Rutgers seeks repeat of last year's result in NWCA Championships Series at Lehigh
In almost every metric, the Rutgers wrestling team is improving.
Since their initial membership in the Big Ten, the Scarlet Knights have gone from 2-7 to 5-4 to 6-3 in the conference, breaking through national rankings and knocking off a few ranked foes.
To boot, the Rutgers Athletic Center has been anything but a fortress for Rutgers. With a 6-0 record at home this year, a trip to Piscataway has become synonymous with a reflective ride back. Smiles come at a premium for visitors to the RAC.
The Knights are not what they were three years ago.
“My freshman year, we wrestled at the Barn with a couple hundred fans,” said senior 174-pounder Phillip Bakuckas. “And in my senior year, we’re wrestling in the football stadium with 16,000 (people), so you can see where this program is going.”
The team isn’t where it was last year either.
Walking into a weekend that seems oddly reminiscent of last year’s National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA) Championships Series, the No. 12 Knights will toe the white line against No. 11 Lehigh Friday in a rematch from last year’s affair.
On a night heroically won by heavyweight Billy Smith, Rutgers topped then-No. 7 Lehigh at home to the tune of 18-15.
Smith, who has since graduated, has proved the deciding factor in the Knights’ last two victories over the Mountain Hawks, which spells a great deal of significance for the latter half of Rutgers’ lineup this weekend.
A notably front-loaded team, sporting ranked wrestlers in its first seven slots, the Knights will need to see bonus-point wins from grapplers like freshman 197-pounder Matthew Correnti and junior heavyweight Razohnn Gross, Smith’s successor.
“You can tell how much better he’s gotten,” said head coach Scott Goodale. “From a ride-out situation … I told the other guys, ‘I don’t know if he can ride a bike, but he found a way to ride somebody in overtime.’ He’s getting a lot better. Good for Razohnn.”
But Gross, who collected an overtime victory in Rutgers’ 28-6 rout against Northwestern last weekend, is not solely complicit in the Knights’ potential toppling of the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania side.
Beyond the usual suspects — junior 141-pounder Anthony Ashnault, senior 149-pounder Ken Theobold, sophomore 157-pounder John Van Brill and junior 184-pounder Nicholas Gravina — other atheletes will have to put in maximum effort to not only try and scrape out wins but avoid bonus-point losses at all costs.
Junior 133-pounder Scott DelVecchio, who will stand toe-to-toe with No. 9 Scott Parker of the Mountain Hawks Friday, needs to channel his mat play from the Northwestern meet, says Goodale, to find success on the road.
“He’s in this conference where the top seven guys in the country are all from the Big Ten … it’s a really good conference. He’s been up against the best guys in the country, but you can see he’s really starting to wrestle better in the neutral position,” Goodale said.
But of course, Rutgers' fate does not rest solely on the laurels of Gross and DelVecchio, as the aforementioned Ashnault and Theobold, usually safe wins, find taller competition Friday.
In fact, No. 6 Ashnault saw his stock rise substantially after both of his past wins against his upcoming opponent, No. 16 Randy Cruz.
At last year’s meeting, Ashnault put him away, 9-2, and a year prior, the South Plainfield native earned All-American status with a 3-2 victory over Cruz.
Considering Ashnault’s current form — having won 11 consecutive matches and winning 17 of his 23 matches this season with bonus points — he should fare in a similar vein as he has in the past versus Cruz.
But the status of “sure things” like Ashnault and the Knights' favorable past against the Mountain Hawks is so little to rest on.
Rutgers is a troubling 1-4 score against ranked opponents this season, with their only win coming against then-No. 12 Illinois at home. With the Knights traveling to Bethlehem, where they have never won, they face another nationally ranked team on the road, a feat it has yet to overcome.
Of those four losses, Lehigh has seen the same result in three, dropping dual meets with Cornell, Penn State and Michigan.
Rutgers, having crept up the polls recently after a thrashing of Northwestern, seemed to gain some of the momentum lost amid a trying Big Ten slate.
The team will see no surprises Friday. The teams have seen each other before. With all the shifting and changing the Knights' lineup have seen this season, there is a familiarity from last season.
The same top performers are still at the top, but Friday, much relies on the supporting cast.
Rutgers does not have Billy Smith anymore to grab a meet-winning match, but Goodale is confident in his team’s ability to work through the event, match for match.
For now, he’s just focused on the preparation. Anything that happens Friday will ride on that.
“We’ll go status quo for the week and prepare and take off tomorrow,” Goodale said. “Try to get as healthy as we can get and get ready for them.”