National Duals: No. 13 Rutgers grabs decisive 18-15 over No. 7 Lehigh
PISCATAWAY, N.J. – It once again came down to the final match between No. 13 Rutgers wrestling and No. 7 Lehigh Saturday night at the RAC. The dual score was tied, and so too was No. 13 heavyweight Billy Smith (Wantage, N.J.)and No. 14 Max Wessell entering tiebreakers. But Smith had been there before.
The redshirt senior (23-6) reversed Wessell to begin tiebreakers, held the Mountain Hawk off in the next 30 second stanza, and sent Rutgers wrestling home with an 18-15 NWCA National Duals Championship Series win over the Mountain Hawks (13-3, 7-0).
“That’s as big a spot as you’re going to get, against a really good kid who’s having a great year,” said head coach Scott Goodale. “For both of these guys [Smith and Anthony Perrotti] there’s just a bunch of confidence we’re going to win those matches. Looking at the dual meet on paper, there’s eight toss-ups in that match. So every single point was contested all the way through.”
“He’s been in these spots before and he’s been solid there, and Anthony’s [Perrotti] been in those spots before and been solid there.”
RU (16-5, 5-4) closed the 2015-16 dual season with its seventh ranked win of the year and third against a top-10 opponent. To boot, the Scarlet Knights clinched their second consecutive RAC win over their former EIWA rival, doing it again courtesy of a winner-take-all decision from Smith at heavyweight.
“In the grand scheme of things, what does this win mean? It’s huge for our program,” Goodale said. “It’s Lehigh, tremendous tradition, a ton of respect for those guys. There’s chippness, [but] I have all the respect in the world for [head coach] Pat Santoro and that staff. We’re just fighting really, really hard for those guys just like they’re doing. Every point mattered, we knew that. It means a lot to beat Lehigh, there’s no question about it. Now let’s move onto the Big Ten Championships.”
No. 7-ranked redshirt senior Anthony Perrotti (Roseland, N.J.), who secured an 8-5 decision against No. 16 Ryan Preisch (Lehigh) at 165 pounds, was overwhelmed after taking down Lehigh in the final dual of his college career.
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“It’s indescribable,” Perrotti said. “It was crazy. Unlike Billy, I do the math. I’m a big student of the sport. I like our odds in some matches here and there. I thought [Nicholas] Gravina could have pulled that one out. [Hayden] Hrymack had beaten that guy before. So I didn’t think it was coming down the Billy … [but] I’ve got nothing but confidence in him. He’s been doing this for five years. He’s really been the backbone of this program at the upper weight.
“I remember my sophomore year he might have won seven matches in a row for us coming down the heavyweight. He’s just got a knack for it. I guess that comes with being a heavyweight and comes with being on a good team. I couldn’t be more proud of him. I couldn’t be more proud of the way we wrestled.”
Overall, Rutgers won six of 10 bouts against the Mountain Hawks, beginning with No. 5 Anthony Ashnault (South Plainfield, N.J.) at 141 pounds. Ashnault (24-2) defeated No. 17 Randy Cruz for the second consecutive meeting, this time by a 9-2 score to make the dual score 8-3.
Prior to the RU win, Lehigh’s No. 13 Darian Cruz (125 Pounds) and Mason Beckman (133 Pounds) each scored major decisions over Sean McCabe (Ronkonkoma, N.Y.) and Josh Patrick (Rector, Pa.), respectively.
But Rutgers rode the momentum of Ashnault’s win over the next four matches, earning victories from 149-174 pounds.
Tyson Dippery (Harrisburg, Pa.) kept it rolling with a 6-0 decision at 149 pounds, and No. 12 Richie Lewis (Toms River, N.J.) gutted out a 12-7 decision against Drew Longo to give Rutgers a 9-8 lead at intermission.
That lead ballooned to 15-8 following an 8-5 decision by Perrotti and 9-2 decision from Phillip Bakuckas (Hammonton, N.J.) at 174 pounds.
Lehigh punched back, with No. 3 Nate Brown fighting off No. 20 Nicholas Gravina (Allednale, N.J.), 3-2, at 184 pounds. The Mountain Hawks took another swing at 197 with a major decision from No. 17 John Bolich over Hayden Hrymack (Point Pleasant, N.J.), setting up a heavyweight showdown with a 15-15 score.
But Smith knew what to expect. He had been there before.
