August 18, 2019 | 81° F

Rutgers hosts Princeton in historic Battle at the Birthplace outdoor dual meet

Photo by Dimitri Rodriguez |

Junior Anthony Ashnault, the third ranked 141-pounder in the country, will face Princeton's No. 10 Matthew Kolodzik, the highest ranked freshman in the weight class, in one of the most anticipated matchups of the historic Battle at the Birthplace Saturday.

On Nov. 6, 1869, Rutgers College and the College of New Jersey played the first game of intercollegiate football on a plot of ground in New Brunswick. The Knights won 6-4.

The institutions now known as Rutgers University and Princeton University will meet again 147 years and 13 days later in another monumental battle in the same location, but this time in another sport.

When Princeton wrestling head coach Chris Ayres received a phone call from the Knights wrestling head coach Scott Goodale, asking to participate in the first ever Battle at the Birthplace, Ayres said “oh, yeah.”

The long-awaited bout between the two New Jersey rivals came to be and on Saturday at 11 a.m. at High Point Solutions Stadium, two wrestling juggernauts in No. 10 Rutgers (3-0) and Princeton (0-0) will duke it out in an unprecedented outdoor dual meet.

The Scarlet Knights preceded the upcoming weekend with a trip to California, where they went undefeated, taking care of San Francisco State, CSU Bakersfield and Cal Poly.

As for Princeton, Saturday’s meet will be their first of the regular season, as they have been entertaining preseason tournaments for the past few weeks, including the Virginia Tech open.

Between the two sides, the Tigers are determined to end a streak spanning over a decade in which they have come up winless against the Rutgers, and in which the Knights have won 20 consecutive matches over the Ivy Leaguers.

“It’s our senior season, we want to go out with a bang and stomp Rutgers,” said senior 149-pounder Jordan Laster. “I think it’s about time we did it. And we wanna be known as the best sport at Princeton University, and I think this can really put us there.”

No. 20 Laster will most likely come up against No. 13 Ken Theobold for the Knights, as most of the lineups seem set ahead of Saturday’s affair.

Though there are a few spots here and there that are up in the air for either side — the 165 slot for Princeton, namely — both sides are confident in who they’ll face come the weekend.

As for Theobold, he had nothing but praise for the event and hopes to do well. 

“It’s going to be a great experience,” Theobold said. “It’s my last year here, and we’re wrestling in front of hopefully 20,000 people. You can’t ask for a better senior year than that. It’s an amazing experience. I’m grateful to be a part of it.”

Perhaps the most highly-anticipated bout of the day is in the 141-pound weight class. Junior No. 3 Anthony Ashnault and Princeton freshman No. 11 Matthew Kolodzik will take the mat for the first time since their two unattached matches in which each took one apiece.

Creeping up the rankings step-by-step, Ashnault knows any slip up against a wrestler just below him will bring a multitude of consequences.

“He’s a great opponent, and I’m looking forward to competing against him,” Ashnault said. “At the end of the day, I’m going out there to get my hand raised and really, I wanna show how much better I’ve gotten since (we wrestled).”

In Goodale’s mind, there are not many “gimmes” on the docks for Saturday’s event. Ashnault is projected to win his match, though as Goodale confesses, in a dual like this, it would not take much for the favor to switch hands.

“It’s a tremendous matchup, it really is,” Goodale said. “On paper, it’s probably a five-five split. The way we see it, we’re favored in three, they’re favored in three, and there’s probably four really, really good tossups.”

But the question on everybody’s minds is whether these matches will even take place. Regardless of the forecast for the day, it’s a late morning start time at the tail end of autumn in New Jersey, a state which isn’t exactly a paragon of predictable weather.

Goodale has the boys up for the challenge though and has been preparing specifically for these conditions for some time. For years, the team has participated in 7 a.m. Friday practices at High Point Solutions Stadium and in the weeks leading up to this weekend, it has been no different.

Another point to consider is that with how long these wrestlers have been waiting for this event, their adrenaline may carry them over any obstacles Mother Nature has in store. And it has made training in these conditions a lot more meaningful.

“It’s just really exciting, it makes it a lot easier to train for, a lot easier to get up for,” Ashnault said. “Everyone is really excited to be a part of it.”

As of a week prior, 14,000 tickets have already been sold, and the walk-up crowd is expected to raise that number to a groundbreaking amount for a mid-season collegiate wrestling match. Everyone involved in the proceedings is planning (and hoping) for an audience of 20,000-plus.

Ayres was adamant on this event being a vehicle to launch collegiate wrestling into the mainstream, as both the Rutgers and Princeton wrestling are some of the better programs each school has to offer.

“You have to showcase the sport, that’s what I’ve been preaching the whole time,” Ayres said. “I think where wrestling has fallen short is that we don’t give ourselves enough credit and we don’t get out there and promote enough.”

As far as promotions go, Battle at the Birthplace sells itself — the two best wrestling programs in the Garden State squaring off and continuing a rivalry that began on a cold November afternoon under President Ulysses S. Grant.

On that fateful day in 1869, Rutgers and Princeton created a sport. 

This Saturday, they evolve one.

For updates on the Rutgers wrestling team, follow @jon_spilletti and @TargumSports on Twitter.

Jon Spilletti

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