Senior enters final year with added weight, experience
The body of work DJ Russo put together last season can be deemed by most as a successful crusade: champion of the Oklahoma Gold Tournament, runner-up at the EIWA Tournament, a top-10 ranking and his second-straight team MVP honor to boot.
But while these accolades certainly put the senior heavyweight on a pedestal, it was an overtime loss in the All-American round of the NCAA Tournament that kept Russo off the podium.
And that defeat at the hands of Missouri's Mark Ellis was all the motivation Russo needed heading into his final season.
"He was very motivated over the summer," said head coach Scott Goodale. "[Russo] has to understand that this is it for him. And I think he takes that into the practice room with him everyday."
The match may have put the capper on Russo's junior year campaign, but falling to a former national champion in the NCAA Tournament is only going to make him better heading into his final year.
"I'm just going to rely on a little extra age, a little extra strength and that experience from that match to take me to the next level and hopefully on top of the podium," Russo said.
The Netcong, N.J., native hit the weight room hard heading into his final year, putting on extra weight given the fact he wrestled the national tournament at 235 pounds against grapplers as heavy as 285 pounds.
The extra weight is an asset, but keeping it up is something that Russo has struggled with since arriving to the Banks.
"I always start off pretty heavy," he said. "But during the year I usually end up losing 10 or 15 pounds just because of the grueling workouts we go through, coupled with the fact that I have a fast metabolism. It's been hard to keep the weight up."
Goodale brought a new mentality toward dealing with the problem this offseason, putting more pressure on himself and the coaching staff to monitor Russo's weight.
"This is a year when our staff has to do a good job of altering his workout habits … making sure he's not getting broken down from the constant wrestling," Goodale said. "We need to think outside the box when it comes to his training."
Just as Russo and the rest of the Rutgers wrestling team prepared for preseason workouts, the Lenape Valley High School product fell ill with mononucleosis. The illness caused Russo to take almost a month off from wrestling, something that the coaching staff feels helps him in terms of sticking with the new weight training regiment.
"In some ways getting mono early on in the season — I don't see it as a negative," said assistant coach John Leonardis, who deals primarily with the higher weight classes. "It gave him a little bit of time to stay big."
After his first live action in some time at Tuesday's Wrestle-Offs, Russo feels that he is well on his way to a full recovery but needs to stay wary of overwork.
"You can get chronic fatigue syndrome if you don't let your body recuperate," Russo said. "I have to have a good balance of staying in shape while not pushing myself to the point where I have a relapse."
Goodale — cognizant of this possibility — would love Russo to be in his lineup night in and night out, but he does not want to push the heavyweight too early with this being Russo's final shot at a championship.
"He doesn't need the constant greatness from September all the way to March," Goodale said. "DJ just has to be great in March."
It all comes back to March, when last year Russo fell just shy of becoming an All-American and where this year he hopes to build off of that and onto the podium in his final year in a Rutgers singlet.
"It's do-or-die time. I'm not going to get a chance to do it over again," Russo said. "Obviously every senior has that go through his head — it's just how they respond to it. I have yet to see how I respond."