With a ticket punched to the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships thanks to a 22-9 overall record, graduate student 197-pounder Jordan Pagano was looking forward to having a shot at a national championship. Pagano earned the No. 17 seed and was slated to go up against Rider's No. 16 seed Ethan Laird in the first round. Like last year's NCAA champion Anthony Ashnault, Pagano wanted to finish off his final year at the top.
After finishing up a regular practice in prep for the Championships, Pagano and his teammates were in their locker room when they found out the Big Ten had canceled all athletic activities due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). When the conference canceled its men's basketball tournament, they figured they were next on the chopping block, which meant Pagano wasn't going to be able to pursue his final goal with the Rutgers wrestling team.
"It stinks because I'm a sixth-year senior, so this was really my last chance at being an All-American or National Champion," Pagano said. "I don't want to say it was a waste of a year because it's not. I know I accomplished a lot of great stuff, made a lot of memories and it was definitely worth it. I'd do it all over again. But the pinnacle of wrestling, unless you have Olympic aspirations, is winning a national title. The fact that it was taken away from me, it just stings. I felt like I had a lot more to give than the way it ended."
The global pandemic has impacted every industry in the world, including collegiate sports. With the NCAA at a standstill, winter athletes have wrapped up their seasons or in Pagano's case, his wrestling career. Spring sport athletes are allowed to redshirt, though. Pagano spoke about what he would do if he had been given the same opportunity.
"I would take that extra year back," Pagano said. "The pinnacle of wrestling is winning a national title. I had a great opportunity to do it this year and I felt like I had a really good year, but I understand that financially, it's tough (for the NCAA)."
As far as the season goes, it was the first time in more than five years that the Scarlet Knights weren't going to have a returning All-American on their roster. Pagano believes Rutgers did better than expected and is optimistic for how the young team will fare in the next couple of years.
"I thought for a really young team, outside of a guy like me who's a sixth year senior, we handled everything well. We probably could've won a lot more dual meets than we did, but we were right there with some of the best teams," he said. "It's a bright future. We've got a really good team ... We were just holding each other accountable, which is something we weren't doing in the beginning as much as I think we could've been. It showed toward the end. We made tremendous gains."
With Pagano's wrestling career complete, he plans on finishing up graduate school and working with the Scarlet Knights Wrestling Club. He spoke about the support he received from the Rutgers community throughout his career.
"Thank you for everything. It was a pleasure wrestling the past five years here and I'm really, really happy the way things played out. Thank you to everyone and the fans from top to bottom for embracing me and taking me in. I feel like I left a good impact on Rutgers. And for everyone to stay safe right now, and keep social distancing and wash your hands. Let's beat this thing so we can have a summer."
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