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Rutgers has unfitting end to momentous season at NCAA Championships

Senior heavyweight Billy Smith reflects as his career came to an end following a 3-2 decision loss to Lehigh’s Max Wessell, falling a win short of earning All-American status for the first time. – Photo by Photo by Dimitri Rodriguez | The Daily Targum

NEW YORK, N.Y. — In the days leading up to the start of the Rutgers wrestling team’s season, head coach Scott Goodale laid out the ultimate goal for the 2015-16 campaign at its media day.

“You gotta put more than one guy on that podium," Goodale said. “So that’s kind of our mindset, and we truly believe we have guys in this program that are in this lineup that can do it … But for us to be successful, it can't just be one guy anymore. This program is too good and we need to put two and three on that podium, and then our breakout year will be four or five.”

When the Scarlet Knights bussed back from the NCAA Tournament held in New York City over the weekend, they returned with multiple All-Americans in sophomore 141-pounder Anthony Ashnault, who finished fourth, and senior 165-pounder Anthony Perrotti, who finished eighth.

But although the Knights had achieved their initial goal of putting multiple wrestlers on the podium — something that hadn’t been done as a program since 1952 — the mood around the team wasn’t that of satisfaction.

After the season that Rutgers had put together — taking down three top-10 opponents and seven ranked foes overall, jumping to a fifth place finish at the Big Ten Championships, landing at No. 10 in the national rankings at the end of the season and being 1 of 3 teams to qualify its entire lineup for the national tournament — expectations had been raised and finishing with two All-Americans and 15th overall as a team with 30 points didn’t seem to meet them.

So rather than leaving Madison Square Garden with excitement and satisfaction, the Knights exit the season simply wanting more.

“We felt like we left a lot on the table and we feel we’re a top-10 team, we didn’t wrestle like that,” Goodale said. “But at the end of the day, we leave here with two All-Americans. We would’ve died for that a couple years ago. But that’s where we’re at and that’s good. I’m glad (our staff) here are hungry and they want more. I’m glad (Perrotti) wants more cause he’ll be a part of us. And I know Ashnault wants more.”

Rutgers didn’t get off to an ideal start to the tournament on Thursday morning. 

Only Ashnault, Perrotti and junior 157-pounder Richie Lewis collected wins and remained in the championship bracket after the first session.

The second session wasn’t much better either as 5 of 7 Knights making their debuts at the NCAA Championships — junior 125-pounder Sean McCabe, redshirt freshman 133-pounder Anthony Giraldo, sophomore 149-pounder Tyson Dippery, junior 174-pounder Phil Bakuckas and senior 197-pounder Hayden Hrymack — were bounced from the tournament after dropping both of their first two bouts.

“Honestly, it was a tough day for us. It was a really, really tough day. It was a humbling experience,” Goodale said after the first day. “We got probably pinned more times than we were pinned all year long … Overall we didn’t wrestle well. Those guys that went zero and two, they didn’t wrestle, they didn’t show up to wrestle.”

Rutgers came back to Madison Square Garden on Friday morning with only half of its roster and with Ashnault as the only remaining grappler in a championship bracket.

No. 4-seeded Ashnault used a takedown with 20 seconds left to defeat No. 12 Chris Mecate 5-4 and advance to the semifinals.

Perrotti, Lewis, senior heavyweight Billy Smith and sophomore 184-pounder Nicholas Gravina would each need two wins in the third session to advance to Friday night’s round of 12, where they would wrestle for All-American honors.

Gravina and Lewis each dropped their first bouts of the session, putting an end to their respective debuts in the tournament.

But the Knights’ two seniors salvaged the session.

Anthony Perrotti pinned Seth Thomas of Oregon State and outlasted No. 15 Clark Glass of Oklahoma 5-2, while Billy Smith blew by Gardner-Webb’s Boyce Cornwell 7-2 and pinned Riley Shaw of Cleveland State in the first period.

Rutgers would enter the “Blood Round” Friday with one All-American in Ashnault and needed one win each from Perrotti and Smith to give it two more.

Ashnault was up first for the Knights on Friday night as he was pitted against No. 1 seed Dean Heil. The eventual national champion Heil ended Ashnault’s run at a national title with an 8-3 win.

After the quarterfinal round, it was Anthony Perrotti’s turn to take the mat in the consolation round of 12. Perrotti trailed Rider’s No. 12 Connor Brennar 4-3 with 33 seconds remaining in the match when he scored a takedown before going out of bounds to take the lead.

The No. 7-seeded Perrotti rode out Brennar for the rest of the match to secure his second All-American finish and give Rutgers multiple All-Americans.

Still chasing third place, Perrotti fell in his next round 10-2 to Virginia Tech’s No. 14 David McFadden, dropping him into the seventh-place match on Saturday.

Finally, there was Billy Smith, who was seeking his first All-American finish in four tries and was matched up against a familiar foe in No. 8 Max Wessell of Lehigh. No. 12 Smith knocked off Wessell in tiebreakers when the grapplers’ respective programs met at the end of the dual season.

The two heavyweights competed in a close bout once again, but it was Wessell who came out on top this time with a 3-2 decision. Smith’s career had come to a close with 100-plus wins and four NCAA Championship qualifications, but without an All-American honor.

“It’s weird, there’s so much expectations now with this program. It seems like without Billy winning, it’s a tough night. Without winning that last one with Perrotti, it’s a tough night. Without Anthony making the national finals, it’s a tough night,” Goodale said after Friday night’s session. “That’s what this thing has become, there’s expectations, and until we get it all the way through, we’re never gonna be satisfied.”

Anthony Ashnault and Anthony Perrotti returned to the Garden on Saturday to complete in All-American placement matches, but each would fail to close out their seasons with wins.

Ashnault blitzed by Virginia Tech’s No. 7 Solomon Chishko in an 11-3 major decision, but fell in the third-place match to No. 2 Joey McKenna of Stanford, 7-6.

Perrotti had a rematch in the seventh-place match with Nebraska’s No. 10 Austin Wilson, who knocked Perrotti out of the championship bracket in the second session. But Perrotti couldn’t solve Wilson again, falling 4-2 and finishing in eighth.

Even if Perrotti and Ashnault had finished the tournament getting their hand raised on Saturday, disappointment would have still followed.

Ashnault wanted nothing other than the national title and Perrotti’s wrestling career at Rutgers had come to a conclusion.

The Knights’ performance at the NCAA Championships didn’t seem to be a fitting end to a turnaround season for the program. They know that to solidify themselves as a top program in the country, they have to have a better showing at the national tournament.

The Rutgers wrestling team is trending upwards — it’s just going to take time to get to where they plan on going.

“I don’t know how our fans think about it. I know this staff and our program probably think two All-Americans are great, but there’s a lot more out there,” Goodale said. “There’s so much more out there that we need to do and we got the guys to do it that we gotta punch through in this tournament. We have to be better at this tournament. I know we can, I know we will, it just takes time and I’m not the most patient guy in the world. We need to be patient with it and get back here and have a better tournament.”

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

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