Ashnault secures 2nd Big Ten Championship as Rutgers sends 6 men to NCAA Championships
He led the attack early.
Latching onto the leg in the opening minute, junior 141-pounder Anthony Ashnault of the Rutgers wrestling team secured the takedown and riding time beyond necessity.
Never one to settle, it soon became near-fall after near-fall after near-fall, and the No. 1 overall seed could see a second Big Ten Championship around the corner.
"I got on him right away, I was pulling on him the whole time, and got to that takedown," Ashnault said. "Right when I got on top, I got my two-on-one and got that roll-through tilt that I always get, so that really opened up the match. From there I felt really dominant."
Nabbing a 15-2 major decision in the finals over Michigan State’s Javier Gasca III, Ashnault booked his ticket to the NCAA Championship with ease, only giving up four points in total over three matches, putting away Cole Martin and Luke Pletcher in the quarterfinals and semifinals respectively.
But Ashnault won’t be alone on the plane ride to St. Louis, as the Scarlet Knights qualified six wrestlers to the NCAA Championships, four down from last year’s crop and the team’s goal for the Big Ten Championships.
Rutgers (12-5, 6-3) as a whole saw a middle-of-the-road performance in which the Piscataway side tied for eighth place out of 14 with Wisconsin at 67.5 points.
"I thought we really bounced back. We didn’t wrestle great yesterday, but we had a really good night round, which allowed us to get some guys through," said head coach Scott Goodale.
The weekend presented a sharp divide between Ashnault and the rest of the Knights side, as the South Plainfield native was the only one to advance to the semifinals.
Of the others, six wrestlers won their opening matches to advance to the quarterfinals, while freshman 125-pounder Brandon Paetzell and junior 165-pounder Dylan Painton were eliminated from the competition with two losses in the early going.
Despite the drop-off in performance from last year’s squad, some wrestlers watching from the outside for much of the season showed encouraging signs in the weekend’s play.
Junior 133-pounder Scott DelVecchio enjoyed a series of low-scoring bouts to a seventh-place finish. No. 9 DelVecchio ushered in his weekend with a commanding victory over No. 8 Luke Welch before almost stealing a victory over No. 1 Nathan Tomasello.
Another South Plainfield product, DelVecchio earned his second consecutive NCAA Championship berth, putting him at a unique position relative to the rest of his team.
Though the weekend did not go as smoothly for Paetzell, the other freshman taking the mat this weekend, 197-pounder Matthew Correnti, worked a clinic in knocking off higher-ranked talent, defeating No. 5 Ricky Robertson in the first round.
Going into the event unranked, Correnti cruised his way to a national championship bid with a sixth-place finish.
While there was uncertainty surrounding the likes of Correnti and DelVecchio, due to their contentious positions in the lineup throughout the season, less could be said from those like No. 5 Ken Theobold and No. 7 Nicholas Gravina, whose consistency for the Knights has been a welcome element to an otherwise turbulent 2016-2017 campaign.
Senior 149-pounder Theobold had an eventful day one on Saturday, collecting two major decisions before being narrowly toppled by No. 4 Alfred Bannister.
Theobold made his case for the national stage regardless, pinning Northwestern’s Shayne Oster in 2:21 to round out a successful Big Ten campaign with a fifth-place finish.
Gravina, on the other hand, faced a much more trying weekend in Bloomington.
The junior 184-pounder, who had been dealing with shoulder complications throughout the weekend, lost his first two matches to wrestlers below his rank.
In the consolation rounds, Gravina made good on his word to finish through the field, securing a ninth-place finish with a win over No. 9 Mitch Sliga.
"He’s in, and no one cares about your conference tournaments at this point, right?" Goodale said. "It’s about the national tournament, and the seeds won’t matter and the records won’t matter. It’s about getting hot the last three days of March."
In a similar position to Gravina was sophomore 174-pounder Jordan Pagano, whose rise up the top of the national rankings has given Goodale and company much-needed depth at the tail end of the lineup.
No. 6 Pagano was held scoreless in the first round by No. 11 Ryan Christensen, which sent him to the consolation rounds wrestling for ninth place. Falling to No. 10 Brett Pfarr, Pagano's NCAA status now rests on the selection show.
On the opposite end was the other rising star this season, sophomore 157-pounder John Van Brill, who fared well on the weekend, securing a seventh-place finish with a shutout decision over No. 5 Kyle Langenderfer.
Rounding out the Rutgers qualifiers was junior heavyweight Razohnn Gross, who secured a NCAA Championship place with a sixth-place performance over the weekend.
The weekend fell short of the team's expectations, who, from the start of the season, anticipated sending the full field to the national championships. With only six wrestlers heading to St. Louis next weekend, and only one making it past the quarterfinals this weekend, there exists a drop-off in performance from last year's squad, one that sent all 10 wrestlers with multiple top finishes.
As for Ashnault, it's a week of preparing to exceed last year's result. For someone who has done almost everything there is to do in collegiate wrestling, one accomplishment still eludes him. Unlike last year, a semifinal just won't do.
"Right now, just the focus is on going to nationals and doing what I can," Ashnault said. "I really want to get to the top of the podium, that’s been the goal my whole career."