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Rutgers makes history with fifth-place finish at Big Ten Championships

<p>Senior Billy Smith placed fourth among heavyweights in the Big Ten, losing the third-place bout to Michael Kroells in tiebreakers.</p>

Senior Billy Smith placed fourth among heavyweights in the Big Ten, losing the third-place bout to Michael Kroells in tiebreakers.

Anthony Ashnault had a good feeling about both his and the rest of the Rutgers wrestling team’s chances at the Big Ten Tournament.

Leading up to the event, the sophomore 141-pounder said he was looking forward to the No. 10 Scarlet Knights, who finished with 20.5 points in eleventh-place at the event last year, to display the strides they’ve made this season to the rest of the conference.

The All-American even went as far to say he expected to be crowned Big Ten Champion at his 141-pound weight class.

Just two days of wrestling later, Ashnault was standing on the top podium sporting the gold medal around his neck that he came to Iowa City seeking, becoming the first Big Ten Champion in Rutgers' program history. 

And he wasn’t the only Knight competing in the final session either, as six other grapplers competed in top-six placement matches.

After walking away with only four automatic bids last year, 9 of the 10 Knights’ had clinched automatic berths for the NCAA Championships by the conclusion of second round Saturday night, setting a program record for automatic qualifiers.

To top it off, the Knights finished in fifth place overall with 106.5 team points, behind No. 1 Penn State, No. 4 Iowa, No. 7 Ohio State and No. 10 Nebraska, and return to Piscataway with the most automatic qualifiers from the event.

It’s just been that kind of season for Rutgers wrestling.

"Getting 9 out of 10 ... it's just a great feeling," Ashnault said. "We took fifth, better than we've ever done. The team camaraderie right now is just great. I love being a part of Rutgers wrestling. There's no other wrestling program I'd rather be at. Looking at the teams that were there at the tournament, some of them were recruiting me, and I couldn't imagine myself in a different place. I wouldn't be able to compete at the same level I'm competing at, I don't believe."   

Seeded at No. 3 at 141-pounds, Ashnault cruised his way through the championship bracket on Saturday with three convincing wins.

In his first match, he pinned Michigan’s George Fisher in the second period.

He then took down No. 5 seed Anthony Abidin of Nebraska in a 5-2 decision, and in the semifinals he used an 8-2 decision over No. 7 seed Danny Sabatello to punch his ticket to the championship final on Sunday.

Ashnault, a South Plainfield, New Jersey, native, was matched up against an unlikely opponent in the championship match. No. 8 Jimmy Gulibon of Penn State had taken down No. 1 seed Micah Jordan of Ohio State and No. 5 seed Javier Gasaca of Michigan State to put himself in position to claim gold.

In the first period of the championship match, Guilibon continued his stout wrestling as he and Ashnault wrestled to a stall with no score through two minutes.

But the final five minutes would be owned by Anthony Ashnault.

Starting the second period on top, Ashnault rode out Gulibon for the entire second period, while nearly recording a pin. 

When the final period started, Ashnault had a 6-0 lead and two minutes of riding time on his side. He nearly pinned Guilibon a second time before the clock ran out, adding to his lead and clinching the Big Ten Championship gold with a 9-0 major decision.

“I have a ton of respect for (Guilibon). I’m sure Anthony does as well. But you don’t win nine to nothing in the Big Ten final. That’s just rare,” said head coach Scott Goodale. “He did a great job on top, he’s relentless up there. He’s worked really, really hard in that position and it opens matches up for him. When he builds leads, he’s really, really difficult to beat … I was surprised by the score, but he can get going like that. When he gets going, he’s really difficult to beat.”

By the end of Saturday, Rutgers had already nailed down all nine of its NCAA qualifiers after going a combined 15-3 in the second session of the tournament, setting up seven grapplers to have the chance to wrestle in top-six matches during the final session.

No. 4 Billy Smith and No. 5 Michael Kroells of Minnesota wrestled to a 1-1 tie through three periods and a sudden victory round. But after Smith couldn't escape Kroells grasp in the first tiebreaker period, Kroells was able to escape and score to take the 4-1 win, leaving Smith with a fourth-place finish.

Sophomore 184-pounder Nicholas Gravina upset Penn State’s No. 2 seeded Matt McCutcheon in the consolation semifinals, but fell in the third-place bout to No. 1 Domenic Abounader of Michigan to settle for fourth place.

Junior 157-pounder Richie Lewis defeated Jake Ryan of Ohio State to finish fifth in his first Big Ten Championship event.

Redshirt sophomore 133-pounder Anthony Giraldo, sophomore 149-pounder Tyson Dippery and senior 197-pounder Hayden Hrymack each fell in their fifth-place matches to finish at sixth. After entering the tournament unseeded, Dippery was able to secure an automatic bid to the NCAA Championships.

Anthony Perrotti entered the event as a No. 4 seed and pinned No. 5 Chad Welch of Purdue in the championship quarterfinals. But the senior 165-pounder lost by injury default in his following match and was a medical forfeit in the both consolation matches en route to a sixth-place finish.

Following an eighth-place finish at 125 pounds, junior Sean McCabe was the lone grappler from the Knights starting lineup to leave Iowa City without an automatic bid for the national tournament. 

With a 13-11 record and a top-20 ranking next to his name for most of the season, McCabe will have a make a strong argument for one of the five at-large bids that will be given out among 125-pounders.

Lewis, Giraldo, Dippery, Hrymack, Bakcukas and Gravina will all be making their first trip to the NCAA Championships in two weeks.

“We got in the hotel room last night after that first round, which was a tough first round,” Goodale said. “We just talked about it, we knew we could bounce back and have a great round. And we did and it started snow falling. It’s almost like a dual-meet effect where McCabe got us going and the next thing you know, we’re sitting on 15-3 on the night. And that’s an unbelievable round in a really, really tough tournament so we were really psyched as a program, and as team. It was awesome.”

The Knights had a historical dual season and a strong showing at its second Big Ten Championships, but now Rutgers has its eyes on making its mark on the national stage at Madison Square Garden.

At the prior two NCAA Championships, Rutgers has left with one All-American in each, first with Perrotti in 2014 and Ashnault last year.

Before the season started, Goodale said this season would be defined as a success if multiple grapplers are on the national podium at the end of the year. With possibly their entire lineup heading to New York City in less than two weeks, the Knights have a real opportunity to leave with multiple All-Americans.

But for Ashnault, All-American status isn’t enough.

He has the same plans for the NCAA Championships as he did for the Big Ten Championships.

“I definitely expected to win, the goal was to win," Ashnault said of his expectations coming into the Big Ten Championships. "And this just the stepping stone to get to the national tournament. I really wanna win the national title this year and I'm confident going in. This created a lot of momentum and a lot of things are going right for me right now, going my way and I'm trying to just carry right on over two weeks at Madison Square Garden."

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

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