Rutgers Roundup: Success on national stage provides glimpse of what can be
Welcome to the third edition of the Rutgers Roundup, a weekly segment in which we reflect on what happened surrounding Scarlet Knights athletics over the past seven days before acknowledging top performances during the span with our Targum awards.
Due to a pause for Spring Break, this roundup will discuss the major events of the last two weeks, a frame of time chock full of historic milestones.
Let’s dive in:
Monumental Achievements Prove B1G Aspirations:
The public opinion of Rutgers athletics over the course of the past few years is not a flattering one, to put it kindly.
Scandals from coaches (Mike Rice, Kyle Flood), administration (Julie Hermann), players (multiple arrests, among other issues) and alum (Ray Rice) off the playing field compiled along with the mediocre-at-best results on it for most of its programs has seen the State University of New Jersey as a doormat of the Power Five, a punchline in most jokes made by the national media and fans alike.
But while these issues brewed in the national eye, with blowout losses from the football and men’s basketball program’s made fun of in tweets from national outlets and the bi-annual hit piece on the department’s spending written by prominent newspapers, there were bright spots occurring to those who paid closer attention.
Those positives came to a peak over the course of the past week.
The wrestling program, which has seen a steady rise under the watch of Scott Goodale, didn’t quite live up to its increasingly high expectations over the weekend in the NCAA Championships on a collective level, but Goodale’s biggest recruiting coup did manage to further push his case as the greatest Olympic athlete Rutgers has ever seen.
Two weeks removed from defending his Big Ten title in dominant fashion, junior 141-pounder Anthony Ashnault became the first three-time All-American in program history. It came with a disappointing sixth place finish, a good placing to many but not to a transcendent athlete with aspirations of a national title.
"I'm proud of myself, but at the same time a little disappointed," Ashnault told NJ Advanced Media’s Ryan Dunleavy, demonstrating his mindset entering the weekend — championship or bust.
The men’s lacrosse team has a similar outlook on their current season after being snubbed from the NCAA Tournament a year ago for a Johns Hopkins team it had beat twice before.
Like Goodale, Brian Brecht has built the program from a middling program to a consistent top 20 team. It’s been a meteoric rise which saw its peak arrive this week when the 8-0 Scarlet Knights were pinned as the top team in the country by the Inside Lacrosse media poll, checking in at No. 1 after previous holder Denver was smoked by current No. 4 Ohio State.
Brecht took a team which finished 6-9 in his first season and 2-11 in his second and brought it to a program record 11 wins by his fifth year, three of which coming against ranked opposition. It earned him Big Ten Coach of the Year honors and is well on his way to repeating if the Knights manage to maintain their momentum heading into a brutal Big Ten schedule which concludes with matchups against fellow top-5 teams No. 3 Penn State and the No. 4 Buckeyes.
But Brecht didn’t come to Piscataway to fight for No. 1 rankings — the team’s motto entering the season is NCAA Tournament or bust.
As good as their early season results have been, as impressive as a first ever top national ranking in their 100th season is — the first of any Rutgers team since the men’s soccer program in 1995 — the Knights need to perform well during the conference schedule to make themselves a lock and prevent another all-time snub by the committee — and they’re well aware of that.
“I think it’s exciting and well deserved, they did a great job putting themselves in position at this point in the season,” Brecht said in a conference call with reporters. “...But there’s a lot of lacrosse left and we’re excited to focus on [our next game against] Delaware.”
That mindset of seeking more in the face of unprecedented success is a sign of progress not only for those programs but for the athletic department as a whole.
The men’s basketball program, fresh off a campaign in which it earned a first ever Big Ten road win, first ever Big Ten Tournament win en route to the fourth biggest improvement in the win category among Power Five teams, and the football program, which begins its spring season today with the first of 15 practices, will always be the face of the athletic department.
Until those one or both of those programs live up to the goals their head coaches set as goals upon their hiring, aspirations of being competitive and respectable in the Big Ten before eventually fighting for conference titles, the school will be seen as one of, if not the worst Power Five program in the country.
