No longer can anyone say it’s not possible to win a national championship in the Rutgers wrestling room. No longer can anyone say head coach Scott Goodale is nothing more than a high school coach.
No longer is there a championship drought on the Banks. No longer do the Scarlet Knights not have a national champion on the wrestling team.
Rutgers has two.
Junior 133-pounder Nick Suriano and graduate student 149-pounder Anthony Ashnault both entered the national tournament with a common goal: Win a national title and become the Knights' first-ever national champion wrestlers.
Their paths to gold were both very different, yet eerily similar.
Ashnault has been the poster boy for Rutgers ever since coming here after his senior season out of South Plainfield High School. After a redshirt season and a medical redshirt season, this year was Ashnault’s sixth and final season with the program.
Suriano, on the other hand, started his collegiate career at Penn State, undoubtedly the best team in the entire country over the course of the last 10 years. After injuring himself his freshman season and missing the postseason, he transferred back home to New Jersey to wrestle in front of the fans that watched him dominate at the high school level for Bergen Catholic.
Both Ashnault and Suriano are New Jersey’s only undefeated, four-time state champions in their high school careers. Now, they are both the Knights' only ever national champions.
For Ashnault, his season could be considered one of the greatest individual performances ever in the program's history. He finished the season 32-0, with 7 major decisions, 4 tech falls and 8 pins.
In the championship bout, he beat Ohio State's No. 2-seeded Micah Jordan by a score of 9-4. It was Ashnault’s third win over Jordan this season.
"It's everything that I've worked for up to this point," Ashnault said. "I try not to idolize wrestling, but a big part of my life was focused on getting a national title. I was extremely blessed to get a sixth year, and I just want to go hug my family and be with them and just bask in it for a little bit."
He came to Rutgers from the start because he believed in the program, in Goodale and that he could win a national title here. And that’s exactly what he did.
For Suriano, his season went a little different than Ashnault's. During the regular season, he was 24-3. To put that in perspective, the Paramus, New Jersey native was undefeated last year, all the way up until the national title match, where he lost to Iowa’s Spencer Lee in the 125-pound championship bout.
The best part about Suriano’s season was the way he finished it. He avenged all three losses in the regular season by beating each of those guys in the postseason.
It started with Iowa’s Austin Desanto, who beat Suriano by a score of 6-4 in January. The first stop on the Suriano revenge tour came during the Big Ten Tournament in Minneapolis, where he knocked off Desanto in the semifinals, 6-3.
The next stops came in the last two matches of Suriano’s season, the most important ones. He avenged his loss to Michigan's Stevan Micic in the semifinals of the national tournament, and moved on to face a familiar foe yet again in the finals.
His final test was Oklahoma State’s Daton Fix. It took two overtimes, but ultimately, Suriano came out on top with a takedown in sudden victory to seal the deal.
"I am blessed," Suriano said. "It's an honor to bring history to Rutgers where it belongs. It's an honor and a blessing. I heard Goodale yell, and it made me so happy, man. Honestly, when I heard coach Goodale yell and cheer me on, it was a dream."
Back in the tunnels of the PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, congratulations were flying from all of the Scarlet faithful and especially athletic director Pat Hobbs, who made the journey out to Pittsburgh to witness history.
Hobbs has always been a fan of the wrestling program and its success under Goodale, and spoke on how important the night was for the future of Rutgers Athletics.
"This is a historic night for Rutgers University," Hobbs said. "I cannot be happier for (Suriano) and (Ashnault). It's a tremendous accomplishment. We're going to keep this going and keep building. Tonight, we started to show people where Rutgers is going to be moving forward."
New Jersey is considered to have some of the best wrestling in the entire country, and that was on display at the national tournament. Seven New Jersey-born wrestlers finished in the top three of their weight classes, the most by any state. Pennsylvania was in second with four wrestlers.
That just goes to show how important these titles were for the Knights' program. Championships can be won here, and it will certainly entice more and more New Jersey recruits to stay home and compete for the best fans in the country.
"What an unbelievable accomplishment for both (Suriano) and (Ashnault) as well as this program," Goodale said. "Those two showed that titles can be won right here at Rutgers. This state produces some of the top talent in the country, and tonight solidifies those guys can succeed without going too far from home."
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