Rutgers rests key starters as postseason approaches
Knights sit 3 starters as another rests due to illness
It could have possibly been the best weekend of the season for the Rutgers wrestling team, taking down two ranked teams in its conference on the road and setting itself up to end the season as hot as possible, but Sunday stopped that idea in its tracks.
After cruising to a victory over No. 17 Northwestern (8-4, 3-4) in Evanston on Friday, the No. 19 Scarlet Knights (6-6, 2-5) were geared towards sweeping their weekend stay in Illinois when they faced the No. 14 Fighting Illini on Sunday afternoon.
There’s no debate that Rutgers was entering Illinois on somewhat of a high note. The team had just defeated a Big Ten rival in the Wildcats, and had an extremely strong showing against No. 1 Penn State the previous weekend at the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC) in front of a sold out crowd.
What may be hot can instantly go cold if you cool it down enough, and it seems that the Illinois air can be hard to handle, even for the toughest of competitors, including No. 1 sophomore 125-pounder Nick Suriano.
After his 4-1 victory over No. 10 Sebastian Rivera, Suriano fell ill with flu-like symptoms and was taken out of competition for Sunday’s match against No. 18 Travis Piotrowski. For a weekend that averaged 22 degrees Fahrenheit out in Evanston and Champaign, getting sick is not unheard of, but remains unfortunate for a wrestler who always wants to compete.
What came next was both a shocking call and an interesting tactical move by head coach Scott Goodale, an almost domino effect that in the moment proved detrimental to the imminent match, but a smart move in the long run.
Once he understood that Suriano — by far his strongest wrestler and biggest opponent mismatch — wouldn’t be wrestling, Goodale decided to strip away key members of his team and throw in the substitutes, essentially waving a white flag before the match even began.
Goodale pulled his group of ranked fifth-year seniors — No. 12 149-pounder Eleazar DeLuca, No. 11 165-pounder Richie Lewis and No. 12 184-pounder Nicholas Gravina — out of the match, swapping them in with Nick Santos, Brett Donner and Willie Scott, respectively.
But Santos, Donner and Scott are nowhere near the same caliber wrestlers that DeLuca, Lewis and Gravina are, and unfortunately for the Knights, it showed.
At 149, Santos wasn’t able to capitalize on a reversed takedown call that kept things close at 3-1, and ultimately fell 3-2 in his first dual of the season. It was an unranked match overall, but one that Rutgers could’ve definitely used if it hoped to possibly cause a bigger upset than it was supposed to.
Donner had the most experience in duals of the substitute trio, but came into the match against No. 2 Isaiah Martinez 0-3 in those matches. He added another loss to that column when he was dominated by Martinez from start to finish, losing 18-3.
Scott provided the best and most surprising performance of the night overall for the Knights, facing No. 6 Emery Parker and nearly taking the match.
Scott and Parker finished the first period with no scoring, and the second at 2-1 in Parker's favor — Scott did have 1:37 of riding time. Down 4-2 with 45 seconds left, Scott managed to escape with 20 seconds left but couldn’t secure another point, ultimately falling 4-3 in a tight match.
In the end, Rutgers fell to the Fighting Illini 23-12 despite collecting four individual wins. If Suriano and then seemingly the other resting starters all competed, you would be able to take away the 6 points awarded to Illinois for the forfeit, and would have had a full slate of ranked wrestlers ready to go on the Knights side.
Goodale was clearly thinking about the future for Rutgers, as the Big Ten Championships are less than a month away and the Knights still have three more duals to compete in.
An extra day of rest after an upset victory is certainly well deserved for a team that has endured an up and down season — one that can be reconciled in the postseason.
Rutgers has two more Big Ten matches remaining this season, including its final home meet of the season next Friday against No. 18 Minnesota. With Wisconsin a week later and Princeton on Feb. 18, the Knights still need to point their focus toward their remaining duals before zeroing in on what could be their best postseason in program history.