Rutgers finishes monumental dual season, eyes success at Big Ten Championships
Just moments after the Rutgers wrestling team closed out its dual season with a thrilling 18-15 win over No. 7 Lehigh in the NWCA National Duals Championship Series, Anthony Perrotti was seated at the front of press room in the Rutgers Athletic Center.
Alongside head coach Scott Goodale and senior heavyweight Billy Smith, Perrotti was asked about what it means to end his dual career with a win over a top-10 program at the RAC.
The 165-pounder began his answer praising Smith — who had beaten No. 14 Max Wessell in overtime in the dual-deciding bout — and noting how good he has been as a "closer" for the Scarlet Knights in his career.
But after the senior was done talking about his teammate, he paused for a moment before going on a tangent discussing everything that No. 13 Rutgers had accomplished in the 2015-16 dual season.
He was in awe and disbelief.
“Phew. Third top-ten win of the year,” Perrotti said. “Honestly, it’s crazy from a team standpoint. Two years in the Big Ten, it’s hard to believe we’re sitting here right now. It really is, but this is a hard-working program. So I mean, that’s what we’re gonna get.”
“Did you not trust that this was gonna happen one day, Perrotti?” Goodale interjected before flashing a smile.
But even after his head coach questioned him, the 165-pounder put in perspective just how impressive this season was for the Knights.
“Nah I did, (just) not this soon," Perrotti said. "To be completely honest when you’re in the Big Ten, you’re gonna take your lumps. I’ve seen a lot of teams … they’ve been in the Big Ten for who knows how long and you see how they’re doing. We were in the Big Ten for two years, finishing top-four, top-five, over .500 record. That’s really something to be proud of with this group."
Perrotti isn’t necessarily wrong to be amazed at what Rutgers accomplished this season.
Although it entered the season ranked as the No. 18 team in the nation, it was coming off an 11th place finish in the conference after posting just a 2-7 record in their inaugural season in the Big Ten.
The Knights made a substantial jump in the Big Ten standings this, using a 5-4 record to finish fifth in the deepest wrestling conference in the country. Rutgers wasn’t far off from flipping around its conference record from last season either, as two of its conference losses were by less than 4 points.
Going through a schedule that included 11 ranked foes overall, the Knights came out victorious in seven duals against top-25 opponents, setting a record mark in the nine-year tenure of Scott Goodale.
Of those seven victories, three of them were over top-10 programs, with a 21-13 win over then-No. 7 Cornell Nov. 29 at Madison Square Garden, a 17-16 criterion win over then-No. 4 Nebraska Dec. 12 and Rutgers’ most recent upset over the No. 7 Mountain Hawks.
All that success in duals earned Rutgers a mark it was shooting for when the season started, a top-10 spot in the national rankings. After rising as high as a program-best No. 6 after their win over Nebraska, the Knights finished the season slotted at No. 10 in the final USA Today/NWCA Coaches Poll.
For a team that returned 7 of its 10 full-time starters from the year prior, the Knights got key contributions from up and down its lineup throughout the dual season, but five grapplers in particular stood out and led the way for Rutgers.
At the forefront of the Knights' success in duals was its two All-Americans in the lineup. After posting a 19-2 dual record in his first year in the lineup last year, sophomore 141-pounder Anthony Ashnault followed up with an 18-1 record while leading the team in major decisions and riding time.
Tied with Ashnault for the team-lead in dual wins was fellow All-American Anthony Perrotti. The 165-pounder boasted an 18-2 record to go along with team-highs of four pins and 78 total match points. The senior also finished 6-2 against ranked opponents in his first season wrestling at 165 pounds.
Right behind the two All-Americans was the third headline name from last year’s lineup in Billy Smith, who used a 17-4 record to finish tied for third in wins and second in major decisions.
Adding to the strong trio of Ashnault, Perrotti and Smith are two newcomers to the lineup who had breakout seasons for Rutgers.
Sophomore Nicholas Gravina, who only got seven dual matches under his belt last year, compiled a 17-7 record in his first full season in the lineup to tie Smith for third in wins. The 184-pounder’s signature dual win came against then-No. 4 T.J. Dudley of Nebraska, which was key in the Knights' eventual upset of the Cornhuskers.
Finally, there’s junior Richie Lewis, who hasn’t lost a dual match since Dec. 10. Riding a nine-dual win streak that has included wins over the No. 9, 10 and 12 grapplers in the 157-pound class, Lewis was able to conclude his first season on the Banks with a 16-1 record.
Last year, Lewis was wrestling at the junior college level for Iowa Central, but Rutgers has high hopes for him as they enter the championship season.
“Right now, he’s right on target to be top-three in the NCAA (Championships),” said associate head coach Donny Pritzlaff at the press conference following the Knights’ loss to Michigan Feb. 7. “Whether he can be one, two, or three, that’s gonna be up to him in those fine-tuned matches.”
As Rutgers closes the book on a successful dual season, it now moves onto the individual-based portion of the season.
First up on the docket is the Big Ten Championships March 5-6, a tournament-style event that awards automatic qualifications for the NCAA Tournament depending on finishes in each of the 10 respective weight classes.
The number of automatic qualifications for the tournament has yet to be released, but last year, the Big Ten awarded 86 spread out differently throughout the weight classes, ranging from five to 12 qualifications in each class.
Last year, the Knights had four automatic qualifiers at the tournament’s end, with Ashnault finishing in fifth, Perrotti at seventh in his old 157-pound class and Smith at ninth.
Although Rutgers was able to produce four automatic qualifiers, it finished the tournament as a team 11 out of the 14 Big Ten teams, in terms of final team scores.
After the dual season the Knights had, they're expecting a much better showing this time around in Iowa City. But for that to happen, Rutgers has to be sound in everything they do leading up to the tournament.
“We’re two weeks away from competition,” Goodale said. “Whether it’s rest, strength and condition, nutrition. All that stuff (is important). The wrestling will take care of itself, but you have to be solid (from last Sunday) on. Everything’s gotta matter and that’s what we preach to these guys … Every little thing they do, they have to do it right and that’ll ultimately get these guys to where they wanna be at the end of the year."