Sophomore fends off injuries as he rides unbeaten streak for Rutgers
What transpired at the Rutgers Athletic Center Dec. 12 very well may wind up being the lasting image of the Rutgers wrestling team’s 2015-16 dual season.
The then-No. 11 Scarlet Knights had just won two consecutive bouts to tie up the score with then-No. 4 Nebraska 10-10 through six individual matches.
In the subsequent match, junior 174-pounder Phillip Bakuckas trailed then-No. 12 Micah Barnes by just one point with under a minute remaining in the third period. But Barnes took down and nearly pinned Bakuckas to secure the win and give the Cornhuskers a three-point edge.
With three ranked grapplers coming up to close out the dual for Nebraska — compared to only one for the Knights coming in the third and final match — Rutgers was most likely going to need an upset in the next two bouts to have a chance for the upset win.
Stepping onto the mat at the RAC first for the Cornhuskers was then-No. 4 174-pounder T.J. Dudley. The Knights countered with sophomore Nicholas Gravina, who was coming off two consecutive losses of over five points to the No. 1 and No. 8 grapplers in his weight class.
Dudley used a takedown early in the first period to take a 2-0 lead, but Gravina fought hard to keep him off the board after that. About midway through the third period, the Allendale, New Jersey, native picked up a reversal on Dudley to tie the score and then rode him out for the final 1:25 of the match.
When the buzzer sounded signaling the end of the third period, the scoreboard read 2-2, but Gravina had riding time on his side and was awarded the tiebreaking point to pick up his first win over a ranked opponent in his career on the Banks.
The two Big Ten foes split the final two bouts in decisions, but Rutgers broke the 16-16 tie by holding the edge in criterion 3.15.3 — having more combined individual matches that didn’t end in pin falls — and, behind Gravina’s upset victory, had taken down the No. 4 team in the country.
“Nick Gravina is something else man,” said senior 165-pounder Anthony Perrotti at the press conference following the upset win. "I’ve been saying it, you’re so close to breaking through and you’re right there on the cusp and everyday, I really tell him I try to drill it in his head, as in everyone’s head. And it doesn’t surprise me that he beat that kid 'cause he’s one of the toughest kids I know.”
What at the time was a match win that was integral in picking up one of the most monumental wins in Rutgers program history also turned out to be a turning point in Gravina’s first full season in the starting lineup.
Since his win over Dudley, the 184-pounder has gone a perfect 6-0 in duals, including a second ranked win over then-No. 19 Abram Ayala of Princeton, to bring his overall dual record to 13-3.
While he’s been wrestling at his best, Gravina has had trouble escaping the injury bug that has plagued him in his first couple seasons at Rutgers.
Gravina didn’t get to compete in any tournaments in his redshirt season at Rutgers’ two years ago due to issues with his shoulder, something he said he’s dealt with for his whole life.
He eventually had to have surgery on his right shoulder after dislocating it and was shut down for the 2013-14 season.
Fast forward two seasons later and Gravina is still having issues with the same shoulder. Against Wisconsin on Feb. 5, Gravina was a match-time decision because of it, and it was unclear whether the Knights would send him out to wrestle.
But with Rutgers trailing 15-6 with only three matches remaining, the sophomore went out to compete — minus the brace that he usually sports on his right shoulder — and dominated in a 7-2 decision win over Ryan Christensen.
Although the Knights wound up losing the dual 18-15, Gravina’s gritty performance was integral in their comeback effort, eventually knotting the score at 15.
Two days later, with the Knights leading then-No. 8 Michigan 16-10 through seven matches, junior Anthony Pafumi was sent out for the 174-pound match instead of Gravina.
“Gravina’s probably not supposed to wrestle tonight, probably not supposed to wrestle,” said head coach Scott Goodale after the Wisconsin dual. “Just a tough kid. Just a really, really tough kid.”
After the Wisconsin dual, Gravina said he doesn’t want his shoulder to be something that holds him out of matches.
“I just really wanted to go out there. So I went out there, we talked about it,” Gravina said. “My injury is kind of like, it’s not that big of a deal. I treat it like as if I have asthma. Like you don’t want to sit a match just because something stupid like that like an injury.”
Gravina was back on the mat this past weekend against Indiana Feb. 12.
According to the Big Ten Network’s broadcast of Rutgers’ dual against Purdue two days later, Gravina dislocated his finger in the middle of his match against the Hoosiers’ Matt Irick, but told the coaches he didn’t want to come out of the match and give up six points for a medical forfeit.
As he’s worked his way into the national rankings in his weight class, Gravina has showcased his toughness in battling through injuries.
Entering the final two duals of the season — with championship season following that up — Gravina isn’t thinking about the injuries holding him back as he’s cruised through an unbeaten stretch.
Rather he’s just focusing on the next match that’s in front of him and not allowing the shoulder affect him.
“I haven’t really been thinking about that too much,” Gravina told the Targum on wrestling at his best while also having to fend off an injury. “I’ve been taking it one match at a time. The shoulder, it’s just been something I’ve been dealing with my whole life so I’ve kind of gotten used to it and it doesn’t really affect me as much mentally anymore.”