PISCATAWAY -- Rain, sleet, and snow couldn’t keep passionate fans away from the Rutgers Athletic Center Sunday afternoon as the No. 13 Rutgers Scarlet Knights wrestling team locked horns with the Northwestern Wildcats in a Big Ten Conference battle on Senior Day.
Six grapplers - Phil Bakuckas, Kenny Theobold, Josh Patrick, Sean McCabe, Anthony Pafumi, and South Plainfield native Dylan Painton - were honored for their hard work and dedication to the university and program prior to the last home dual meet of the season. No. 14 Theobold and Bakuckas came out on top in their 149 and 174-pound bouts respectively, helping the Scarlet Knights de-claw the Wildcats, 28-6, in front of 2,527.
With the victory, Rutgers (12-4) finished their Big Ten regular season slate with a 6-3 record. The six wins are the most since joining the conference in the 2014-15 season. They also finished undefeated at home (6-0), including 5-0 at the RAC.
“Good dual. It’s a good way to finish, 6-0 at home. We obviously like wrestling here,” Rutgers head coach Scott Goodale said. “Overall I thought we wrestled well and we were super aggressive. I thought we wrestled really hard. We were extremely good on top and got out when we needed to get out. It was a good day. ...Tremendous appreciation for the senior class.”
Bakaukus, who lost his starting spot to Jordan Pagano earlier this season who is 23-7 and now ranked No. 19 by Intermat, got the nod and had one last shot to get a win in Piscataway.
The Hammonton, N.J. native went on a mission and completed the objective, crushing Braxton Cody by way of a rare first period technical fall, 16-0, earning three four-point near falls, one two-point near fall, and one takedown in the process. Bakuckas raised both arms circling all the way around to the crowd. When he stepped off the mat, he was met by a hug from Goodale.
“It’s been a crazy ride for me so it felt really good to go out there and put on for everyone in the crowd for one last time,” Bakuckas said. “It’s been an emotional ride for me this year, but I’m happy I got that one and it’s been an honor to represent this university and do what I came here to do.
“I just kept telling myself to push through (when he was replaced by Pagano). I’ve never been a quitter in my life. My family has been there for me. It's been tough, but I got through it. I'm proud. I hold my head high. I'm going to finish strong and continue to keep pushing myself everyday.”
Rutgers took the first five bouts of the day, leading 17-(-1) at the break after Northwestern’s Ben Sullivan was flagged for flagrant misconduct in the loss to 6-2 loss to No. 18 John Van Brill at 157 pounds which resulted in a point being taken away for the Wildcats.
Rutgers’ 125-pounder Brandon Paetzell started things off by getting revenge over Anthony Rubinetti, 4-2, who topped the true freshman at Midlands. Then, the South Plainfield tandem at 133 and 141 pounds of DelVecchio and No. 5 Anthony Ashnault upped the tally to 11-0 as the two Tigers won by decision and tech fall respectively. DelVecchio (17-10, 7-5), who is 4-5 since the new year and is coming off a loss at Ohio State, is starting to find his aggression and groove.
“Yeah, I kind of felt that,” Goodale said of DelVecchio’s aggressiveness which led to an 11-4 win. “I tapped (assistant coach John) Leonardis on the thigh and said, ‘He’s really starting to come along here late,’ That’s what you want. He’s in this conference where the (top five of seven) guys in the country are all from the Big Ten. He’s been up against the best guys, but you can see he’s starting to wrestle better and he’s bounced back from bad losses. He’s got to put his foot on the gas and continue to go. It was a good win for Scotty and he’s definitely starting to wrestle a lot better.”
Theobold picked up a 9-3 win as well sending his farewells to the RAC crowd. Nicholas Gravina (No. 13) shutout Mitch Sliga 4-0 at 184 pounds, and Razohnn Gross topped Conan Jennings 3-2 in the first tiebreaker period for the other two wins for the home team.
“It’s a big a honor,” said Theobold on the significance of going unblemished at home, “all of our teammates did what they had to do. To go undefeated at home, have an amazing crowd and atmosphere at the RAC it is emotional. I’m happy with the way it ended at least for the dual season.”
For this senior class, who were recruited to grapple in the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association (EIWA), it’s been a journey. Since joining the Big Ten, they’ve seen their conference record go from 2-7, to 5-4, and now 6-3. And as they say, that’s progress for a team that is building towards being a national power and ranked in the top 10 year in and year out.
“My freshman year we wrestled at the Barn (College Avenue Gym) in front of a couple hundred fans," Bakuckas said, "and then my senior year we are are wrestling in the football stadium with 16,000. You can see where this is program is going and it’s going in the right direction. Everyone is working hard every single day. (Assistant coach) Donny (Pritzlaff) was obviously a great pickup for our team. This team is only going to go up from here.”
Next up for Rutgers, the Scarlet Knights will participate in the 2017 NWCA National Duals Championships Series. Goodale said he is “90 percent” sure his team will face No. 11 Lehigh. Last year, Rutgers bested Lehigh at the RAC in the 2016 NWCA National Duals, 18-15, that came down to a heavyweight showdown where Billy Smith came out on top.
The NWCA will inform the host schools of their opponent by 11 p.m. tonight (Feb. 12).