Homegrown wrestlers fuel Rutgers in monumental season
Anthony Ashnault was a heavily sought-after recruit in high school and for good reason.
In his four seasons at South Plainfield High School, Ashnault used a perfect 170-0 career record to capture four New Jersey State Championships, becoming the first high school wrestler in state history to be crowned champion four times while maintaining an unscathed record.
Ashnault had his pick of the crop when deciding where to wrestle at the collegiate level, with offers from top programs across the country like Big Ten powerhouses Michigan and Penn State.
But before the start of his final wrestling season at South Plainfield, he committed to a university in the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association that was right down the road from his hometown.
“It was the coaches telling me that this is where the program is going,” the sophomore 141-pounder said reflecting back on his decision to come to Rutgers. “It was really just me believing in them and believing in my abilities to just help us get there … Definitely when I was coming out of high school this was the vision and the vision’s even higher than this and we’re gonna keep going until we get there.”
What makes the No. 12 Rutgers wrestling team unique is that Ashnault’s story — a talented New Jersey wrestler who chose to stay close to home in an attempt to build something special — is shared by numerous grapplers up and down the Scarlet Knights’ roster.
Eight of the 10 wrestlers in the Knights’ starting lineup are from in state, with over a third of the overall roster hailing from the Garden State.
Junior 125-pounder Sean McCabe, from Ronkonkoma, New York, and sophomore 149-pounder Tyson Dippery, from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, are the lone members of the starting lineup from out of state.
It has been an overall team effort from all ten starters that has pushed Rutgers to a top-12 team in the nation, but New Jersey grapplers have been at the forefront of its success this season. Ashnault (18-2), junior 157-pounder Richie Lewis (15-3), senior 165-pounder Anthony Perrotti (14-2) and senior heavyweight Billy Smith (17-5) have been the Knights’ top-four performers this season.
Redshirt freshman Anthony Giraldo, junior 174-pounder Phillip Bakuckas, sophomore 184-pounder Nicholas Gravina and senior 197-pounder Hayden Hrymack are the other four New Jersey natives in the lineup and have each come up with big wins along the way for the Knights.
The homegrown talents have their fingerprints on a season where Rutgers has vaulted itself into the conversation for one of the top teams in the Big Ten, as well as the nation, has added a fascinating storyline to its monumental season.
“I love New Jersey, it’s where I was born. I didn’t really want to go anywhere far,” Bakuckas said. “(Volunteer assistant coach Joe) Pollard was the first person that started recruiting me and I came up here, saw a couple matches and I thought this was the perfect spot. I think it’s important that a lot of New Jersey wrestlers stay here.”
Even though it may seem hard to believe after surveying the roster, but head coach Scott Goodale doesn’t recruit with the intention of forming some sort of New Jersey All-Star team, rather simply trying to bring the best possible recruits to Rutgers.
With that mindset in consideration, the Knights having a large amount of wrestlers from in state is a testament to how strong New Jersey wrestling truly is.
In recruiting top grapplers from in state, Goodale has found that the process cuts both ways. Since some of the recruits from New Jersey already know most of the wrestlers on the Banks, some decide not to come because they don’t envision how they would fit into the lineup in future seasons.
On the other end, some recruits welcome the idea of teaming up with friends and wrestlers they have competed against in the past. This was seen in the recruiting class of 2013, when Ashnault, along with high school teammates Scott DelVecchio and Dylan Painton, each committed to Rutgers.
“We get a little bit of a mixture. Some years it’s better than others, but I think we’re doing a pretty good job of keeping the best kids in our state home and we’re gonna continue,” Goodale said. “It’s a great wrestling state, so for us to be successful, we gotta recruit Jersey, but we also gotta recruit guys that fit our mold, fit our character and fit the program and if we need to go outside the state to do it, then we gotta do that too.”
When Asnault committed to Rutgers, it was still in the EIWA and the school moving into the Big Ten wasn’t yet to be in the discussion.
But Goodale’s message of having the chance to build something special at their state school hit home with a number of top recruits in the past couple of classes, including Ashnault, DelVecchio and Giraldo.
His message to those guys has come to fruition much faster than first expected, as the Knights have defeated five ranked opponents and has remained in the top half of the national rankings for most of the season.
There’s no denying that homegrown wrestlers have played a huge role in Rutgers’ success this season, something that Goodale, a Toms River native, has likened to.
But he is going to continue to go after the best wrestlers, regardless of where they’re from, to bring the program to a point where the top wrestlers from not only New Jersey but from across the country want to come join the Knights.
“I certainly got a lot of pride in this state so in a way, yeah, that’s kinda cool,” Goodale said on eight of his 10 starters hailing from New Jersey. “But at the same point, I just ... wanna win at the highest level. So I love the fact that (Sean) McCabe is a New York Long Island guy, heck that’s like Jersey anyway, right? ... It is cool that we do have a lot of Jersey, cause I’m a Jersey guy, but I don’t really recruit like that. I recruit to try to get the best guys.”