Graduate student 149-pounder Anthony Ashnault did things his way.
New Jersey’s first-ever undefeated four-time state champion could have gone to any premier wrestling program in the country upon his graduation from South Plainfield High School in 2013.
In fact, Ashnault turned down scholarships from Penn State, Oklahoma State and Michigan to stay home and go to a school he grew up just 15 minutes away from.
Of course, he had some ties to Rutgers. His older brother, Billy, also wrestled for the Scarlet Knights, and at the time of his commitment was named director of Wrestling Operations.
What ensued for Ashnault’s career can be regarded as one of the single best athletes to ever compete for Rutgers, in any sport. Over the course of his entire career, Ashnault was a three-time Big Ten Champion, a national champion and amassed a 123-18 career record, the most all time in program history.
This season could be considered one of the most impressive single-season performances by a Rutgers athlete ever, in any sport. Ashnault capped off his senior campaign with a 32-0 record, 8 pins, seven major decisions and four technical falls.
Of course, the icing on the cake was the elusive national championship, which he secured last week in Pittsburgh by beating Ohio State’s Micah Jordan.
“I came to Rutgers to do that kind of thing, to get more recruits, like I said after the semis,” Ashnault said. “To be honest, I was a little nervous. Once (junior 133-pounder) Nick (Suriano) won I could be free out there and let it fly. So I'm grateful for him — he pushed me a lot. He could be one of the reasons why I finally jumped to get in here.”
He is even up for the Dan Hodge Trophy, which is equivalent to college football’s Heisman Trophy. There are three other wrestlers competing for the award against Ashnault: Penn State’s Bo Nickal and Jason Nolf, as well as Cornell’s Yianni Diakomihalis.
So what is next for Ashnault? Coaching seems to be the obvious answer, as he is expected to join the Knights' coaching staff next season alongside head coach Scott Goodale.
He is also expected to transition to freestyle wrestling, where he will now compete on the world stage for a shot on the U.S. team.
“Heck, yeah, man I'm going to Pan Am Games with the senior-level guys about April 20. I think, I compete in Buenos Aires, Argentina,” Ashnault said. “I'll be with a lot of the starting guys. That's where I want to be. My goal as a little kid was to be Olympic champ, national champ and now I got that part done.”
Still, Ashnault could not help but reflect on his time here at Rutgers, as well as the opportunities he's had over the last six years of his college career.
“I thought it would be a little more satisfying, but I just realized that my potential still has a little bit more to go. And, you know, this was a stressful time. College is stressful," he said. "You've got goals for yourself. I had six years, but usually you only get four years to do it. And when you don't accomplish it so many times in a row, you start getting down on yourself. And it took a lot of soul searching to prove to myself that I am worth it, and the grind is worth it, and it's going to happen one day. And it happened.”
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