Rutgers seeks wins against Terps, Tigers
The last time the Rutgers wrestling team hit the mat, it walked away on the short side of dual meet against an unranked opponent for the first time in over a year.
Fresh off two consecutive conference victories and a program-best No. 6 ranking in the USA Today/NWCA Division I Coaches Poll, the Scarlet Knights rolled into Minneapolis, Minnesota, with what appeared like an easy win on paper against a Minnesota squad that was just 6-5 on the season.
Although the loss dropped the Knights six spots in the national rankings, they quickly turned the page and centered their attention on their next matchup against the Wisconsin team that defeated them by criteria in the season prior.
Rutgers was chomping at the bit with the chance to get back on track against a conference rival, but Winter Storm Jonas had other plans. The storm postponed the previously scheduled Jan. 20 match to Feb. 5, causing the Knights to have to wait an extra week before competing in a dual meet.
After having to wait 12 days between matches and battle with teammates more than usual as a result of extra practice time, Rutgers has been inadvertently rewarded by their schedule with two matches in the span of three days.
First, the No. 12 Knights (12-3, 2-2) will be seeking to set a new program record for conference wins in Friday’s 7 p.m. matchup with Maryland (4-9, 1-5) at the Rutgers Athletic Center.
Then, after a quick turnaround, Rutgers will travel roughly 20 miles southwest for a 1 p.m. intrastate showdown with former conference foe Princeton (2-5, 1-3) on Sunday.
“I’m pumped,” said junior 174-pounder Phillip Bakuckas. “I think we’re all pumped up to wrestle. I think we were all ready for this Wisconsin match and that getting canceled is kind of a downer, but having two matches back-to-back is awesome to get back on our feet and keep wrestling.”
In a sport as physically demanding as wrestling, two matches in three days can be a daunting task, especially when both matches are not at home. But the Knights are not complete strangers to this type of schedule, handling it well in their lone experience with it this season.
On Dec. 10, the Knights traveled to the Midwest where they suffered their only loss by more than one point this season in a conference opening shellacking at the hands of No. 2 Iowa.
Rutgers flew home the next day, had a tough practice to make weight and then competed in a 1 p.m. dual match against then-No. 4 Nebraska at the RAC.
Just when it seemed as if the Knights would suffer a "schedule loss" to the Cornhuskers, Rutgers proved the schedule was a non-factor.
Rutgers took four of the final six bouts, including two upset wins, to take down Nebraska by criteria for one of their biggest wins in program history.
It has been well over a month since the Knights have dealt with that kind of schedule, but the recent long layover between matches has head coach Scott Goodale feeling confident about his grapplers being able to get up for and compete in two matches this weekend.
“We haven’t done it in awhile so that makes me a little nervous, but I think we’re prepared,” Goodale said. "I know our guys are excited to wrestle. We wrestled twice in January, too much time in between, we wanna wrestle. It’s a lot of practicing, then you get a cancellation and it’s more practicing. We wanna put our hands on somebody.”
Last season, Rutgers defeated the Terrapins in College Park for their first program victory in the Big Ten.
Rutgers won seven of the 10 individual matches en route to a 24-11 win. This time around, Maryland could wind up in the Knights’ record books once again, at least temporarily. With a win, Rutgers would surpass their conference win total of two from their inaugural season last year.
The only head-to-head matchup featuring ranked wrestlers will come at 133-pounds where the Terps lone ranked grappler, No. 16 Geoffrey Alexander, will square off against No. 18 redshirt freshman Anthony Giraldo.
On Sunday, the Knights will rekindle an old Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association interstate rivalry with Princeton. Overall, Rutgers holds the advantage in this rivalry and in recent history it has been a completely one-sided, with the Knights taking the last 19 meetings, including a 24-11 victory over the Tigers last season.
Princeton may not have the most glamorous record, but Rutgers is more than aware that the Tigers are a potentially dangerous opponent. The three ranked Tigers in the 174, 184 and 197-pound weight classes are each scheduled to face unranked Knights.
Junior Phillip Bakuckas, sophomore Nicholas Gravina and senior Hayden Hrymack will each be tasked with trying to keep Princeton’s top-three wrestlers off the board, respectively.
It’s been a long wait, but two matches in one weekend gives Rutgers the opportunity to get back in a rhythm and, most importantly, back in the win column.
“(I'm) excited (about competing in two matches this weekend),” said junior 157-pounder Richie Lewis. “Having that weekend off really makes you hungrier. So we’re gonna come in and do what Rutgers University does.”
For updates on the Rutgers wrestling team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.