ST. LOUIS, MO. -- Rutgers University wrestler and South Plainfield native Anthony Ashnault strives and works everyday for one goal: a national title.
The school's first three-time All-American, Ashnault, the fifth-seed at 141 pounds, will have one more chance at that feat after falling in the semifinals for the second year in a row to top-seeded Dean Heil of Oklahoma State, this time by a 4-2 decision in the 2017 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships Friday night at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, Missouri.
Ashnault will fight for as high as third place starting on Saturday morning.
Heil is now 3-0 against Ashnault with all three coming in the last three NCAA tournaments. Heil bested Ashnault 8-3 at Madison Square Garden last year and 9-4 two years ago in a wrestleback matchup. Ashnault, a red-shirt junior, took fourth in 2015-16 and eighth in 2014-15.
The defending champ in the class, Heil took a 2-0 lead with a takedown in the first period after it looked like Ashnault was going to score first. Down 3-0 in the second, Ashnault earned two points on a reversal but couldn’t make the full comeback.
In the quarterfinals matchup Friday morning, Ashnault capitalized on another shot against No. 4 Matt Kolodzik of Princeton University, topping the Blair Academy product 6-2 in the All-New Jersey rivalry matchup which featured some trash talking prior.
Kolodzik, a red-shirt freshman, came into the bout 2-1 against Ashnault. The Ohio native most recently beat him in stunning fashion on a takedown with eight seconds left to win 4-3 back in November in the outdoors “Battle at the Birthplace” dual-meet between the Tigers and the Scarlet Knights at High Point Solutions Stadium. The two grapplers split two matches in the 2015-16 season when Kolodzik was wrestling unattached.
While they both competed on the mats high school in New Jersey, Ashnault and Kolodzik never crossed paths as Blair is not a member of the NJSIAA. Ashnault went 170-0 with four NJSIAA state titles during his time at the powerhouse public South Plainfield High School.
Ashnault and Kolodzik felt each other out in the first period as it was still 0-0 heading into the second. That’s when the two-time Big Ten champ went on the attack.
Ashnault built up over one minute of riding time and scored a two-point near-fall with 30 seconds to go in the period to take a 2-0 lead. The official at first put up four fingers, but after Rutgers associate head Donny Pritzlaff waved the red flag and challenged the call, the review was upheld and only two points were awarded. Kolodzik would pick up a point on an escape with just a few ticks remaining in the second and Ashnault led 2-1 after two.
In the third period, Ashnault started on the bottom and escaped to go up 3-1 -- the same score and lead Ashnault had in November heading into the final stanza. But this time instead of waiting back, he was aggressive and scored a takedown with 1:34 left in the third to take a 5-1 lead. Kolodzik added an escape point and Ashnault finished with 2:25 of riding time and was awarded point at the conclusion of the match. Afterwards, Ashnault was pumped and let out a scream. The two competitors looked one another in the eye and shared a handshake in respect.
“At the end of the day, it’s the NCAA tournament,” Ashnault said, according to Rutgers communications. “Every guy is really, really tough especially in the quarters at this point. My job is to win and advance, so whoever is there across from me, it is what it is. I just want to keep moving forward and keep wrestling my best.”
While he lost again in the semifinals two years in a row, he received a special attention from Athletics Director Pat Hobbs after he won his second round matchup Thursday night.
“We have a great supporting atmosphere that I haven’t really seen at any other school,” Ashnault said. “Our athletic director was here in the locker room after last night’s match hugging me. It’s the whole family atmosphere at Rutgers and you don’t get that anywhere else. I’m 15 minutes away from home. This is what I came to Rutgers to do. To win a national championship.”
Again, he has one more year to do so.
Fellow South Plainfield natives Scott DelVecchio (133 pounds) and Troy Heilmann (149), who both lost their first round matchups on Thursday afternoon but came out victorious in their first wrestle-back rounds later that night, took to the mats on Friday as well. Unfortunately for Heilmann of the University of North Carolina, he fell in his first bout Friday morning and was eliminated.
For DelVecchio however, who is also at Rutgers, he is still alive in the consolation half of the bracket after topping Pat D’Arcy of Princeton 4-0 and edging No. 12 Josh Alber 4-3 of Northern Iowa. In that one DelVecchio landed a single-leg takedown with 45 seconds left in the third period and prevented a reversal shortly after to hold on for the upset and to advance to the blood round.
The fourth-year junior who is making his second trip to St. Louis (first since 2014-15 after red-shirting last year) fell to No. 7 Eric Montoya of Nebraska in the blood round. Instead of becoming an All-American for the first time, DelVecchio was eliminated and finished the season 26-17 overall.
Rutgers’ No. 15 149-pounder Ken Theobold earned All-America status in his final season “On the Banks” by topping Wisconsin’s Andrew Cone 7-3.
The Scarlet Knights have now produced at least one All-American in each of the last four seasons under the watch of head coach Scott Goodale. With Theobold and Ashnault earning the honor, Rutgers now as 14 in the history of the program.