Rutgers prepares for NCAA Championships with Ashnault leading the field
As with any major event for head coach Scott Goodale and his Rutgers wrestling team, it was all about health.
“Getting some really good rest, a couple days off,” he said. “We did a pretty good job of that, I think we have a pretty good system in place for it.”
It is a formula that has resulted in four All-Americans, three conference champions, 58 NCAA Championship bids and over 150 dual meet wins on the Banks.
It is no secret that Goodale’s piloting of the Scarlet Knights has been a bright spot in an otherwise turbulent Big Ten campaign.
But as Rutgers moves into the NCAA Championships from March 16 to 18 in St. Louis, a sobering fact circles the ranks of the Knights, one that has been affirmed throughout postseason play these last couple of weeks.
Of those four All-Americans, junior 141-pounder Anthony Ashnault and the graduated Anthony Perrotti share the spoils. Of those three conference championships, Ashnault enjoys two.
At No. 5 coming off of a Big Ten Championship win, much of the weekend’s success hinges on Ashnault.
Riding a 16-match winning streak and a spotless record since he suffered two losses to North Carolina State’s Kevin Jack at the Midlands Championships in late December, the South Plainfield native enters his third NCAA Championships with eyes on not just another All-America berth, but a spot above the competition.
“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.”
Ashnault’s road to the top of the podium finds a rocky juncture in freshman Matthew Kolodzik of Princeton, who may come to face Ashnault in the quarterfinals. At No. 4 in the bracket, Kolodzik’s 26-2 record boasts a 4-3 decision over Ashnault at the Battle at the Birthplace in November.
But since his early season losses to Kolodzik and Jack, comprising all three of his shortcomings this year, Ashnault has felt “really good,” and much of that was showcased at the Big Ten Championships, as he notched a 15-2 major decision in the finals over Michigan State’s Javier Gasca III.
His second Big Ten Championship in as many years, Ashnault did not follow up with a NCAA Championship win like he had hoped last time around. For him, for someone almost “taking over the weight class,” the weekend perhaps provides the best opportunity for Ashnault to grab Rutgers its first national championship.
And though this season has shown that Ashnault stands the likeliest of candidates to stand with his hand raised Saturday night, in Goodale’s eyes, the weekend holds with it an opportunity for redemption for many who have slipped up in the preceding weeks.
“It’s about the national tournament, and the seeds won’t matter and the records won’t matter,” Goodale said. “It’s about getting hot the last three days of March.”
Joining Ashnault for his third appearance on the national stage is senior 149-pounder Ken Theobold, who sports a No. 15 ranking after taking fifth-place at the Big Ten Championships.
One who has stood close with Theobold in the national rankings throughout the season is 184-pounder Nicholas Gravina, who drops out of a seeded spot after battling through shoulder complications at the Big Ten Championships and skidding toward a ninth-place finish. That spells a first-round match against No. 3 Sammy Brooks of Iowa, who he lost to at Midlands.
Making his first appearance at the event is sophomore 157-pounder John Van Brill, who looks to cap off a meteoric season, as he battles Illinois’ Kyle Langenderfer in the first round. No. 13 Van Brill looks to finish off Langenderfer for the third time this season, after pinning him in a dual meet in January and securing seventh-place over him at the Big Ten Championships.
But opposite those who have seen a sort of stagnancy in the weeks leading up to nationals, junior 133-pounder Scott DelVecchio has seen a resurgence, after making way for Tyson Dippery in the lineup before winning back the starting job himself.
Though DelVecchio goes into the event unseeded, he believes his seventh-place finish at the Big Ten Championships spells good fortunes for the coming days.
“For me, I think I’m right there. Just gotta finish a couple shots, and a lot could be different in a couple of those matches,” DelVecchio said.
DelVecchio joins Gravina in making his second NCAA appearance, but rounding out the field for the Knights are sophomore 174-pounder Jordan Pagano and freshman 197-pounder Matthew Correnti, who will get their first tastes of national action come Thursday.
And for those, success this weekend is not completely out of reach. As DelVecchio said, capitalizing on the little things can be enough to topple the high seeds.
And even as Goodale said, the seeds and records matter less and less as championship season sets in.
For Ashnault, what that means is less worry about the Kolodziks and Jacks of the tournament. With a Big Ten Championship under his belt, he is one of those high seeds that others will want to knock off.
To fend off those below and to stand toe to toe with those above presents the greatest challenge for Ashnault in the coming days. A fourth-place finish like last year just won’t do for the two-time All-American. He is missing one piece of hardware, and he feels more and more that this is the year he fills the mantle.
“I feel good technically, mentally and strength-wise, so I think it’s all uphill from here.”