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Rutgers' Ashnault assumes No. 1 spot with defeat of Kolodzik

On Super Bowl Sunday, No. 1 graduate student 149-pounder Anthony Ashnault sent the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC) crowd into an absolute frenzy. The Rutgers wrestling team squared off against in-state rival No. 19 Princeton in what went down as an all-time classic match for the Big Ten Ivy League Rivalry Trophy. 

Of course, all eyes around the collegiate wrestling sphere were focused on one bout in particular in the showdown of New Jersey college wrestling. The 149-pound weight class match of then-No. 1 Matthew Kolodzik against the then-No. 2 Ashnault. 

Kolodzik and Ashnault’s rivalry dates all the way back to 2015, where the two split matches. Ashnault won the first match 3-2, while Kolodzik got revenge in the next match 11-4. 

Fast forward to 2016. In the "Battle at the Birthplace" match, an outdoor dual meet against the Tigers (6-5) inside HighPoint.com Stadium, Kolodzik edged Ashnault 4-3, handing him him his first-ever home loss. There was quite a crowd on hand to witness the match that day, as the crowd was then the second-largest attendance for an NCAA dual meet. 

With the rivalry at 2-1 in favor of Kolodzik, Ashnault got his chance to even the score at 2 in the 2017 NCAA Championships, defeating the Princeton wrestler on the biggest stage in collegiate wrestling.

In the quarterfinals round, then-No. 5 Ashanult, took out then-No. 4 Kolodzik by a score of 6-2 to advance to the semifinals. He would lose that match and end up finishing sixth, as Kolodzik finished seventh. 

With things tied at two matches apiece, a stall in the rivalry occured last year as Ashnault sat out the entire season due to injury. Kolodzik on the other hand, made a run to the semifinals in the NCAA Championships as the No. 11 seed, before losing and taking an impressive third-place finish.

So, things were set up perfectly for the rubber match at the RAC, as all eyes were on the two best wrestlers in their weight class. 

To make things even more interesting, before the match the Tigers' head coach Chris Ayers told NJ Advance Media, “Ashanult can’t score on him. Ashnault is good, don’t get me wrong. He’s really, really good, but I don’t think he can do it.” 

Ashnault made Ayers quickly eat his words by delivering one of the best performances of his career, turning Kolodzik on his back twice en route to a 10-2 major decision. 

The No. 14 Scarlet Knights (9-5, 2-3) would go on to win the match by 1 point, so Ashnault’s major decision was the key bonus point Rutgers needed to squeak past Princeton. 

In the final seconds of the match, with Ashnault riding on top, he looked up to the Princeton coaches' corner and put up 10 fingers signaling the 10 points he scored on Kolodzik. The roof proceeded to blow off the RAC.

In the post-match press conference, Ashnault was asked about whether or not Ayers's comments gave him any motivation heading in to the match. 

“I was putting it off in my mind, but it definitely did bother me when people say I can’t score any point," Ashnault said. "I can score on anyone. I just wanted to make it a point that I’m ready to win a national title this year."

Ashnault is seven wins shy of eclipsing alumnus Mike McHugh's for the program's all-time wins record. McHugh has 117 wins.

Head coach Scott Goodale also said in the press conference how Ayers came to him before the match asking to start the match at the 157-pound weight class, to showcase Ashnault and Kolodzik as the final bout of the night. 

“I wanted normalcy. We went through that already with Oklahoma State,” Goodale said. “We needed normalcy and we kept everything normal. That’s why we started at 125." 

Goodale mentioned how 12 years ago, there were less than 30 fans in attendance to see the Knights wrestle. But since then, Rutgers has established itself as a dominant force in collegiate wrestling.

So with Ashnault now leading 3-2 against Kolodzik, the two will likely have one final match in March, and it could be for the final round of NCAA Championships. 

“I’m sure he’s going to be very hungry. He kind of lost the match for his team so, he’s a leader for them, I’m going to be twice as prepared next time,” Ashnault said. “I’m sure he’s going to take this one to heart and be excited for the next one.” 

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

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