“Whenever you beat a team like Lehigh, it’s more than them being ranked No. 6. Honestly that doesn’t really mean much. But it’s more to the fact that they’re a winning tradition,” said Smith, whose 6-0 decision against Lehigh at the RAC in 2013 sealed Rutgers’ first win over the Mountain Hawks since 1950. “You have teams like that, and they almost look down upon Rutgers … I’m proud to be the foundation and see this program grow in a bigger direction. There’s so much more that needs to be done. This is just the beginning and you’ll see that in two weeks or so.”
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At the beginning of the season, junior 141-pounder Anthony Ashnault had this to say.
“We definitely have the talent to be putting four or five guys on the podium and to be national champs on the board,” he said.
After the Rutgers wrestling team put two wrestlers through the gauntlet and onto the national stage as All-Americans last year — himself and then-fifth-year senior 165-pounder Anthony Perrotti — Ashnault held that with the absence of his teammate Perrotti, others would step up.
With weeks to go before the NCAA Championships, another All-American may well in fact prop up, but one thing the 2016-2017 season has shown is that the Scarlet Knights have not found another Anthony Perrotti.
The 165-pound weight class has left head coach Scott Goodale and his coaching staff wanting more throughout the entire campaign, with redshirt freshman Willie Scott and fifth-year senior Anthony Pafumi unable to fill the void the All-American the two-time All-American left.
Rutgers realized Friday that any replacement for heavyweight Billy Smith is nowhere to be found as well.
The NWCA Dual Championships Series came and went for the No. 12 Knights (12-5, 6-3), as they fell victim to an onslaught courtesy of No. 11 Lehigh (10-4, 7-1).
A 23-10 line graced the board at Leeman-Turner Arena at Grace Hall in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania when the final whistle rang.
It is a matchup that has historically gone the way of Rutgers, with Smith acting the part of hero, winning the last two duals in the final match, including last year’s NWCA Dual Championships Series bout in which the Knights won, 18-15.
But by the time the event got to Smith’s famed spot, Rutgers was already down 10 points, and Razohnn Gross toed the white line yearning to give Ashnault, Jordan Pagano and Nicholas Gravina company in the wins column.
It was always going to be an uphill battle for the Knights, a team teeming with young talent opposite a Mountain Hawks side boasting eight ranked wrestlers, five being upperclassmen.
Seven of those nationally touted athletes figured in the first seven slots on the evening, meaning those like freshman 125-pounder Brandon Paetzell and sophomore 133-pounder Scott DelVecchio would need to come out of the locker room swinging.
But as the night would have it, they would drop their matches to No. 5 Darian Cruz and No. 9 Scott Parker respectively, giving the home squad a breathable 7-0 lead.
Of course, as the scoreline shows, Rutgers would get its chops in, including a season-defining victory for 174-pounder Pagano.
No. 19 Pagano shocked the Lehigh faithful in attendance with a massive 10-4 decision over No. 4 Ryan Preisch, which spells wonderfully for his stock heading into Big Ten Championships.
All was not lost for the Knights, in fact, not too much was.
They ran into a side plastered with national rankings, and though most of Rutgers’ squad was unable to break through those top seeds, a few left little to be desired like Pagano.
There was No. 5 Ashnault, who once again showed why he is the best of the bunch, collecting a 4-0 decision over No. 16 Randy Cruz, his third of three against the Mountain Hawk in his career.
And No. 13 Gravina flashed his versatility, moving up to the 197-pound slot to cover some ground for the Knights, putting 11 points on the board for a major decision over Lehigh’s Thomas Murray.
For some on this Rutgers team, championship season means ample opportunity for hand-raising, and for others, it’s a chance to assuage mistakes made at the tail end of the dual season
Whether Ashnault’s prediction is correct all hinges on what happens the first few weekends in March.
By Friday’s indication, he’ll certainly be on that podium. But like always, there’s some work to be done.
For updates on the Rutgers wrestling team, follow @jon_spilletti and @TargumSports on Twitter.
(Darian Cruz over Sean McCabe DEC 7 - 4)
(Mason Beckman over Vincent Dellefave DEC 5 - 1)
(Tyson Dippery over Laike Gardner DEC 6 - 5)
(Mitch Minotti over Ken Theobold DEC 9 - 2)
(Anthony Perrotti over Joseph Napoli DEC 11 - 5)
(Nick Visicaro over Ben Haas MD 16 - 5)
(Phillip Bakuckas over Elliot Riddick DEC 5 - 4)
(Dan Seidenberg over Zach Diekel DEC 7 - 6)
(John Bolich over Hayden Hrymack DEC 8 - 5)
(William Smith over Axel Wessell DEC 8 - 5)
The Rutgers men’s lacrosse team will face no. 8 seed Lehigh on Saturday, May 15 at 2:30 p.m. in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The game will take place at Klockner Field in Charlottesville, Virginia and will air live on ESPNU.
