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Senior closes out 18-15 win for Rutgers over No. 7 Lehigh

<p>Senior heavyweight Billy Smith sizes up Max Wessell in the final bout of Rutgers’ win over Lehigh on Saturday. Smith outlasted Wessell 3-2 in tiebreakers</p>

Senior heavyweight Billy Smith sizes up Max Wessell in the final bout of Rutgers’ win over Lehigh on Saturday. Smith outlasted Wessell 3-2 in tiebreakers

It won’t be hard for Billy Smith to remember his first and final wins at the Rutgers Athletic Center.

Although they came more than three years apart, both clinched monumental wins for the Rutgers wrestling team in identical circumstances.

As a redshirt freshman in the 2012-13 season, the heavyweight stepped on the mat with the Scarlet Knights trailing then-No.14 Lehigh 16-14.

Competing in the final bout of the dual, Smith defeated Jack Deliah in a 6-0 decision to not only secure his first ever win at the RAC, but also to put a stamp Rutgers’ 17-16 upset win over the Mountain Hawks. 

The win also halted a streak of 38 consecutive losses over the span of nearly 63 years to the Knights’ Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Associate foe.

With No. 13 Rutgers and No. 7 Lehigh locked at 15 entering the final bout at heavyweight on Saturday night — in the two programs first meeting since that January 2013 dual — the outcome of the dual rested in the hands of Smith yet again.

Just as he did for his first win at the RAC three years prior — and countless times in between — the senior closed it out for the Knights.

No. 13 Smith used a reversal against No. 14 Max Wessell in the first tiebreaker period to give him the lead and the eventual 3-2 decision win.

In what was his final match at the Rutgers Athletic Center, Smith nailed down Rutgers’ (16-5, 5-4) 18-15 upset win over No. 7 Lehigh (13-3) in the NWCA National Dual Championship Series.

“We were wrestling real well in the beginning, I didn’t even think it would come down to me,” Smith said. “I wasn’t even expecting it to come down to me, I have a lot of faith in my teammates. But unfortunately, things happened and it got to the opportunity, I’m comfortable (wrestling in the last match with the dual on the line). I’ve been there a lot and I’m comfortable wrestling in those situations.”

Holding a 1-0 lead in the third period, Wessell got his arms around Smith from behind and proceeded to pick him up into the air and throw him onto the mat three consecutive times.

Just when it seemed like Wessell was going to wear him out and keep him on the ground, Smith escaped his grasp after the third body slam to tie the score at 1 and kept it there until the end of the period.

In the final 10 seconds of the sudden-death period, Smith appeared to secure a takedown as he took Wessell to the ground right on the edge of the mat near the scorer’s table, but the referee didn’t signal any points for Smith and instead made an out of bounds call moments after.

Head coach Scott Goodale challenged the call, but it was ultimately upheld and seconds later, the bout was sent into tiebreakers.

Starting on bottom, Smith used a reversal in the opening seconds of the first tiebreaker period to take a 3-1 lead and then rode out Wessell for the remainder of the period to keep his 2-point advantage.

Wessell started on bottom and escaped to open the second tiebreaker period, but Smith didn’t allow Wessell to get at his legs and score again.

For the fourth time this season, the Wantage, New Jersey, native closed out a dual with a clinching win for Rutgers.

“I got nothing but confidence in him,” said senior 165-pounder Anthony Perrotti. “He’s been doing this for five years. He’s really been the backbone of this program at the upper weight. I remember my sophomore year, he might’ve won seven matches in a row coming down to heavyweight, so he’s just got a knack for it … I couldn’t be more proud of him. Couldn’t be more proud of the way we wrestled.”

The Knights dug themselves an early 8-0 hole, with junior 125-pounder Sean McCabe and sophomore 125-pounder Josh Patrick — wrestling at 133 pounds— each finishing on the short side of major decisions.

But the middle of Rutgers' lineup — which has been its strongest in the latter stage of the season — propelled the Knights yet again.

Rutgers reeled off decision wins in the next three matches entering intermission — capped off by junior 157-pounder No. 12 Richie Lewis defeating No. 9 Mitch Miontti 12-7 in a high-intensity match that featured both coaching staffs yelling across the mat at one another during a Rutgers challenge — to take a 9-8 lead.

The Knights continued their momentum right out of intermission with two more decision wins from Perrotti and junior 174-pounder Phillip Bakuckas to extend their lead to 15-8.

After dropping five straight bouts, Lehigh got clutch wins from two of its ranked grapplers, as No. 3 184-pounder Nathaniel Brown fended off sophomore No. 20 Nicholas Gravina in a 3-2 decision.

Then-No. 17 John Bolich handily defeated senior 197-pounder Hayden Hrymack in a major decision to tie the score at 15, and set up Smith with an opportunity to get his last win at the RAC just like he got his first.

“Whenever you beat a team like Lehigh, it’s more than just (their high ranking),” Smith said. “Honestly (the ranking) doesn’t really mean much, but its more the fact that they’re a winning tradition, and when you have teams like that, they almost look down upon Rutgers ... I’m proud to be the foundation and see this program go in the bigger direction. There’s so much more that needs to be done and this is just the beginning. You’ll see that come two weeks or so.”

Defeating Lehigh puts a bow on a historical dual season for Rutgers. The Knights had a schedule loaded with 11 top-25 opponents, but came out victorious in seven of them, with three wins coming against top-10 teams.

After finishing 2-7 in its inaugural season in the deepest wrestling conference in the country, Rutgers improved to 5-4 in the Big Ten with two of its losses coming by 3 points or less.

The Rutgers wrestling program has taken a huge step forward this season, and head coach Scott Goodale said this year's success stems from the wrestlers that have been through not only the highs of this year, but also the lows of prior seasons.

“(The seniors) set the foundation for where this things going,” Goodale said. “They bring us into the Big Ten, and they’re allowing us to win at the highest level ... Nobody else. Now do we have some really good guys that are underclassmen? Absolutely. Do they win big matches for us? Yeah. But these guys have been through it since day one. They’ve been through some tough times … So I’m glad they’re seeing this success, but we still got a very important month coming up.”

And after taking down No. 7 Lehigh to cap a strong dual season, should Rutgers have the top-10 ranking it aimed for when the season began next to its name when it hits the mats at the Big Ten Championships in two weeks?

“Should be, that’s the plan,” Goodale said.

For updates on the Rutgers wrestling team, follow @EricMullin_ and @TargumSports on Twitter.

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