But until then, fans can lean on the success of the smaller sports — men’s lacrosse, wrestling, women’s soccer — for signs of an upward trend.
We’re midway through the Rutgers Roundup, and you know what that means — it’s time for our off-topic question of the week.
Last week’s question didn’t get much feedback, but it did have a winner. With a whopping three votes, Taylor Ham was (rightly) chosen as the name for New Jersey’s (un)official breakfast meat.
This week’s question: Where does Anthony Ashnault rank in the all-time ranking of Rutgers athletes?
Onto the Awards:
Athlete of the Week:
After making school history by becoming its first ever three-time All-American, Anthony Ashnault earns another historic distinction — the first ever repeat Targum Sports Athlete of the Week.
Team of the Week:
Said this last time and will keep repeating it as long as it’s relevant — until the Rutgers men’s lacrosse team drops a game or shows signs of their blazing start beginning to cool down, it’s going to take a massive effort from other team’s to knock them off the perch.
For the third time in as many editions, the program is the Targum Sports Team of the Week, a streak that doesn’t appear close to ending anytime soon.
Quote of the Week:
“It's nice to be the hunter. It's a different position to be hunted. It's a great accomplishment for them, first and foremost. It's great for our institution and all of our alumni that have been playing lacrosse here for 100 seasons.''
— Rutgers men’s lacrosse head coach Brian Brecht on earning a No. 1 ranking on the Inside Lacrosse Media Poll
What to Watch this Week:
Men’s Lacrosse puts its undefeated record on the line against Delaware in its final non-conference game:
The Scarlet Knights have done well in their non-Big Ten games, defeating two ranked teams in then-No. 19 Brown and then-No. 14 Stony Brook and handing current No. 8 Army its only loss. Rutgers will be favored, but the Hens aren’t pushovers. They rank in the top 30 on both sides of the ball, including the 17th best scoring offense in the country.
NJIT, which has yet to earn a win, played Rutgers close when it visited High Point Solutions Stadium midweek before eventually falling 10-6. Sure, it was the Knights third game in 10 days, but though their legs may have been heavy, the margin of victory was tighter than expected. The Hens are in better position to take advantage to a sluggish team than the Highlanders, so Rutgers needs an energetic outing to enter Big Ten play undefeated and at the top of the polls.
Softball opens conference play against Indiana:
The Knights finished non-conference play with a less-than-stellar record of 7-19, but heading into Bloomington with a season-high two game win streak, they can take advantage of the momentum against a Hoosier team sitting at .500.
One Last Thing:
As mentioned above, the football team begins its version of spring training with the first of 15 practices, officially commencing head coach Chris Ash’s second year at the helm. With incoming three-star quarterback Johnathan Lewis not arriving until the summer, junior quarterback Giovanni Rescigno will have a chance to take advantage of working under first-year offensive coordinator Jerry Kill as the receiver of the majority of the reps for the entire spring. While it won’t guarantee him a starting spot by any means with Lewis expected to fight for the position come training camp, it can prove to be of massive benefit for the player known for his attentiveness and willingness to learn.
Among the things to observe are the Mitchell brothers, who provide some much needed depth, both in quality and quantity, to the wide receiving corps. Damon, the older sibling, has plenty to prove after earning little playing time in his three years at Arkansas before he moved to Piscataway as a grad transfer. Likewise, his little brother Ahmir, a former four-star recruit, has been a part of the team since October after he transferred from Michigan following a just a few months in Ann Arbor, but this is his first chance to showcase himself among the main rotation.
That's the end of our third Rutgers Roundup. Time flies, doesn’t it?
It’s Taylor Ham, not Pork Roll.
See you guys (and gals) at the same time next week.
Brian Fonseca is a correspondent for the Daily Targum. He can be reached with any comments, questions or feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter for updates.
The Rutgers Roundup is a weekly column looking back on the past seven days of action within Scarlet Knights' athletics. For updates on all things Rutgers sports, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.