History was made on Saturday night in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as Rutgers wrestlers Nick Suriano and Anthony Ashnault won national championships, the first two to do so all-time for the program. The reactions to them winning it all have been a lot of fun to watch. It was the first NCAA champion for Rutgers since Alexis Jemal won for fencing in 2003.
There are so many storylines with Suriano and Ashnault, from their storied high school careers, adversity from defeats and injury, to beating beating rivals along the way to a title. They both persevered and deserve to be champions. While some are debating where this accomplishment ranks all-time in Rutgers history, I think the big picture ramifications from this triumphant weekend are more important.
It’s appropriate that the finest hour ever for Rutgers wrestling, which also finished with a program best 9th place team result, took place in such a blue collar place as Pittsburgh, the steel city. Head coach Scott Goodale has built the Rutgers wrestling program brick by brick over the last 12 years leading the way. He saw the fruits of his labor pay off on the national stage, as his two best wrestlers came through when it mattered most.
“What an unbelievable accomplishment for both Nick and Anthony, as well as this program,” Goodale said. “Those two showed that titles can be won right here at Rutgers. This state produces some of the top talent in the country, and tonight solidifies those guys can succeed without going too far from home.”
That recruiting message, both for the wrestling program and entire Rutgers athletic department is what is so important about Suriano and Ashnault winning. Both wrestlers are the only undefeated, four-time New Jersey state champions in history. They were top national recruits with Ashnault turning down scholarship offers from Penn State, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Michigan, while Suriano left Penn State after one year to come home. Ashnault explained to USA Today when he committed to Rutgers as to why he did, saying, “I believe in where they are as a program right now and where they are headed.” Of course, seeing his brother Billy have success under Goodale at the start of his coaching career at Rutgers was important too. Goodale instilled belief in the Ashnault family, as well as many people in the wrestling community in New Jersey over the years and that has been the cornerstone to his and the program’s success.
While Ashnault and Suriano worked for years to accomplish what they did in becoming national champions, it never would have happened at Rutgers without Scott Goodale. He was an accomplished high school coach at Jackson Memorial high school, leading the program to the top of the state rankings his final two years. Making the leap successfully as a coach from the scholastic ranks to college is extremely hard and rare in any sport. Goodale has succeeded in ways that was hard to believe could happen on the banks over a decade ago, when the program was an afterthought. He has turned Rutgers wrestling into a top national program and Saturday night was his crowning achievement so far.
Goodale is a Jersey guy through and through and was able to keep the two most accomplished Garden State high school wrestlers in history home at Rutgers. It’s no secret that many programs on the banks have tried to keep the best in-state talent from leaving for blue bloods of their respective sports for decades. Greg Schiano certainly made some progress landing New Jersey talent during his time leading the football program, but he had more success developing underrecruited players than actually signing the top one’s in each class. Women’s soccer head coach Mike O’Neill has had a lot of success keeping the state’s best players home, including high school national player of the year Amirah Ali, and has led the program to a Final Four. Steve Pikiell is making progress by landing Ron Harper Jr. and Paul Mulcahy. However, no one has done what Goodale has been able to do by bringing arguably the top two New Jersey athletes ever in their respective sport to Rutgers at the same time. He proved you can be a top recruit and win it all on the banks, something coaches in other sports can now point to.
Suriano and Ashnault believed in his vision and it paid off in a big way on Saturday night for everyone. They fulfilled their potential and became national champions. Goodale, along with his excellent assistant coaches Donny Pritzlaff and John Leonardis, developed them into champions. The fact that Goodale has brought the program so much national prominence with Pritzlaff and Leonardis is another selling point to New Jersey kids. Both assistants were New Jersey natives that left the state to wrestle at Wisconsin and Lehigh respectively, well before Goodale was at Rutgers. Pritzlaff won two national championships for the Badgers and brought instant credibility to the program when he arrived in 2014. Leonardis has been with Goodale since he took the Rutgers job and has had a huge impact as well. Both assistants believed in Goodale and have given New Jersey kids a legitimate reason to stay home. Now they have proof to show that you can become a national champion at Rutgers.
This is what Goodale and winning at Rutgers meant to Suriano, per this recap from the athletic department.“Yeah, I’m just telling my family, I heard Goodale, Coach Goodale yell, and it made me so happy, man. Honestly, when I heard Coach Goodale yell and cheer me on, it was a dream. I saw Donny, I saw my coaches. And man I am blessed. It’s an honor to bring history to Rutgers where it belongs. It’s an honor, a blessing. And Anthony Ashnault, right on the screen right there, is going to do it next. And this is going to be a day in history. It’s a blessing.”
Ashnault followed by saying, “It means, I’m going to be coaching next year and going to kids, saying, hey, we got it done. I know what I did and I know what Nick did, the steps along the way. The proof’s in the pudding. It’s a lot easier to set the table for a high school kid looking to come to school for Rutgers. We’re not just producing All-Americans and national finalists and Big Ten champs now. We’re taking top 10 in the country as a team and now we’re national champs.”
The blueprint has always been there. For Rutgers to succeed in any sport, keeping the best in-state talent would go along way towards doing that. Obviously team sports like football and men’s basketball need talent from throughout the country based on the size of their rosters, but both programs have struggled for decades in landing the top recruits from the Garden State. It’s been a major roadblock preventing national success as well as in their own conference. The recent move to the Big Ten has proven that even more so.
Scott Goodale has shown what can happen when you do keep the best of New Jersey home. It’s what Rutgers fans across all sports have always dreamed of, but he is the first coach to make it a reality in the modern era. While Suriano and Ashnault became legends in Rutgers lore on Saturday night, Goodale should be appreciated now more than ever. With several top finishers in this year’s New Jersey’s high school tournament headed to Rutgers for next season, including the top rated wrestler in the country at 138 pounds in JoJo Aragona, the program continues to reload. They are the most successful program within Rutgers athletics and seem well positioned to hold that mantle for years to come.
A team Big Ten and national title would be the ultimate dream for Rutgers wrestling and while it will take a lot to topple Penn State, Ohio State, and Iowa, Goodale is proving what’s never been done at Rutgers before can become a reality. He is authentic, does things the right way, and continues to make the top recruits in-state believers. If other sports on the banks can replicate even part of the success that he has produced with the wrestling program, the sleeping giant moniker that Rutgers athletics has long been referenced as would no longer be a punchline. It would be a footnote along the path to Big Ten and national success across the athletic department.