The Scarlet Knights will be making the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2004 and tenth all-time. They last won an NCAA Tournament game to advance to the Quarterfinals in 1990 when they defeated Virginia 7-6.
Rutgers enters Saturday’s first round game against Lehigh after a second place finish in the Big Ten this spring. The accolades received this season include Brian Brecht winning Big Ten Coach of the Year, Colin Kirst was named Specialist of the Year, and Shane Knobloch was named Freshman of the Year In addition, there were six All-Big Ten Selections overall, which is a program best. Connor Kirst joined his brother Colin and Adam Charalambides on the First Team, while Jaryd Jean-Felix, Kieran Mullins and Ethan Rall were named to the Second Team.
Lehigh is 10-1 and have the fourth highest scoring offense in the nation with a 14.91 goals per game average. Rutgers is fifth at 14.82 goals per game. A key difference is that RU is 4th in the nation in offensive efficiency at 37.2% and Lehigh is 14th at 33.0%. If that held true in this matchup, the slight difference in efficiency could prove to be a deciding factor in the outcome.
While both teams have potent offenses, there are several significant differences in regard to strengths and weaknesses.
Lehigh is first in the nation in both adjusted face-off percentage at 73.0% and averages the most ground balls per contest at 42.91. Rutgers is not strong in either area, as they are ranked 51st in adjusted face-off percentage at 42.1% and are 40th with just 29.64 ground balls per game.
Mike Sisselberger is a key figure, as he is one of the best in the game with an 80% winning percentage on face-offs. This has been the Achilles heel for the Scarlet Knights in recent seasons. They shouldn’t be expected to win half the face-offs in this game, but they can’t lost 90% either. Limiting offensive possessions of Lehigh is key or it could be too much to overcome.
On the flip side, the Scarlet Knights were 9th in adjusted defensive efficiency at 25.9% while the Mountain Hawks only finished at 45th at 30.9%. The other area that looms large on this matchup is clearing percentage. Rutgers is 8th in the county at 88.8% and Lehigh is only 51st at 81.2%.
The Patriot League champs are vulnerable on the defensive end. If they struggle to clear against RU, the trio of Connor Kirst, Adam Charalambides and Kieran Mullins could do some serious damage. Our friends at College Crosse highlighted this aspect of the matchup, as well named Charalambides one the most important players in the NCAA Tournament.
The Scarlet Knights had an off night offensively in the loss to Johns Hopkins in large part to being stymied in the transition game. Getting out in the break after defensive stops to push the pace and pressure the Lehigh defense is key in this game. Rutgers generates better looks at goal in transition and if they can attack on the run often, it could wear Lehigh down late in the game. If they can pressure the Mountain Hawks into failed clears, their ability to take advantage of those opportunities is a major key in this game.
Of course, a massive storyline in this game is the matchup of the Kirst brothers. Both Connor in attack and Colin in the net have been tremendous this season in playing for their late father’s alma mater. Kyle Kirst was a key player on the last Rutgers team to win an NCAA Tournament game. Now his sons will go head to head with younger brother Cole, who is the second leading scorer for Lehigh. It’s also the school that Colin transferred to RU from last year. The adrenaline and mental focus will already be high for an NCAA Tournament game, but how each Kirst brother handles the emotions of the moment will likely carry significant weight in the outcome. USA Lacrosse Magazine had a great profile on the family and what Saturday will mean to them here.
No matter what happens, Rutgers has a decorated senior class that will be remembered forever for how they’ve elevated this program. However, having the opportunity to win the first NCAA Tournament game in 31 years would further cement their legacy. They know this. Maintaining their composure and rising to the occasion are keys to victory for the Scarlet Knights.
Lehigh is a talented team and Rutgers needs to establish control of the pace from the start. Sharing the ball and getting multiple players involved early will help build confidence and eliminate in any pregame jitters. The leadership of this team needs to take control on the field and set the tone.
It should be an entertaining game and one that will be a battle for 60 minutes. If Rutgers plays to its potential, then they’ll advance in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in over three decades.
Head coach Brian Brecht and Adam Charalambides joined our podcast episode preview earlier this week and you can listen here:
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