Rutgers hosts No. 7 Lehigh in final tune up before postseason
When head coach Scott Goodale originally constructed the Rutgers wrestling team’s 2015-16 dual schedule, it was designed to conclude this Friday against Drexel (9-7) at the College Avenue Gym.
But on Feb. 5, the National Wrestling Coaches Association announced the Scarlet Knights would be one of eight host sites for the 2016 NWCA Division I National Dual Series.
The Dual Series is set-up with the top-eight teams in the Big Ten hosting a top-25 team from outside the conference.
For the past couple of weeks, the Knights had no idea which ranked opponent they would be ending their season against, but they did have an idea of who they would like to see come to the Rutgers Athletic Center this Saturday.
“Lehigh would be really, really cool to end the season with that,” said senior 165-pounder Anthony Perrotti prior to his team's opponent was announced. “Two really high ranked teams, hour and a half away from each other. So, I mean, that would be really cool, but end of the year, we gotta get these last two wins and then it turns into individual, and the rest is history. But definitely finishing with two wins next weekend would be pretty cool.”
Rutgers’ hopes have turned into reality.
On Monday, the NWCA announced that the No. 13 Scarlet Knights (15-5, 5-4) would host No. 7 Lehigh (13-2), setting up a battle of old Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Conference foes.
The two programs have met 44 times previously, with their last meeting being in the 2012-13 season. In that matchup, senior Billy Smith, who was a redshirt freshman at the time, won the final match at heavyweight in a decision to give Rutgers the 17-16 upset win over the then-No. 14 Mountain Hawks.
Now the top-25 programs will rekindle their rivalry in front of what is expected to be a large crowd — with considerable representations from both teams — at the RAC.
“We get really excited to wrestle the best competition,” said sophomore 141-pounder Anthony Ashnault. “Getting a chance one more time at home against a quality opponent to wrestle in front of our home crowd, we love that kind of stuff. Especially because we’re hoping to get a really big crowd cause it’s gonna be a good team … we really wanna show out for our home crowd.”
The last time the Knights competed in front of their home crowd, they suffered two late losses over a three-day span. On Feb. 5, they dropped the dual-deciding bout in an 18-15 loss to Wisconsin and two days later had a late six-point lead evaporated by then-No. 8 Michigan, who collected 17 consecutive points in the final three matches to win 27-16.
As it has done a few times this season, Rutgers came back strong during its road trip to Indiana last weekend. The Knights took down Indiana and then-No. 23 Purdue by a combined score of 54-24, while scoring bonus points in half of their total individual wins from the two duals.
“I think it definitely comes from coaching and just how tight our group is together,” Ashnault said on Rutgers’ ability to bounce back from losses. “We’re all really close friends and we get along real well so we’re able to put it behind us and everyone picks each other up … Wrestling’s taught a lot of us you gotta move on ... Just keep putting your full effort out there and good things will come.”
The Indiana road trip signaled the end of Big Ten dual competition for the Knights, who improved by three wins in its second year in the deepest wrestling conference in the country.
The win over Purdue also improved on an already record mark in coach Goodale’s nine-year tenure by beating the sixth ranked opponent of the season.
Rutgers will have the opportunity to add to that number one last time in its matchup with Lehigh, but it won’t come easy.
The Mountain Hawks boast five ranked grapplers in their lineup, highlighted by No. 9 157-pounder Mitch Mionotti and No. 3 184-pounder Nathaniel Brown. The Knights will counter with junior No. 12 Richie Lewis and sophomore No. 20 Nicholas Gravina respectively, who will each put streaks of at least six straight dual wins on the line.
Regardless of the outcome, a matchup with a top-10 team to close out the season will be a legitimate final tune-up for Rutgers, who heads to the Big Ten Champions on March 5 followed by the NCAA Championships two weeks later.
“We’re hoping it’s someone that brings a fan base so we could wrestle again in front of a large crowd, in a really big environment,” Goodale said. “All that does is prepare you for March. It’s gonna be somebody really, really good. All that will do is prepare us for the Big Tens and the national tournament that’s what we’re looking for.”