Rutgers steps into Big Ten Championships with 7 seeded wrestlers
Ten is always the goal.
To send the entire eligible Rutgers wrestling team to St. Louis has been the goal since before the wrestling room was dusted off again in August.
Before St. Louis is Bloomington, Ind., where No. 12 Rutgers hopes to plant the seeds for a fruitful postseason. The Scarlet Knights (12-5, 6-3) will travel westward to grapple with the best their conference has to offer on Saturday and Sunday at the Big Ten Championships, an event that means more historically for some than others.
Namely, it is junior 141-pounder Anthony Ashnault not only leading the school but leading his entire weight class, as last year’s Big Ten champion hopes to repeat, this time from the No. 1 seed.
“I’m pretty relaxed about it, I feel really confident in how everything’s going,” Ashnault said, on whether starting at the top changes his perspective this year. “Just taking it day by day right now and just trusting in the process. Gearing up for the Big Ten’s and then nationals.”
The 24-3 two-time all-American stands far and away the most experienced in postseason play of those taking the mat this weekend. A bonafide leader in the room, Ashnault said that he’s been telling stories to his teammates of wrestlers who have had their best runs of form in the final few tournaments. Those like two-time all-American Anthony Perrotti, whose first national bid came after an up-and-down 2014-2015 campaign.
It is anyone's guess whether anybody from this year’s team can step up in Perrotti’s absence, but head coach Scott Goodale holds that that is beyond his purview.
“There’s gotta be expectations certainly on our behalf, but on their behalf,” he said. “They’re gonna be the ones that wanna do this and wanna join Ashnault and Perrotti and what they’ve done. This is about them.”
Rounding out the seeded spots for Rutgers is No. 5 Ken Theobold at 149 pounds, No. 6 Jordan Pagano at 174 pounds, No. 7 John Van Brill at 157 pounds, No. 7 Nicholas Gravina at 184 pounds, No. 8 Razohnn Gross at heavyweight and No. 9 Scott DelVecchio at 133 pounds.
Though all but Gross and DelVecchio are perched firmly in the national rankings, perhaps none have enjoyed quite the meteoric rise that Pagano has.
The sophomore transfer from Penn State, whose most notable effort this season was a major decision over No. 4 Ryan Preisch of Lehigh at the NWCA Dual Championships Series, sports a 24-7 record and a sixth-place finish at the Midlands Championships in December.
Since taking over for senior Phillip Bakuckas in the starting spot, it’s been nothing but raised hands for Pagano.
“I feel good. I feel more confident than I’ve ever been in myself in my life,” Pagano said. “Progressively during the year, I think each week I got a lot better.”
Pagano is joined by another first-timer, Van Brill, who saw Pagano’s same rise to the top but just a couple of months earlier. Van Brill knocked off multiple nationally ranked opponents to break through the polls himself and he now stares at a No. 7 seed going into tournament play.
And along with Van Brill are the perennial top 20 players in Theobold and Gravina, who have done enough to maintain their places since the start of the season and hope to return to the NCAA Championships after qualifying in 2015 and 2016, respectively.
Though Ashnault is widely regarded as a lock, he contends that the same could be said for the others. He doesn’t want to be standing up on the podium alone this year, and he doesn’t think that will be the case.
“I think there’s guys on our team now that have beaten better guys than a Perrotti already this season,” Ashnault said. “There’s definitely a couple guys that could poke their heads and make some noise in this Big Ten Tournament and the NCAA Tournament.”
In addition to the seeded hopefuls on this Knights squad, Rutgers will send freshman 125-pounder Brandon Paetzell, senior 165-pounder Dylan Painton and freshman 197-pounder Matthew Correnti to Indiana to dual for at-large berths in St. Louis.
One of three teams that qualified wrestlers in all 10 weight classes last season, the Knights face the same daunting task. A year later, it doesn’t get any easier, no matter the circumstances.
For Goodale, he has seen his team through rigorous training throughout the last week to facilitate a smooth transition from the dual meet schedule to a two-day marathon of wrestling.
Rest has always been the number one ingredient for him, and he has given his side plenty of it in light of a nervy plane ride to the Midwest in the coming days.
But for now and the next few days, the magic number is 10.
“Ultimately nobody wants their season to end, and our staff, we wanna bring all ten guys to the national tournament. That’s a goal of ours and we’ll be disappointed if we don’t do that,” Goodale said. “Because all of these goals these guys have, you can’t do it unless you get there.”