PISCATAWAY, NJ - While the current South Plainfield High School wrestling team was winning their 32nd straight District 12 title, former Tiger great Anthony Ashnault was in the midst of an intense duel of his own.
As part of the 2016 National Wrestling Coaches Association Division I Duel Series, the Rutgers wrestling team hosted Lehigh at the Rutgers Athletic Center Saturday night in Piscataway. The No. 13 Scarlet Knights and the No. 7 Mountain Hawks are old Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association (EIWA) rivals, last locking horns in 2013 when Rutgers upset Lehigh 17-16 for the first time since 1950. In that match, then Rutgers redshirt freshman heavyweight Billy Smith won a 6-0 decision over Max Wessell in the final bout.
And just like three years ago, it all came down to the pair again, with this time the No. 13-ranked Smith getting a victory over No. 14 Wessell.
Visibly sweaty, exhausted, and heavily breathing as he sat down at the table in front of the mics for the press conference, Smith sighed and said, “Well, that’s one to end it.”
With the match all knotted up at 15-15, Smith and Wessell went after it like two bears fighting each other in the middle of the woods. After Wessell entered the third period with a 1-0 lead off an escape in the second, Smith didn’t give up after being knocked down three times before getting his escape. The two 285-pounders clawed but the match went into overtime.
The one-minute sudden death overtime ended in a stalemate, so it came down to the two extra 30-second periods. Five seconds in, Smith landed a reversal to take a 3-1 lead as fans roared as loudly as a volcano erupting. In the second 30-second period, Wessell earned as escape but Smith held him off for a 3-2 bout win, and 18-15 victory for the Scarlet Knights.
After the win, the final home match of the season, Smith put his arms up, pointed to the crowd, and blew kisses to the fans that cheered him on.
“Honestly we were wrestling real well in the beginning so I wasn't expecting it to come down to me,'' Smith said. “I've been there a lot (needing a win at the end). I'm comfortable wrestling in those situations.”
Smith was partially right about wrestling well at the beginning. Lehigh jumped out to an 8-0 lead after the first two grapplers, No. 13 Darian Cruz (125 pounds) and Mason Beckman (133) earned major decisions. Then, No. 5 Ashnault for Rutgers at 141 pounds put together what maybe was the biggest win of the duel besides Smith’s.
Ashnault was able to get a 9-2 victory over No. 17 Randy Cruz to get on the scoreboard and cut the Mountain Hawk lead to 8-3. The win sparked the team into five straight wins (including Ashnault) to take a 15-8 lead before Lehigh came back to tie it after wins at 184 and 197 pounds. With the win, Ashnault improved to 24-2 on the season. Vintage Tiger Style.
In 45 tries, Rutgers has beaten Lehigh just three times, so when it happens like last night, it’s a huge deal.
"[In the] grand scheme of things, what does this win mean? It's huge for our program, its Lehigh, a tremendous tradition,” Rutgers head coach Scott Goodale said after the duel. “There's chippiness. I have all the respect in the world for (Lehigh head coach) Pat Santoro and his staff. We're just fighting really hard for our guys just like they're doing. It means a lot to beat Lehigh, there's no question about it. Now let’s move onto the Big Ten Championships.”
Rutgers ended the duel season 16-5, and 5-4 in the conference, and went 7-2 in front of their home fans at the RAC. The Scarlet Knights now have two weeks to prepare the Big Ten Championships in Iowa on March 5th and 6th. Goodale says every day is important in all different aspects of getting ready.
“Tomorrow is really, really important,”Goodale said. “Monday becomes really, really important. Whether it’s rest, strength and condition, nutrition, all that stuff, and the wrestling will take care of itself, but you have to be solid tonight on. Everything’s got to matter. We’ll be off the mat for a couple days, and we’ll get really healthy, but these guys do things on their own and that’s what it’s about. That’ll ultimately get these guys to where they want to be at the end of the year, and that’s being at the podium or maybe the top of the podium at the National Tournament.”
125: No. 13/14/12 Darian Cruz (Lehigh) over Sean McCabe (Rutgers) (MD 15-7); Lehigh leads, 4-0
133: Mason Beckman (Lehigh) over Josh Patrick (utgers) (MD 19-7); Lehigh leads, 8--0
141: No. 5/4/5 Anthony Ashnault (Rutgers) over No. 17/20/17 Randy Cruz (Lehigh) (Dec 9-2); Lehigh leads, 8-3
149: Tyson Dippery (Rutgers) over Ian Brown (Lehigh) (Dec 6-0); Lehigh leads, 8-6
157: No. 12/9/9 Richie Lewis (Rutgers) over Drew Longo (Lehigh) (Dec 12-7); Rutgers leads, 9-8
165: No. 7/5/4 Anthony Perrotti (Rutgers) over No. 16/16/20 Ryan Preisch (Lehigh) (Dec 8-5); Rutgers leads, 12-8
174: Phillip Bakuckas (Rutgers) over Gordon Wolf (Lehigh) (Dec 9-2); Rutgers leads, 15-8
184: No. 3/2/4 Nate Brown (Lehigh) over No. 20/19/20 Nicholas Gravina (Rutgers) (Dec 3-2); Rutgers leads, 15-11
197: No. 17/17/15 John Bolich (Lehigh) over Hayden Hrymack (Rutgers) (MD 11-0); Match tied, 15-15
285: No. 13/15/12 Billy Smith (Rutgers) over No. 14/11/13 Max Max Wessell (Lehigh) (TB-1 3-2); Rutgers wins, 18-15
Rankings (-/-/-): InterMat / FloWrestling/The Open Mat
NR denotes not ranked'