Rutgers honors seniors with undefeated record at RAC
On a day during a season always looking toward the future, six seniors on the Rutgers wrestling team said their final goodbyes to the Rutgers Athletic Center.
A picture at the center of the mat, and the seniors — 174-pounder Phillip Bakuckas, 125-pounder Sean McCabe, 165-pounder Anthony Pafumi, 125-pounder Josh Patrick and 149-pounder Ken Theobold — took their seats on the bench. Of those wrestlers, three of them returned to the mat.
With NWCA National Duals on the horizon, momentum was as critical as ever. Youth, it seemed, for head coach Scott Goodale and his staff, was the answer.
On Sunday, the No. 13 Scarlet Knights (12-4, 6-3) defeated the Northwestern Wildcats (6-8, 1-7), 28-6, to finish the season undefeated at home, boasting a 6-0 record.
This marks the first time Rutgers has posted a spotless slate in Piscataway since 2013-2014. With wins against Princeton, No. 12 Illinois, Oregon State, Purdue and Indiana, it seemed almost a given that the Knights would do away with a team whose only win in the Big Ten came against the last-place Maryland Terrapins.
The seniors would make sure of that.
There was no other way Bakuckas could go out. The 174-pounder finished the job in just over two minutes, sending himself off in remarkable fashion with a commanding 16-0 technical fall.
“It’s been a crazy ride for me, so it felt really good to go out there and put on in front of the crowd for one last time,” Bakuckas said. “It’s been an emotional ride for me, this year, but I’m just happy I got that one and it’s just been an honor to represent this university and do what I came here to do.”
Much of that emotion this year has stemmed from the fact that No. 19 Jordan Pagano has assumed the 174-pound weight class. But Bakuckas, Goodale said, more than earned his spot in the lineup this weekend.
“That’s a lot of hard work and long hours with him and a lot of respect for that kid,” Goodale said. “Jordan’s wrestled really well, I just wanted Phil to go out one more time with this crowd. He’s been really, really special to us.”
In the same vein, looking to attach one final memory to his time on the Banks, No. 14 Theobold collected a 9-3 decision with over four and a half minutes of riding time over Wildcat Shayne Oster.
“I’m happy with the way it ended, at least from a duals standpoint. I’m gonna take this and kind of feel myself for the upcoming month that we have of the season. And I want to finish strong, where I think I could finish,” Theobold said.
The “one” in the one-two punch that has worked almost to perfection for the duration of the season, 141-pounder Anthony Ashnault delivered the technical fall that led Theobold on his way.
No. 5 Ashnault, after experiencing a dip in the national rankings through the bulk of the season, has watched himself climb with extra-point win after extra-point win.
But as has been the case for much of the 2016-2017 campaign, the day started with some youth in freshman 125-pounder Brandon Paetzell, this time seeking redemption from a 19-10 loss to Anthony Rubinetti at the Midlands Championships in December.
It was Paetzell’s to win, and like many of his bouts at the RAC, he took the entire seven minutes.
With the clock winding down, Paetzell pulled off yet another last-second victory, landing a takedown to claim the 4-2 decision.
But perhaps no one has personified the Knights’ youth movement like sophomore 157-pounder John Van Brill. Asserting himself among the country’s best with a No. 18 mark, Van Brill nabbed a 6-2 decision Sunday, amassing his 20th win of the season.
With Rutgers’ season characterized by injuries and a lot of shifting positions on the card, wrestlers like Van Brill and Paetzell have stepped up in massive ways, even with the stable presence of Theobold, Ashnault and No. 13 Nicholas Gravina, who also recorded a decision Sunday.
The Knights finished the regular season with their sixth conference win, a program-best in the Big Ten.
And as national duals, Big Ten Championships and NCAA Championships inch closer and closer, the combined presence of youth and experience will need to coexist as it did today, with both freshmen and outgoing seniors asserting their spots in the lineup with victories today.
“Overall I thought we really wrestled well,” Goodale said. “I thought we were super, super aggressive. That’s really the way I felt about the dual, I thought we wrestled extremely hard. Really good on top and got out what we needed to get out. So overall good day.”