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PISCATAWAY, NJ–Rutgers’ wrestling team will head to the Big Ten Championships riding a serious high after the Scarlet Knights pulled off a dramatic upset against #7 Lehigh at the Rutgers Athletic Center on Saturday night.
They will be vying for Rutgers’ first conference title in a team sport since joining the Big Ten athletic conference.
Rutgers, ranked #13 in the nation, drew Lehigh in the NWCA National Duals when matchups were announced last Monday.
With the match against Lehigh set to take place on Saturday, Rutgers fans may have been disappointed to find out the team cancelled its match with Drexel scheduled for Friday.
The Lehigh match more than made up for it.
Things started out rough for Rutgers after the Mountain Hawks took the first two bouts on major decisions, jumping out to an 8-0 Lehigh lead.
But Anthony Ashnault, the fourth-ranked 141-pound wrestler in the nation, got Rutgers on the board with a 9-2 decision over #17 Randy Cruz from Lehigh, making it 8-3 Lehigh. Then Tyson Dippery and #9 Richie Lewis picked up decisions at 149 and 157 respectively, giving Rutgers a 9-8 lead at the intermission.
After the break, #7 Anthony Perotti and Phillip Bakuckas kept Rutgers’ momentum rolling, as they secured decisions at 165 and 174 respectively, and the Scarlet Knights gained a comfortable 15-8 lead heading into the match’s final three bouts.
But Lehigh’s back-loaded lineup put them right back in it, as Rutgers’ #19 Nicholas Gravina dropped a decision to Lehigh’s #2 Nate Brown at 184. Right after that, the Scarlet Knights’ Hayden Hrymack lost a major decision to #15 John Bolich at 197 to tie the score at 15-15 with one bout left.
Saturday’s match served as Senior Night, as it was the final match at Rutgers this season. So it was fitting the final dual of the season rested on redshirt senior heavyweight Billy Smith’s shoulders.
The RAC crowd of nearly 2,000 was on its feet as Smith, the 12th ranked heavyweight in the nation, matched up with Lehigh’s Max Wessell, ranked just behind Smith at #13. The two titans wrestled to a tie score after the bout’s first three rounds, sending the bout, and consequently the entire match, to tiebreakers.
Wessell began the first tiebreaker on top, but Smith quickly reversed him to take the lead. With the crowd’s volume gradually rising as they got ready to celebrate another huge victory, Smith held off Wessell in the second tiebreaker to secure the win for the Scarlet Knights.
The fans at the RAC erupted as Rutgers celebrated its third win against a top ten team this season.
The Scarlet Knights previously pulled off upsets against #7 Cornell at Madison Square Garden on November 29 and #4 Nebraska at the RAC on December 12.
After a dual season like Rutgers just enjoyed, it’s safe to say wins against top programs like these won’t be considered upsets for too long.
Rutgers finishes the dual season at 16-5, and 5-4 in the always-difficult Big Ten. The 16 dual victories represents the highest total since the 2012-13 season in which the Scarlet Knights finished 16-4.
In addition to the wins over Lehigh, Cornell, and Nebraska, Rutgers also has wins over ranked opponents #13 North Carolina, #25 Northern Iowa, #18 Oregon State, and #23 Purdue.
Up next, Rutgers heads to Iowa City for the 2016 Big Ten Championships, which will take place on March 5 and 6.
Last year, in their first season in the Big Ten, the Scarlet Knights did not fare well as a team, placing 11th out of 14 teams in the conference championships.
However, they still sent four competitors to the NCAA Championships with automatic berths.
This year, coach Scott Goodale and his squad have made a habit of taking down some of the nation’s best, Rutgers will be hoping for better results at the conference showcase.
Depending on how they fare in Iowa, Rutgers may make a run for the NCAA Championships from March 17-19, which will take place less than an hour away from campus at Madison Square Garden.