Second consecutive All-American finish not enough for National Title hopeful
NEW YORK — There wasn’t much celebration from Anthony Ashnault after he took down Jimmy Gulibon of Penn State to become the first Big Ten Champion in Rutgers wrestling history.
While the sophomore 141-pounder was proud of the achievement, there was a bigger goal out there for Ashnault — one that had been his main focus for over a year.
Not satisfied with his eighth-place, All-American finish in his first NCCA Championships last year as a redshirt freshman, Ashnault set out on a mission to capture a national title at the 2016 tournament in New York City.
On the heels of an 18-1 dual season, becoming the program’s first Big Ten Champion and landing a No. 4 seed entering the tournament, the South Plainfield, New Jersey, native seemed to be well on his way to making a serious run at the national title.
Following the championship round at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night, Ashnault was standing on the podium yet again with his fellow 141-pound All-Americans.
But although he was positioned higher than he was on last year’s podium in St. Louis, Ashnault was still three spots lower than he had originally envisioned.
He put together an impressive run to the semifinal round, but Ashnault was knocked off by eventual national champion No. 1 seed Dean Heil en route to a fourth-place finish.
The sophomore becomes the first wrestler in program history to start their career with two All-American finishes and ties the second-highest finish for a Scarlet Knight at the NCAA Championships.
But even after his second consecutive All-American finish and making the jump from eighth to fourth place, there was no celebration from Ashnault, who hadn’t thought about anything other than leaving MSG with a national title.
“Not satisfied,” Ashnault said of his performance at the national tournament. “I came here to win a national title. I didn’t really think about taking anything else than first. But two-time All-American as a sophomore, it’s pretty cool. I guess I’ll be looking at it later on as a great accomplishment, but right now, it’s a little disappointment.”
Ashnault was locked in from the first opening whistle of his tournament.
In his first match Thursday morning, he made easy work of Hofstra’s Jamel Hudson in a 16-0 technical fall. In the second session that night, he continued his dominance with a 15-2 major decision over Seth Gross of South Dakota State to move onto to the quarterfinals in session three.
The quarterfinal round on Saturday morning would give Ashnault his toughest test of the tournament yet in the form of Old Dominion’s No. 12 Chris Mecate. Ashnault edged out Mecate at the Midland Championships in December, but this time it was a closer bout that ended 4-3 in Ashnault's favor.
With the clock ticking under 30 seconds in the third period, Ashnault held a 3-2 lead, but Mecate’s riding time of over a minute was the unofficial equalizer. With both grapplers scrambling in neutral position, it appeared the match was heading into overtime until Ashnault scored a takedown on Mecate with 20 seconds left.
Mecate was able to escape, but couldn't score again as Ashnault clinched All-American status with a 5-4 win on his way to the quarterfinal round Friday night.
The 2016 Big Ten Champion was one win away from punching his ticket to fight for the national title, but standing in his way was No. 1 seed Dean Heil of Oklahoma State.
Heil and Ashnault were no strangers to each other, as Heil knocked Ashnault — who suffered a leg injury in the match — out of contention for third place at the 2015 NCAA Championships with a 9-4 decision.
Just as in that match, Heil proved to be too big a force for Ashnault.
The South Plainfield, New Jersey, native was aggressive in taking shots at Heil, but the No. 1 seed had an answer for nearly all of them by either stymying or reversing them into takedowns of his own.
Heil led for the entire match, opening up a lead of 5-1 entering the third period and wound up being a thorn in Ashnault’s side for the second consecutive year by outing him from the championship bracket with an 8-3 win.
With his dream of becoming a national champion put on hold, Ashnault was forced to refocus on finishing third.
The sophomore returned to MSG Saturday morning with an All-American placement match against Virginia Tech’s No. 7 Solomon Chishko. Ashnault didn’t show any signs of a disappointment hangover as he cruised to an 11-3 major decision over Chisko.
“It sucks, but losses happen. Like, yeah, I wanted to win (the) national title, but you like, you never know. Wrestling’s so close, so many weight classes. It stings a lot, but I knew this morning I was gonna come ready to wrestle no matter what the deal was," Ashnault said. "I was gonna wrestle hard … But yeah, I felt real focused, you gotta be able to reset your mind in these kind of tournaments, cause I could have came today and went 0-2 and put my head in the mat and that wouldn’t have looked too good and took sixth place.”
With the opportunity to capture third and end his sophomore season with a win, Ashnault was pitted against a fellow New Jersey native in No. 2 Joey McKenna of Stanford.
Ashnault faced one-point deficits at the end of each of the first two periods.
By escaping McKenna’s grasp, Ashnault was able to lock the score at 5 early in the third, but a takedown by the Stanford freshman with 1:19 remaining would be the match-deciding points.
Ashnault later escaped to make it 7-6, but that score would hold true until the end of the match, locking him into a finish identical to his seeding at fourth place.
“For him to win a national title, he’s gonna have to beat (the other top guys in his weight class) and he knows that," said head coach Scott Goodale. "On any give day he could beat anybody in the country he’s that good. It’s a fine line here, it’s a fine line between winning and losing. It’s the highest level of our sport and he’s right in the thick of it, which is great. He’s in the thick of it and he deserves that.”
Not capturing a national title doesn’t take away from what Ashnault has been able to achieve in his first two years in the lineup, as he builds a resume that could wind up being the greatest in program history by the end of his career.
Through two seasons, he’s put together a combined 37-3 dual record, captured a Big Ten Championship and finished eighth and fourth at the national tournament.
But offering up the fact that he still has two more years to capture a national title wouldn’t necessarily be music to a disappointed Ashnault's ears.
With only a maximum of four runs at it, each missed opportunity lessens the opportunities of capturing one. Also adding in the fact that Heil, McKenna and Mecate, among other top 141-pounders, will be vying for the same title Ashnault strives for the next two years makes the road to a national title even tougher.
Anthony Ashnault can still be Rutgers' first national champion.
With his talent and drive, he can even still be a two-time national champion.
But just as it did this year, toss-up bouts against top grapplers in the next two NCAA Championships are going to decide whether Ashnault goes down in history as a great wrestler, or a great national champion.
“The one thing about Anthony is you know he’s always gonna be in the thick of it, and he’s just gotta punch through one time,” Goodale said. “But there’s been some great ones that have come through this tournament and not won a national title, and we’re not settling for that. We’re gonna try to do everything in our power to make sure he’s in the best possible situation to win one, win two. So that’ll be his approach all summer long.”
For updates on the Rutgers wrestling team, follow @EricMullin_ and @TargumSports on Twitter.