was the best decision of his life and he felt a part of a bigger family with the Knights.
Although he didn’t take the top spot on the podium like he wanted to coming in and didn’t take third like Goodale believed he could, there’s still time.
He may have lost the chance to be the fifth four-time NCAA Champion, but Ashnault can still be the first Rutgers NCAA Champ.
It’s just going to take longer than he expected.
For updates on the Rutgers wrestling team, follow @TKaralewich and @TargumSports on Twitter.