In nine days, the 106th annual Big Ten Championships will begin at the Rutgers Athletic Center. On March 7 and 8, 13 other conference teams will descend on the Rutgers wrestling team’s mats and the hotels within the area.
For the No. 25 Scarlet Knights (10-7, 4-5), next weekend is an opportunity to take advantage of home cooking and take victories in front of the Scarlet faithful.
Last time out at the conference tournament, Rutgers topped the podium in both the 133 and 149-pound weight classes. Olympic redshirt Nick Suriano and alumnus Anthony Ashnault were the No. 3 and No. 1 seeds, respectively, at the 2019 Big Ten. Ashnault took down Ohio State’s Micah Jordan, the second seed, 8-6. Suriano also defeated a Buckeye (10-4, 6-3), Luke Pletcher, who was the fifth seed in the 133-pound weight class.
Now, with some nationally ranked underclassmen stepping up to start in head coach Scott Goodale’s lineup, several Knights seem poised to make a run at the Big Ten.
At the lightweight classes, the 125 and 133-pounders stand out for Rutgers. Once a weight class where junior 133-pounder Shane Metzler wrestled in, it has quickly been turned over to No. 20 redshirt freshman 125-pounder Nicolas Aguilar.
When Metzler wrestled down at 125 last year, he had a 10-18 record and took two victories at the conference tournament in Minneapolis.
The Knights have been winning more bouts this season at the lowest weight class. Aguilar owns a 20-8 record, including two wins over ranked opponents. In dual meets, he has won eight bouts and lost four.
Aguilar could make a run at a victory at the 125 pounds, but he will have to contend with the likes of Purdue’s Devin Schroder and Iowa’s Spencer Lee, who is the top ranked 125-pounder in the country. Aguilar faced Schroder on Jan. 26 when the Boilermakers (12-5, 5-4) came to Piscataway.
Minnesota’s Patrick McKee is ranked inside the top 10 on Intermat Wrestling. Michigan’s Jack Medley, who defeated Aguilar 2-1 at Madison Square Garden (MSG) on Feb. 1, is also ranked inside the top 20.
Suriano left the comforts of the Banks to pursue his Olympic dream. In his place went No. 9 true freshman 133-pounder Sammy Alvarez, who was thrust into one of Rutgers’ most historic weight classes. Alvarez, a product of St. Joseph's Regional, captured a state championship at 126 pounds in 2019.
Alvarez brought the same high school flair to the Banks. He won the starter’s role in wrestle-offs this past October. This season, he defeated three nationally ranked wrestlers in the top 10 of the 133-pound weight class.
He has not faced Wisconsin’s Seth Gross yet, who is ranked as the top wrestler. Alvarez faced Penn State’s Roman Bravo-Young on the road back on Jan. 19, who was then ranked No. 3 in the nation. Alvarez held his own against Bravo-Young, but couldn’t manage a victory in University Park, Pennsylvania.
Another top conference wrestler who could oppose Alvarez is Illinois’ Travis Piotrowski. Piotrowski, then ranked seventh in the nation, pinned Alvarez 2:43 minutes into the bout on Feb. 7, when the Fighting Illini (10-4, 6-3) defeated the Knights back.
In the Big Ten, Alvarez is 7-2 and has potential to wrestle all the way to the quarterfinals and more, given the seed he is placed in. He could very well be a top-six seed in the conference tournament.
No. 13 redshirt freshman 184-pounder Billy Janzer could turn some heads come March 7. Like Alvarez, he is also 7-2 in the Big Ten. He defeated the Wolverines’ (7-6, 5-4) Jelani Embree on Feb. 1, as part of Rutgers’ Super Saturday wrestling and men’s basketball doubleheader at Madison Square Garden.
In Janzer’s most recent Big Ten bout, he downed Northwestern’s Jack Jessen 10-2, a major decision victory. It was Janzer’s third major decision of the season. He has a 19-6 overall record.
No. 19 graduate student 197-pounder Jordan Pagano enters the Big Ten after upsetting Princeton’s No. 3 Patrick Brucki in the Knights’ final dual meet of the season this past Sunday.
The 197-pound bracket is loaded with Big Ten talent. Ohio State's Kollin Moore has the top spot in Intermat’s rankings. Nebraska’s Eric Schultz follows at No. 4, with Jacob Warner at the 6th spot from the No. 1 Hawkeyes (13-0, 9-0).
After the conference tournament will be the NCAA Championships in Minneapolis on March 19.
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