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Anthony Ashnault, Nick Suriano become first pair to claim Big Ten titles in Rutgers history

Sunday, March 10 will go down as a revered day in the 89-year history of Rutgers wrestling. At the 2019 Big Ten Championships in Minnesota, two Scarlet Knights made claim to their spots in the pantheon of college wrestling as the first pair of Rutgers wrestlers to each finish as conference champions in program history. 

Junior 133-pounder Nick Suriano and graduate senior 149-pounder Anthony Ashnault conquered the brackets of their respective weight classes, each earning decisions in the final round to claim Big Ten titles. 

Suriano won the first conference title of his collegiate career as the third seed in his first season in the 133-pound bracket. His path to the title began with a rematch against Maryland’s Orion Anderson. Suriano most recently pinned Anderson in the final dual of the season, and two weeks later the first round would yield the same result, with Suriano advancing only 1:10 in the match by virtue of the fall. Suriano would get a rematch of a different variety in the semifinal round after defeating Minnesota’s Ethan Lizak 10-2 in the quarterfinal. 

Against Iowa’s Austin DeSanto, Suriano fought his way through a match in which he suffered a bloody wound to the head after a DeSanto headbutt. He took a 3-1 lead into the third, but a series of stalling calls tied the match, and a takedown in the final seconds gave Suriano the lead and a 6-3 decision. 

“I came for a fight, and I came for a challenge. I knew it was going to be a bloody war. I came for war,” Suriano said. 

Following the end of the match, judges were forced to restore order after a verbal and slightly physical altercation between the two wrestlers, and reviewed the end of the match after a challenge block was thrown by Iowa coach Tom Brands. Judges ultimately awarded Suriano the victory: One that sent him to the final round and avenged a loss to DeSanto back in January. 

“I asked him, 'What did you say last time? You were barking in my face, what did you have to say? It is what it is,” Suriano said. “He got in my face last time, (Brands) was yelling in my ear, everyone was yelling at me. It’s my turn now.”

After the semifinal victory, Suriano took to Instagram to post a selfie with a caption 'thanking everyone that helped him up when he was down.'

Meanwhile, in the 149-pound bracket, top-seeded Ashnault began his third career conference title campaign with two rematches against conference foes earlier in his undefeated season. A 14-2 major decision over Indiana’s Fernie Silva sent Ashnault to the quarterfinal, where he earned a 6-3 decision over Michigan’s Malik Amine. This was a closer result for Amine when compared to Ashnault’s major decision on senior day. 

Then, in the semifinal round, Ashnault would push his six-year Knights legacy to the brink of immortal status. In a 5-1 decision over Minnesota’s Thomas Thorn, Ashnault improved to a perfect 26-0 on the season and tallied the 117th win of his career, tying Mike McHugh for the most all-time in program history. 

Sunday saw Suriano and Ashnault, two wrestlers at two different phases in their careers, take the stage to represent Rutgers in the final round of the last Big Ten championship of the decade.

Both bouts would come against wrestlers representing defending conference champion Ohio State. Suriano would take the mat against Luke Pletcher for a chance at his first career conference title. After three periods, he emerged with that milestone crossed off after a 4-1 decision to deliver the Knights their first champion of the day. 

“No matter what the injuries are or the negative thoughts, I’m here healthy and I finally got it,” Suriano said. “I wasn’t happy with my performance, but I got it done.”

Later in the day came Ashnault's last conference final, with an undefeated record, a program best, third title and a spot alone at the top of the program’s all-time wins list on the line. Ashnault would be forced to earn it against Micah Jordan in a rematch of December's Cliff Keen Invitational in Las Vegas.  

In a back and forth bout that saw Ashnault take and relinquish the lead in the final period, he held an 8-5 lead as time expired. The final seconds ticked down to Ashnault’s ascension to the title of winningest wrestler in Rutgers history. 

“Eyes are always on you, when you think no one’s watching, that’s when you got to be doing things a little bit better. I think it added up over my career just doing extra stuff here and there, and it got me to this point,” Ashnault said. 

With the win, Ashnault becomes just the second wrestler in the Knights' history to win three conference titles, and the only to claim three Big Ten Championships (2016, 2017, 2019).

Both Ashnault and Suriano will have a chance to become the first national champions in program history when they travel to Pittsburgh on March 21 for the NCAA Championships. 

“I’m in awe of what (Ashnault) has accomplished. He’s one of the greatest to ever don the Scarlet Knights uniform,” said athletic director Pat Hobbs. “(Suriano) is doing exactly what he said he’d do — win championships. I can’t wait to see them and their teammates compete in Pittsburgh.”

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

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