Rutgers absorbs increasing pressure with home defeat over Indiana
After leaving the Rutgers Athletic Center and trekking to Columbus, Ohio only hours after on Sunday, the Rutgers wrestling team knew two things.
One was that there were only two dual meets separating it from tournament season. Convention or confusion would have to be compromised for the other in order to find the right chemistry that makes the team tick.
And that needed to happen fast.
The other was that after a weekend in Michigan billowing in unmet expectations, the No. 14 Scarlet Knights needed to tap into one of those two in order to have success in Bloomington and St. Louis in March.
With a 25-9 dual meet win over Indiana (9-7, 2-5), Rutgers (11-3, 5-2) unlocked a tenacity and urgency that didn’t make the trip with them to the Great Lake State, as the Knights won seven of 10 matches Sunday.
Jagged and rough as Rutgers’ last few weeks have been, Sunday’s affair against a middling Big Ten side like Indiana needed to run smoothly. With only a month of play left before the Big Ten Championships, rounding the edges is what head coach Scott Goodale has in mind for the Knights in the final two dual meets before the tournament.
To be frank, it needed to be perfect.
But that’s not to say Goodale was demanding falls from every one of his wrestlers. Sometimes perfection just means staying consistent or rising above adverse circumstances.
Of course, when junior Anthony Ashnault smells 6 points, he takes.
“I got so excited when I locked it up that I just jumped after it. It wasn’t the prettiest, but I got the pin and I was pretty excited,” Ashnault said. “I was relaxed. Didn’t get over-anxious at all, just kind of calm. Waiting for my turn to go shine.”
At No. 6 in the nation, the 141-pounder burst out of the gate with a fall in 1:30, making quick work of Indiana’s Cole Weaver and effectively putting the meet out of reach for the Hoosiers.
Ashnault’s presence hasn’t gone unnoticed in the Rutgers camp. He has provided much-needed stability in the middle of the lineup, won both of his matches last weekend and nabbed another one Sunday.
Usually a paragon of consistency alongside Ashnault is junior 184-pounder Nicholas Gravina. As the only ranked match of the day and the second on the card, the match between No. 13 Gravina and No. 7 Nate Jackson was highly anticipated.
And many in attendance at the RAC Sunday afternoon anticipated a win for Gravina.
But with a 5-4 decision, Jackson and the Hoosiers hammered through the ironclad wall that is Gravina and came away with one of their three wins for the day.
On the other hand, senior 149-pounder Ken Theobold, who doesn’t usually find himself coming from behind, corrected a less-than-stellar history against opponent Chris Perez with an 8-1 decision.
Historically 1-2 against the Hoosier before Sunday, including a 10-6 loss at the 2015 NCAA Championships, Theobold leveled with Perez with a commanding victory, flirting with 6 points on multiple occasions.
With the meet out of reach for the visitors, it seemed Goodale was content with shaking the lineup around, as he opted for 157-pounder Anthony Giraldo over No. 18 John Van Brill and 165-pounder Dylan Painton in what has been a turbulent weight class for Rutgers this season.
Even the structure of a conventional dual meet was thrown out the window.
Rather than start with the 125-pound division, sophomore 174-pounder Jordan Pagano christened the afternoon with a defensive clinic. After landing a takedown in the opening minute of the bout, Pagano blocked attack after attack for two full periods to reach a 2-0 decision that brought the Knights into the lead.
“That’s his fifth nationally ranked win,” Goodale said. “He’s emerged, he’s emerging, he keeps beating really good guys. He’s emerging. It’s a problem we have, who we’re gonna wrestle, and Jordan, he’s got five nationally ranked wins there. That’s a big win for him.”
Amid all of the good on Sunday, one of the most reassuring signs for the Rutgers coaching staff was seeing true freshman 197-pounder Matthew Correnti pull out a win amid an up-and-down weekend out West.
Correnti, who went 1-1 last weekend, won by major decision in a 10-0 shutout over Jake Hinz.
But 125-pounder Brandon Paetzell, another true freshman on the Knights’ roster, seemed unable to escape the shadow of an 0-2 record in Michigan as he fell 7-3 to last year’s fifth-place 133-pounder in the Big Ten, Elijah Oliver.
Dropping three matches in a row after a blazing spell of ranked wins, Goodale preached the importance of Paetzell stepping out of that slump heading into tournament play.
“It’s the same thing we always ask from Brandon. Get to these guys’ legs, wrestle hard, make him wrestle you back. But you gotta get your attacks off, and he didn’t do that,” Goodale said. “That’s where he’s struggling right now. He’s a true freshman, you’re gonna go through these little bit of slumps. He’s gotta fight his way out of it.”
With another tough matchup ahead of him and the team as a whole Monday, an urgency has set in for Rutgers, and Paetzell’s performance is integral to the Knights leaving Columbus as the victors.
Junior heavyweight Razohnn Gross, whose overtime win marked his fourth in a row, stressed the team’s philosophy with an overnight turnaround. It’s simple, but with Rutgers set to qualify multiple wrestlers for postseason play, it’s essential.
“We did what we did today, and we’re going to Ohio State tomorrow and we’re going to wrestle our butts off.”