Rutgers sends 6 to NCAA Championships
Last weekend in Minneapolis, all ten starters of the Rutgers wrestling team competed in the Big Ten Championships with a chance to keep their season alive by qualifying for the NCAA Tournament in Pittsburgh from March 21-23.
After it was all said and done, six qualified, with another wrestler that still has an opportunity to secure an at-large bid from the NCAA committee.
The weekend was highlighted by two of the No. 18 Scarlet Knights' (12-6, 5-4) best wrestlers. No. 1 graduate student 149-pounder Anthony Ashnault mobbed his way to the 149-pound title, defeating Ohio State's Micah Jordan 8-6, while No. 3 junior 133-pounder Nick Suriano defeated Ohio State’s Luke Pletcher in the 133-pound championship match by a score of 4-1.
It was Ashnault’s third Big Ten championship, becoming Rutgers' first ever three-time Big Ten champion.
“It means a lot. It means a lot to kids trying to come to school at Rutgers knowing that they can come here and accomplish their goals of being a Big Ten champ one day,” Ashnault said. “There’s proof from me, and Suriano had a great tournament also, so, the proof is there that you can do it here.”
Ashnault has been the consensus No. 1-ranked wrestler in the country at the 149-pound weight class ever since he defeated Princeton's then-No. 1 Matthew Kolodzik on February 3.
Suriano and Ashnault were the clear favorites to advance to nationals, but there were a handful of other Knights vying for a spot as well.
Graduate students No. 10 157-pounder John Van Brill and No. 9 184-pounder Nicholas Gravina punched their tickets, as well as first-time qualifier junior 141-pounder Peter Lipari. Sophomore 174-pounder Joseph Grello earned an at-large bid after missing the automatic qualification in the tournament.
As for Van Brill and Gravina, qualifying has been a staple in their careers at Rutgers. This will be Van Brill’s third time qualifying, while Gravina has qualified in all four of his seasons on the Banks.
After having an injury-riddled season, Gravina entered the 184-pound bracket at the Big Ten Championships with only a 4-2 record. He knew he had to wrestle a solid tournament in order to qualify, and after suffering a first round loss to Purdue’s Max Lyon, he would have to do so in the wrestleback portion of the bracket.
“The qualification is great, and I loved that I was able to qualify all four years,” Gravina said. “But, it’s really just about getting that All-American status, and I haven’t gotten it yet. I’ve gotten really close a couple of times, but that’s really what I’m aiming for.”
Qualifying for the tournament for the first time is a huge accomplishment for someone like Lipari, who was in a roster battle for part of the season at the 141-pound weight class.
Lipari, normally a 133-pounder, was forced to make the jump to 141 pounds after Suriano decided he would be wrestling at 133 this season. That pitted Lipari in a roster battle with returning starter at the weight class, sophomore 141-pounder Michael Van Brill.
After eventually winning the spot for good, Lipari made his mark in the lineup, finishing with a 10-10 record and a 5-6 conference record against some of the top collegiate wrestlers in the country.
Like Gravina, Lipari suffered a first round loss in his bracket and had to wrestle all the way back to eventually place ninth, earning him an automatic qualifying spot.
In just over a week, the five remaining starters will travel to Pittsburgh to compete in the NCAA Championships. Ashnault and Suriano will look to capture their first-ever titles, while the other three will look to earn that elusive All-American status by placing in the top eight of their weight classes.
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