Senior grappler delivers in clutch for Rutgers
Most of the Rutgers wrestling team’s dual meets begin at the lowest weight class — 125-pounds — and proceed in ascending weight. Under that format, the 285-pound heavyweight class is the tenth and final individual match.
For the No. 12 Scarlet Knights, who have squared off against seven ranked opponents to date, that final heavyweight match, where they are represented by senior Billy Smith, has been the deciding bout in a number of close dual victories.
Back on Dec. 12, the Knights welcomed then-No. 4 Nebraska to the Rutgers Athletic Center for their home opener. Just two days after a 29-6 shellacking at the hands of No. 2 Iowa, Rutgers put up a much better fight against the Cornhuskers.
The Knights led 10-7 through five matches, but Nebraska won three of the next four bouts to take a 16-13 lead entering the final match. That left it all up to Smith, who was pitted against No. 13 Collin Jensen and, at the very least, had to win in a decision by five points to give Rutgers the upset win.
Smith dominated the entire match and after taking a 5-point lead in the third period, he held on for an 8-2 decision victory to bring the Knights even with the Cornhuskers at 16 points a piece.
But since Smith won by at least five points, Rutgers was awarded a criteria point to their team score, meaning the Knights had secured one of the most monumental victories in program history.
“It could get pretty heavy on your conscious,” Smith said on competing in a match where he knows he needs to score a certain amount of points. “But a lot of the stuff, like, honestly it’s just easier than practice. You just have to tell yourself that. You practice it everyday and just the match and just to perform. You know, if you just stay within yourself and do the right things, you’ll get yourself ready for the match. It’s just like any other match.”
Smith’s winning match against Nebraska wasn’t the first time he had come through in the clutch for Rutgers. Earlier in the season against then-No. 13 North Carolina at the Northeast Duals, the Knights led the Tar Heels 15-13 heading into the heavyweight match.
Just as he did against Nebraska, Smith easily handled his opponent in an 8-1 decision that locked down the Knights' first win over a ranked opponent on the season.
A couple of weeks later, while leading then-No. 7 Cornell by five, all Smith had to do was avoid a loss by pin fall or technical fall to give Rutgers the win. The Wantage, New Jersey, native didn’t wrestle to just win, but instead dominated the match in an 8-1 decision.
Billy Smith’s performance late in competitive matches is reminiscent of that of a closing pitcher in baseball. While it doesn’t matter to Smith when his spot comes up in a dual meet, he certainly doesn’t mind to be called upon to close out a match.
“I like to think that we’re in a pretty good spot if the match comes down to me,” Smith said. “Obviously, we haven’t really pooled that much for the weight classes and started random that much this year, but a lot of these other teams down the line are gonna be doing that. I don’t mind either way. Honestly, going first or going last, it doesn’t really affect me. But yeah, I like to be the closer for the team.”
Just like when a lockdown closer comes in to pitch the ninth, when a dual meet hangs in the balance of the heavyweight match, Smith’s teammates are confident that he is going to guide them to a victory.
“Yeah, every time it comes down to Billy, I feel real comfortable,” said redshirt freshman 133-pounder Anthony Giraldo. “Like if there’s anybody else to be in that situation that I would think of, it would be him. He’s a fifth-year senior and he’s one of the best wrestlers on the team. So I’m real comfortable in his ability to lead the team.”
In his final collegiate season, Smith is 11-3 in duals, bringing his career record to 52-14. The heavyweight grappler has been an NCAA qualifier in each of his three seasons of eligibility, but has yet to acquire the All-American title.
For Smith to make that next step, he has to be able to take down opponents that are ranked higher than him. Currently ranked at No. 13 in his class, two of his three losses have come against grapplers that were in the top-five.
In the Knights’ previous match against Minnesota, Smith took down No. 7 Michael Kroells in a 2-1 decision. While it wasn’t a match-clinching win, head coach Scott Goodale believes that victory could go a long way in boosting Smith’s confidence as he approaches the Big Ten and NCAA Championships.
“He’s always been important, he’s been important for five years,” Goodale said. “(The win against Minnesota) was a big one for him, hopefully that gets him over the hump and keeps him going in the right direction against those highly ranked guys … His confidence has got to continue to grow and grow and grow up until the Big Ten Championships. He’s got to take advantage of the way he wrestled (Sunday), feel good about it, continue to train the right way and know that everything he’s doing is working.”
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