It's hard not to look back at the finish of Anthony Ashnault’s redshirt-freshman season for the Rutgers wrestling team and ask one question.
Competing in the 141-pound weight class, Ashnault was 1 of just 4 Scarlet Knights to qualify for the NCAA Tournament in St. Louis last season. He made it all the way to the quarterfinals before he was finally knocked out of contention for the National Championship.
As he continued to compete for the third and final spot on the national podium, Ashnault’s fourth-round victory in the consolation bracket confirmed his All-American status, marking just the third time in program history that a wrestler in their first season of eligibility secured that title.
But during his next match, the destiny of Ashnault’s historic season would be taken out of his hands. Ashnault suffered a leg injury early in the quarterfinal match that hindered his performance. He went on to lose the match and, after not being healthy enough to compete for seventh place the following day, he had to settle for an eighth-place finish.
Finishing last season with a 29-8 record overall, along with his aforementioned accomplishments in the NCAA Tournament, was a tremendous feat for a wrestler in his first season of eligibility.
But it wasn’t enough for the South Plainfield, New Jersey, native.
“It was really sweet, a little bittersweet because I got hurt and I didn’t get to finish out the tournament,” Ashnault said. “Didn’t finish how I wanted to finish. I lost in the quarterfinals and I thought I had the potential to come all the way back for third place, but I got hurt. Things happen and maybe it happened for a reason. I got some rest and I came back June-July time and I just went back to work and started focusing on this season.”
With a preseason No. 8 ranking, according to InterMat Wrestling, within his 141-pound weight class, Ashnault enters this season with high expectations for himself while looking to improve on where he finished last season.
After a long offseason of rigorous training, he said feels the best he’s ever felt on the mat, both mentally and physically.
While Ashnault has made plenty of strides since the end of last season, he still has improvements to make before he can get to the top, said head coach Scott Goodale.
“Anthony has to get better, he’s still trying to improve every single day,” Goodale said. "The one thing about him, we knew what we were going to get after coming off of his injury. We wrestled him in the World Team Trials and trained real, real hard for it but maybe not ready to really compete at the highest level ... One thing about him you know he’s going to do that because his goals are so high. So right now ... it’s a much better Anthony Ashnault than what you saw last year in March.”
Ashnault didn’t have to wait long to showcase improvements he has made since the conclusion of last season. In his first match of the 2015-16 campaign, he faced then-No. 9 All-American Rick Durso of Franklin & Marshall, a match Ashnault had been looking forward to for a while.
In a dominating 7-1-decision victory, Ashnault nearly shutout Durso, who salvaged his only point in the waning seconds of the match.
The impressive start to the reigning All-American’s season didn’t come as a surprise to his teammates.
“We all know how good he is,” said redshirt-freshman Anthony Giraldo. “We see it in the room everyday when he beats us up in practice. So we expected him to go dominate.”
So looking back to how last season ended the question that begs is, what if Ashnault hadn’t gotten hurt?
Maybe he goes on to win the consolation bracket and finishes on third overall on the podium.
But with last season behind him, Ashnault has something bigger and better than a third-place finish on his mind.
“Getting there (to the NCAA Tournament) and All-American really opened my eyes," he said. "I mean I wanted to be a National Champ last year and maybe I wasn’t ready. And now, after being there and seeing what there is, I really feel 100-percent confident that I can get it done this year and get to the top.”
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