Rutgers upended by Lehigh in NWCA Dual Championships Series rematch
At the beginning of the season, junior 141-pounder Anthony Ashnault had this to say.
“We definitely have the talent to be putting four or five guys on the podium and to be national champs on the board,” he said.
After the Rutgers wrestling team put two wrestlers through the gauntlet and onto the national stage as All-Americans last year — himself and then-fifth-year senior 165-pounder Anthony Perrotti — Ashnault held that with the absence of his teammate Perrotti, others would step up.
With weeks to go before the NCAA Championships, another All-American may well in fact prop up, but one thing the 2016-2017 season has shown is that the Scarlet Knights have not found another Anthony Perrotti.
The 165-pound weight class has left head coach Scott Goodale and his coaching staff wanting more throughout the entire campaign, with redshirt freshman Willie Scott and fifth-year senior Anthony Pafumi unable to fill the void the All-American the two-time All-American left.
Rutgers realized Friday that any replacement for heavyweight Billy Smith is nowhere to be found as well.
The NWCA Dual Championships Series came and went for the No. 12 Knights (12-5, 6-3), as they fell victim to an onslaught courtesy of No. 11 Lehigh (10-4, 7-1).
A 23-10 line graced the board at Leeman-Turner Arena at Grace Hall in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania when the final whistle rang.
It is a matchup that has historically gone the way of Rutgers, with Smith acting the part of hero, winning the last two duals in the final match, including last year’s NWCA Dual Championships Series bout in which the Knights won, 18-15.
But by the time the event got to Smith’s famed spot, Rutgers was already down 10 points, and Razohnn Gross toed the white line yearning to give Ashnault, Jordan Pagano and Nicholas Gravina company in the wins column.
It was always going to be an uphill battle for the Knights, a team teeming with young talent opposite a Mountain Hawks side boasting eight ranked wrestlers, five being upperclassmen.
Seven of those nationally touted athletes figured in the first seven slots on the evening, meaning those like freshman 125-pounder Brandon Paetzell and sophomore 133-pounder Scott DelVecchio would need to come out of the locker room swinging.
But as the night would have it, they would drop their matches to No. 5 Darian Cruz and No. 9 Scott Parker respectively, giving the home squad a breathable 7-0 lead.
Of course, as the scoreline shows, Rutgers would get its chops in, including a season-defining victory for 174-pounder Pagano.
No. 19 Pagano shocked the Lehigh faithful in attendance with a massive 10-4 decision over No. 4 Ryan Preisch, which spells wonderfully for his stock heading into Big Ten Championships.
All was not lost for the Knights, in fact, not too much was.
They ran into a side plastered with national rankings, and though most of Rutgers’ squad was unable to break through those top seeds, a few left little to be desired like Pagano.
There was No. 5 Ashnault, who once again showed why he is the best of the bunch, collecting a 4-0 decision over No. 16 Randy Cruz, his third of three against the Mountain Hawk in his career.
And No. 13 Gravina flashed his versatility, moving up to the 197-pound slot to cover some ground for the Knights, putting 11 points on the board for a major decision over Lehigh’s Thomas Murray.
For some on this Rutgers team, championship season means ample opportunity for hand-raising, and for others, it’s a chance to assuage mistakes made at the tail end of the dual season
Whether Ashnault’s prediction is correct all hinges on what happens the first few weekends in March.
By Friday’s indication, he’ll certainly be on that podium. But like always, there’s some work to be done.