Rutgers heads to Illinois to face Northwestern, Illinois in crucial Big Ten weekend
The Rutgers wrestling team would be the first to tell you that it has not lived up to its potential this season.
After falling to No. 1 Penn State (11-0, 7-0) over the weekend, the No. 19 Scarlet Knights (5-5, 1-4) moved down one spot in this week’s NCAA rankings and have fallen seven spots since their No. 12 ranking during the preseason.
But a big showing in Illinois over the weekend can change that.
Rutgers is set to take on two more Big Ten goliaths this weekend, when it heads to Evanston to face No. 17 Northwestern (8-2, 3-2) and then to Champaign to duel No. 14 Illinois (5-3, 4-2).
No. 1 sophomore 125-pounder Nick Suriano will have the toughest task over the weekend, wrestling two ranked opponents, No. 10 Sebastian Rivera and No. 18 Travis Piotrowski.
Up until now, Suriano has breezed through a generally easy schedule, racking up a perfect 19-0 record. But, he has only faced four ranked opponents — three of which came during the Midlands Championships in December, when Suriano won the individual title in his weight class.
Fortunately — and perhaps unfortunately — for Suriano, he faced Rivera at that very same tournament and won by decision with a score of 7-6.
“Now I got a target on my back so I gotta keep training,” Suriano said last week.
Also vying for the team’s toughest matchup over the weekend is No. 11 fifth-year senior 165-pounder Richie Lewis, who will wrestle No. 2 Isaiah Martinez in his second matchup over the weekend.
This comes a week after Lewis faced No. 1 Vincenzo Joseph of Penn State and lost 5-4.
Another intriguing matchup to watch for will be No. 12 fifth-year senior 184-pounder Nicholas Gravina and No. 6 Emery Parker of Illinois. Gravina is also coming off a near upset last weekend, when he lost to No. 1 Bo Nickal by a score of 7-6.
“Anytime you get to (go against) a guy who is top 10, it’s a great opportunity,” Gravina said last week. “Especially if someone is ranked ahead of you, you have absolutely no pressure. You can just fire away, do you and be the best wrestler you can be and put on a show.”
If Gravina and Lewis can secure those wins for the Knights, they will have a good chance of pulling off the upset against Illinois as the Fighting Illini do not boast any other ranked wrestlers in their lineup besides Piotrowski. But before that, Rutgers must focus on the Wildcats.
And other than Suriano and Rivera, the only other matchup of two ranked opponents between the two schools will come at the 149-pound weight class, when No. 12 fifth-year senior Eleazar DeLuca goes up against No. 5 Ryan Deakin from Northwestern.
The only other ranked wrestler for Northwestern is No. 17 Johnny Sebastian at the 174 weight division.
So, if everything goes according to plan and the rankings hold true, the Knights should be able to sneak out of the state of Illinois with two Big Ten wins — even with an upset or two somewhere in the middle.
But, as we’ve seen so far this season, nothing is true until it happens.
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