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Rutgers looks to build on success of dual season at Big Ten Championships in Iowa City

Senior 141-pounder Anthony Ashnault finished fifth at the Big Ten Tournament last season, earning a bid to the NCAA’s.
Photo by Edwin GanoSenior 141-pounder Anthony Ashnault finished fifth at the Big Ten Tournament last season, earning a bid to the NCAA’s.

With a successful dual season that included three wins over top-10 opponents in the rearview mirror, the No. 10 Rutgers wrestling team can see the NCAA Championships at the end of the tunnel in front of them.

But before the Scarlet Knights can head to Madison Square Garden to compete for All-American statuses and National Championships, each individual wrestler still needs to have their tickets to the Big Apple punched. 

Only 330 grapplers — 33 from each weight class — from across the nation will be eligible to compete in “The World’s Most Famous Arena” come March 17.

This weekend, each Knight will be given a chance to do just that, as they compete in the Big Ten Championships in Iowa City, Iowa, on Saturday and Sunday. The conference tournament will hand out 71 automatic qualifications, spread out differently among each weight class, for the NCAA Championships based on finishes in the event.

The remaining bids will be awarded at-large, meaning this is the only chance grapplers have to control their own destiny.

The top-nine finishers in the Big Ten Championships will receive an automatic bid in the 133 and 174-pound classes. The least amount of qualifications available are in the 149, 165 and 197-pound classes, where only six grapplers will receive NCAA bids. The 125, 141, 157, 184-pound and heavyweight classes will award the top-seven finishers with bids.

Nine of the 10 Rutgers grapplers competing will enter the tournament with pre-seeds, with sophomore 141-pounder Anthony Ashnault and junior 157-pounder Richie Lewis each landing No. 3 seeds in their respective weight classes — the highest pre-seeds among the team.

Senior 165-pounder Anthony Perrotti and senior heavyweight Billy Smith each secured No. 4 seeds. In the 184-pound class, sophomore Nicholas Gravina will enter as the No. 5 seed.

Sophomore 149-pounder Tyson Dippery enters the tournament as the lone unseeded Knight.

“Our guys did a good job all year long to put themselves in a position to qualify themselves for the weight at the Big Ten's,” said head coach Scott Goodale. “So our goal was to try and get 10 out of 10 here and wrestle well enough where if we’re not fortunate enough to place in the allocation spot, then we can get a wild card. So I think we’ll have a bunch of guys qualifying on their own.”

Last season, Rutgers finished 11th out of 14 teams with a team score of 20.5 in the program’s first Big Ten Championship. It finished 99.5 points behind the two first-place finishers, Iowa and Ohio State.

In that event, only two grapplers entered with a pre-seed higher than No. 5 and four grapplers made it out of the event with automatic bids, including Ashnault — who finished fifth — Perrotti, who finished seventh, and Smith, who finished ninth. No other Knights finished better than 11th.

Many consider the Big Ten to be the deepest, most competitive wrestling conference in the country. 

With each weight class containing 4-to-8 ranked grapplers, it makes the competition even tighter when considering the amount of automatic berths that are awarded.

But with six grapplers making their second trip to the tournament, Rutgers has a better idea of how to approach it.

“I don’t think it’s anything we learned (last year), but it’s been the mantra all the last two weeks is it’s all about the first match,” Goodale said. “In this tournament, you cannot look ahead, you can’t look behind. It’s about who you’re wrestling. Don’t worry about your seeding because everyone in this tournament is so darn good. So it’s about the first period of the first match Saturday morning.”

For the remaining four grapplers, this will be their first time competing in the daunting conference championship tournament. 

While redshirt freshman Anthony Giraldo, Gravina, Dippery and Lewis haven’t competed in the Big Ten Championship before, they have squared off and had success against Big Ten opponents.

The Knights were 5-4 in conference duals this season, while losing two of their meets by less than three points and having a late lead over then-No. 6 Michigan in another.  

Already having had the chance to wrestle, and win, against high-level grapplers, the competition this weekend will be a confidence booster for those who were in the lineup for the first time this year.

“I mean, definitely my confidence has been building, building, building,” Lewis said, who finished 9-0 against Big Ten opponents this season. “I feel with the right training and the right habits that I’ve been at I’m gonna peak at the right time. And this is gonna be the first time I’m gonna be at my best all season I believe.”

The Big Ten Championships isn’t a make-or-break event for grapplers wanting to make it to the national tournament. 

If a wrestler performed well during the dual season, as is the case with most of Rutgers' wrestlers, they should secure an at-large bid if they don’t place high enough for an automatic one this weekend.

But coming off a dual season in which it took down seven ranked foes, the Knights are looking to carry that success into this weekend by walking away with as many automatic bids as possible, and maybe even a few Big Ten Champions as well.

After an 11th place finish last year, Rutgers is looking forward to showcasing just how improved it is in front of the entire Big Ten.

“I just feel like our whole team's prepared really well for this tournament,” Ashnault said. “So I’m excited to go out there and show what Rutgers wrestling is gonna provide for the next couple of years. I think we’re having a breakthrough season, (finishing) top-10 in the dual meets. And we’re just gonna go up with this tournament and bring it right into nationals.”

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