Rutgers looks to build on breakthrough season
The Rutgers wrestling program has seen improvement at an exponential rate over the past three seasons.
It was just three years ago that Anthony Perrotti delivered the Rutgers wrestling team its first All-American under the guidance of head coach Scott Goodale.
Last year, the Scarlet Knights not only pushed through two All-Americans for the first time since 1952, but their entire lineup qualified for the NCAA Championships for the first time in program history.
And as the Knights set to embark on the 2016-17 season, they aren't anticipating that growth to stop anytime soon.
"There's a ton of expectations within this program. They're extremely high and that's kind of the way we want it. We don't hide from that," Goodale said at the team's media day on Wednesday. "We feel we can be really good, but there's certainly a lot of question marks right now ... but we're pretty close to being an elite team. I've always talked about being a top-10 team in the country year in and year out. That's kind of our focus. And if we can breakthrough and get some of these guys who haven't placed at the national tournament to do so, who knows, maybe we're contending for a trophy. "
While Rutgers has experienced continued growth over the past few seasons, the 2015-16 season was the Knights' coming out party. Rutgers defeated three top-10 opponents and seven ranked foes overall en route to a No. 10 regular season finish in the USA Today/NWCA Coaches' Poll.
The Knights jumped to a fifth-place finish overall at the Big Ten Tournament, secured their first Big Ten Champion in then-sophomore 141-pounder Anthony Ashnault and were 1 of 3 teams in the country to qualify their entire lineup for the national tournament.
But Rutgers experienced an unfitting end to an otherwise tremendous season at the national tournament. Of their 10 national qualifiers, only three remained in the championship bracket after the first session and only five survived the first day of the tournament.
Despite having their whole lineup in the field, the Knights finished the tournament 15th overall.
"If you look at it as a whole picture in the past five years, we should've been ecstatic with our performance. But for how hard we trained, how much things we do in the sport of wrestling and what we put ourselves through, sending 10 guys and only two All-Americans wasn't enough for us," Ashnault said. "And that's probably because we know the talent that all of us have. ... We definitely have the talent to be putting four, five guys on the podium and national champs on the board, but that doesn't happen overnight. So I think looking at it as a disappointment last year wouldn't be the right thing to call it, but it definitely was a little underachievement in our eyes. This year we're definitely going for more than two All-Americans."
Rutgers' lineup experienced three substantial blows with the turn of the new season, with the graduation of four-year starter 197-pounder Hayden Hrymack, two-time All-American 165-pounder Anthony Perrotti and 100-plus match winner heavyweight Billy Smith.
But the Knights return nine NCAA qualifiers and six wrestlers ranked in the top-20 of their respective weight classes, headlined by two-time All-American No. 4 Ashnault and No. 6 157-pounder senior Richie Lewis.
Rutgers not only reloaded with a promising recruiting class, but also got stronger by way of in-house additions to the lineup. Junior 133-pounder Scott DelVecchio and senior 149-pounder Ken Theobold make their return to the Knights after wrestling unattached last season.
Both DelVecchio and Theobold were NCAA qualifiers in the season preceding their redshirt year.
"(Last year) was definitely challenging," Theobold said. "To see my team, we competed really hard last year. We had huge matches, ranked top-10 in the country. It was tough to redshirt and sit out a year after competing and becoming a national qualifier. But at the end of the day I looked at the bigger goal that I set for myself and I knew that redshirting was how I can get that goal. ... It allowed me to sit back and focus on the things that needed to get me better, which I believe I did."
Rutgers begins its regular season Nov. 11 with a dual meet against CSU Bakersfield and San Francisco State in Bakersfield, California. But, in contrast to last season, the Knights starting lineup for that season-opening dual is nowhere near set in stone.
The Knights still have battles at multiple weight classes that need to be resolved and they won't be settled in a traditional intra-squad wrestle-off style.
Instead, the entire Rutgers roster — sans Ashnault, who will be the first Knight to ever compete at the NWCA All-Star Classic — will pay for their own trip to the East Stroudsburg Open Nov. 6 and compete unattached for starting bids.
The competition for those bids includes multiple national qualifiers at both 133 pounds — DelVecchio and junior Tyson Dippery — and at 149 pounds — Theobold and sophomore Anthony Giraldo.
Settling the lineup this way allows the coaching staff to see the Knights wrestle against multiple opponents rather than the same teammates they compete against on a daily basis. Goodale said there's a good chance that teammates will eventually square off against one another throughout the tournament as well.
That depth and competition the Knights possess isn't a bad thing either, but rather another example of the rise in status of the wrestling program at Rutgers.
"You go from barely having a solid lineup to, this year, it's a struggle for the coaches to figure out who they're gonna cut cause there's so many good guys on the team," Ashnault said. "It's really exciting that the culture came to that point cause when I came to Rutgers that's where I envisioned it. I could've went to programs that were already established with that kind of culture and I decided no, I'm gonna stay home and try to create something like that and even better. ... We almost came from nothing all the way to competing with the best in the country and it's just so exciting to be apart of and so exciting to see."
For updates on the Rutgers wrestling team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.