Rutgers prepares for NCAA Championships in Cleveland, Ohio
Six Knights eager for chance to make podium
The season all comes down to this — the next three days at the 2018 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships in Cleveland, Ohio. And for six athletes on the Rutgers wrestling team, this is what they’ve been training for all year.
The brackets are set, the mats are out and the Scarlet Knights are ready to show the wrestling world what they’re all about.
“I think we’re in some really good spots,” said head coach Scott Goodale. “Nobody drew a one seed right out of the gate … so we’ll be able to compete with all these guys. We feel good about our draws, and it’s just about getting hot ... It’s one match at a time.”
Rutgers, who finished 19th in the country with an 8-7 record and placed within the top 25 for the seventh time under Goodale, sends six wrestlers to the Quicken Loans Arena for a three-day wrestling spectacle.
Starting things off at 125, sophomore Nick Suriano received the No. 4 seed and will open his tournament against Rider’s unseeded J.R. Wert. Suriano comprised a perfect 21-0 record this season, but missed the final month of the regular season with an illness.
At the Big Ten Championships, Suriano defeated his only opponent, 9-2, before medically forfeiting. His No. 4 seed is tied with fifth-year senior 141-pounder Anthony Ashnault for the highest seed at the national tournament in program history.
And after a lengthy absence, the Paramus, New Jersey native is eager to be back.
“This is the pinnacle of the sport,” Suriano said. “It’s the NCAA Championships, and I’m grateful to be back here ready to compete and show what I do, because last year I had that stripped from me.”
No stranger to time off, Suriano injured his ankle last year as a member of Penn State during the final dual meet of the season and could not compete at the NCAAs.
This time around, though, he’s ready to finally accomplish what he has set out to do since he was a little kid.
“I’m not satisfied,” Suriano said. “I will not be until I complete my mission since I was about 7 or 8 years old.”
Next, in the 133 weight class, an unseeded fifth-year senior Scott DelVecchio will start off his last national tournament by facing Edinboro’s No. 14 seed Korbin Myers. DelVecchio had an impressive final season as a Knight, finishing with a 21-7 overall record while consistently ranking in the top 20.
Moving right along, fifth-year senior 149-pounder Eleazar DeLuca will be unseeded in a Big Ten Championships rematch against Minnesota’s unseeded Steven Bleise. DeLuca will be hoping for a better result this time around as the last time these two met Bleise pinned DeLuca in 4 minutes and 21 seconds.
Nevertheless, the Talent, Oregon native had himself a breakout year this season, finishing 12-11 overall and was ranked as high as No. 11 in his weight class. His most notable victory came by way of a 12-7 decision win over Ohio State’s then-No.5 Ke-Shawn Hayes.
At 157 pounds, Rutgers sends junior John Van Brill, who, thanks to a late regular season push, cracks the bracket with a No. 15 seed. Van Brill is set to face Lock Haven’s unseeded Alex Klucker in the opening round.
During the final weekend of the regular season, Van Brill knocked off two ranked wrestlers in Wisconsin’s then-No. 14 Andrew Crone and Princeton’s then-No. 13 Michael D’Angelo. Van Brill also sports an injury default win over Penn State’s then-No. 1 Jason Nolf to round out his 20-12 record.
Next we have fifth-year senior 165-pounder Richie Lewis coming in with the No. 6 seed. He will begin his weekend by wrestling Campbell’s unseeded Quentin Perez.
Lewis is coming off quite the showing at the Big Ten Championships, where he placed third as the No. 4 seed, upsetting Iowa’s No. 2 seed Alex Marinelli in the process — avenging two losses he had to Marinelli earlier in the season.
“When it’s on the line, when it’s the big show, I’m prepared because before I wrestle I don’t think about the moves I’m gonna hit or what I’m gonna do,” he said. “I think about the preparation that I’ve put in … I think that’s what gives me the energy to push through and do what I have to do.”
Wrestling in quite possibly the toughest weight class in not only the Big Ten but in the nation — a switch he made midway through the season — Lewis has seven wins against current ranked wrestlers, including Marinelli, to help put him at 18-4 overall.
Rounding out the Knights’ national championships roster is fifth-year senior 184-pounder Nicholas Gravina who grabs the No. 14 seed and will face Brown’s unseeded Christian LaFragola in the first round.
After placing ninth at the Big Ten Championships, Gravina enters the NCAAs as an at-large bid just as he did last year. But there was little surprise to both Goodale and Gravina that he would nab a spot as he was in the top 20 all year long, even reaching as high as No. 9.
“Honestly, I wasn’t really too worried about it,” Gravina said. “I’ve been going as hard as I could throughout the whole year, and I was hoping that other people would recognize that too so I wasn’t really that nervous. Just grateful for the opportunity.”
Gravina finished his 2018 campaign with a 17-5 record and on a four-match win streak. And despite his early exit in the Big Ten Championships, he thinks that can only help him.
“I forgot what it feels to lose like that,” he said. “… so because I had that feeling I think it’s gonna be an advantage.”
Rutgers will look to crown its first, and perhaps more, national champion in school history — something Goodale would be honored to help achieve.
“The school is dying for that,” he said “… we gotta start winning at the national level, all of us, and hopefully we can be the team to do it.”
But to do that, the Knights have to get through everyone else vying for the same thing.
These next three days are the culmination of everything the team has worked so hard for. Early mornings, late practices, long travel, packed RACs. So in the words of Goodale, “It all builds to these three days in March.”
For updates on the Rutgers wrestling team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.