Ashnault, Suriano become 1st national champions in Rutgers wrestling history

For the first time in history, the Rutgers wrestling team has its national champions. At the 2019 NCAA Championships in Pittsburgh, junior 133-pounder Nick Suriano made a run through a gauntlet of familiar opponents en route to becoming the Scarlet Knights’ first NCAA champion and he won it all as the underdog with unfinished business against two former opponents. 

In the last two rounds of the 133-pound bracket, Suriano was set up with the chance to avenge losses to Michigan's Stevan Micic and his high school foe in Oklahoma State's Daton Fix from earlier this year. 

A 4-1 decision over Micic in the semifinal round erased the memory of a 3-2 loss on senior day at the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC) and sent Suriano to the finals against Fix. The title bout would be only the latest entry in a rivalry between Suriano and Fix that dates back to their high school careers in 2014.

The rivalry between Suriano and Fix was kickstarted in the longest match in the history of high school wrestling in 2014, it was renewed in a dual this season when Fix earned a 3-2 decision in overtime on a controversial hands-to-the-face call, and finally in the 2019 NCAA championships final, Suriano and Fix once again battled into extra time. 

Down 2-1 in the waning seconds of the first tie-breaker period, Suriano worked a 1-point escape to send it to a second period. 

“It came down to not quitting this last match, I was gonna quit I was this close he rolled me like that and I got out,” Suriano said.

In the first 3 seconds of the second tie-breaker, Suriano walked it off with a takedown to best Fix and make history for Rutgers. 

“I looked in his eyes and I told him I was gonna take him down,” Suriano said. “He was getting away with stalling the whole match, all due respect to John Smith and that OK State staff … but they’ve been workin' the refs the whole match, they were doing it during the match at the RAC at Rutgers and I deserved that too.”

Ashnault’s victories in the final two rounds of the 149-pound bracket also came against familiar opponents, but ones the graduate student had already bested during his undefeated campaign this year. In the semifinal Ashnault would take on Matthew Kolodzik of in-state rival Princeton, who he majored against back at the RAC on Superbowl Sunday to claim the top ranking in the nation. 

Then, for the third time this year, Ashnault would face Ohio State’s Micah Jordan in the title bout. Just as he did in the final rounds of the Cliff Keen Invitational and Big Ten Championships, Ashnault bested Jordan when it mattered most in a 9-4 decision to put a bow on his undefeated final season and six-year wrestling career with the Knights. 

Ashnault’s mother, Sue, was in attendance but did not watch the majority of the final match out of superstition. 

“So I look at her, though, when she is doing that and to me it means she loves me and she cares so much about me that she doesn't want to see me hurt or she wants to see me accomplish my goals. Honestly, I love it,” Ashnault said. "I don't mind seeing her like that, because that's been my whole life and that's how I know she really cares about me.”

In a school year that saw a 1-11 football team, a historically promising basketball team make a first-round tournament exit and a number of athletes face criminal charges off the field, Ashnault and Suriano highlighted the University’s athletics. They brought national recognition and historic feats to the school, athletic department and student body, both now winning conference and national titles in the same year and becoming the first pair of Rutgers athletes to both win national titles in any sport since 1949.

“I’m sure every student is walking taller right now because these two amazing young men represented us on the national stage and seized the moment. There is no limit to what students can accomplish at Rutgers. We’re all more firm in that belief today. Anthony and Nick make us all proud to be Scarlet Knights," said athletic director Pat Hobbs.

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

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