July 18, 2019 | 74° F

Rutgers wrestlers position themselves early for National Championship run

Photo by Haolun Xiu |

Junior 174-pounder Phillip Bakuckas is one of seven grapplers seeking to qualify for the NCAA Tournament for the first time.

Division I wrestlers each have a similar individual goal and dream upon whenever embarking on a new season.

The shared goal is to be one of the 33 qualifiers in their respective weight classes for the NCAA Championships held at the conclusion of the season.

Once qualified for the tournament, wrestlers then have the chance to chase their dream — to be standing on the podium as a National Champion at the end of the tournament.

While helping to contribute to their team’s overall success in dual matches are important to them as well, grapplers want the opportunity to be crowned as the best of the best in their respective weight class.

For the No. 12 Rutgers wrestling team (11-3, 2-2), capturing five wins over ranked opponents while remaining in the top half of the national rankings have been key ingredients in helping to make sure most, if not all, Scarlet Knights have the opportunity to chase their dream at Madison Square Garden in March.

In the first NCAA coaches’ panel ranking of the season, nine of the 10 starters in the Knights' lineup landed in the top-33 within their own class. 

The ranking, which is conducted four times throughout the season, along with the winning percentage and the rating percentage index are each taken into consideration when determining the qualifiers for the tournament. Automatic qualifications can also be made from placements at respective conference championships.

The lone Rutgers wrestler who was absent from the ranking was senior 197-pounder Hayden Hrymack, but the Knights believe he still has a chance to punch his ticket to the national tournament.

“I’d like to see Hayden in there, (he) probably needs another big win along the way,” said head coach Scott Goodale. “But I think we’re in good spots if we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing from here on out. We should have those guys qualify the weight, which is important for the Big Ten tournament. More guys in the Big Ten that can qualify the weight, the better. We’re doing our job, we just gotta keep going. The higher we get the better.”

The only Knights ranked in the top-10 come from their two All-Americans in the lineup. Sophomore Anthony Ashnault, who holds a 12-1 dual record, was slated at No. 5 among 141-pounders. Ashnault walked away from the tournament last year as an All-American after finishing eighth.

Senior Anthony Perrotti was slotted at No. 6 in his new 165-pound weight class. Perrotti, a two-time national qualifier and an All-American from 2013-14, is an impressive 12-1 in dual meets and 4-1 against ranked opponents.

Billy Smith, the only other qualifier on the roster, was No. 12 in the heavyweight class. The Wantage, New Jersey, senior is trying to crack All-American status in what would his fourth go-round at the tournament.

“Oh, (having the entire starting lineup qualify for the tournament) would be awesome,” said junior 174-pounder Phillip Bakuckas. “I think having the whole team there as one would be a little bit of a benefit for us. I feel like we all click together as a team, we push each other and I feel like we wrestle better as a team. So having 10 guys there at the national tournament would be awesome.”

Bakuckas, along with junior 125-pounder Sean McCabe, redshirt freshman 133-pounder Anthony Giraldo, sophomore 149-pounder Tyson Dippery, junior 157-pounder Richie Lewis and sophomore 184-pounder Nicholas Gravina each landed in the ranking and would be first-time qualifiers if they make the tournament.

Even though the coaches’ poll doesn’t guarantee a spot in the national tournament, it is a valuable checkpoint for wrestlers to gauge where they stand in their weight class as they enter the final stretch of the season. 

Last season, the Knights sent five wrestlers to the NCAA Championships. For nine wrestlers, six of which yet to qualify in their careers, to land in the first coaches’ poll is a testament to the strong season that Rutgers is having and how quickly the program is growing.

With seven dual meets remaining on the schedule, the Knights are aware that there is still business to take care of before they begin focusing on the NCAA Championships.

But how each grappler performs over the next few weeks will go along way in determining who will have the opportunity to compete for a National Title at “The World’s Most Famous Arena” come March 17.

“I mean, that’s the goal,” Lewis said of making it to the National Championships. “Why shoot for the clouds when you can go for the moon? Like, why shoot for the moon when you can go for the stars? So, like I said, we’re expecting to get 10 guys there by the end of the season.”

For updates on the Rutgers wrestling team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

Eric Mullin

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