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Anthony Ashnault: A Career Retrospective

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A look back on the most storied athletic career in Rutgers history

Ryan Meyer/Rutgers Wrestling

He came, he saw, he conquered.

Anthony Ashnault saw a mountain in Piscataway, New Jersey and decided to make the most daring climb of his life. He said no to traditional wrestling powers Penn State, Michigan, Iowa, Ohio State, and more to stay right in his own backyard and build a legacy. His legacy. A New Jersey legacy.

The former South Plainfield High School product went 170-0 to become the first 4x undefeated state champion in NJ history so it was no surprise he was one of the most sought after recruits in the nation. Why Rutgers? Because you can do IT at Rutgers.

He capped off his storied career with a National Title at 149 pounds in 2019, so let’s take a look back at the last six years.

Redshirt Campaign: The Beginning

A guy like this can surely start right away on the varsity level, but head coach Scott Goodale and staff thought otherwise and decided to develop Ashnault for the collegiate level by giving him a redshirt year to compete in opens. Well, he didn’t disappoint.

Ashnault finished 15-3 as an unattached wrestler, including first place at the National Collegiate Open, the final tournament for redshirts and unattached wrestlers.

It was time.

Redshirt Freshman: 2014-15

Ah yes, the first year in the Big Ten. Ashnault was rolling right along as a starter at 141 pounds, already ranked within the Top 20 across the rankings services, and then this happened:

Then No. 11, Ashnault scored a big upset in the first home Big Ten dual meet at the RAC vs. No. 1 Iowa as he took out No. 6 Josh Dziewa at the buzzer. Tiger style had arrived. A national audience saw that one. Look at that hair by the way! Talk about a throwback.

Ashnault would qualify for NCAA’s for the first time in his career and this would be the only time he’d be in the wrestle back rounds before reaching the semi-finals. The weight class was dominated by Ohio State’s Logan Stieber and Ashnault found himself in the blood round vs. Lehigh’s Randy Cruz. A quick victory later, Ashnault clinched a spot on the podium but had to medically forfeit after suffering an injury vs. Oklahoma State’s Dean Heil in the consolation semi-finals. He would finish eighth and that name would be quite familiar.

Redshirt Sophomore: 2015-16

Back and healthy, Ashnault had his sights on gold this time around. With no clear front runner in the weight class in the Big Ten after Stieber’s graduation, it was Ashnault’s time to shine. Seeded 3rd at the Big Ten Tournament, Ashnault went on a tear and took on Penn State’s Jimmy Gulibon in the finals. He was looking to become Rutgers first ever Big Ten Champion.

Something special was brewing. Ashnault emerged as a National Title contender. There was no clear favorite. After rolling through the bracket, Ashnault came face to face with his new nemesis Heil in the 2016 semi-finals. Ashnault was already the first semi-finalist since 1960 for Rutgers and he was looking to become the first finalist in program history.

He could not break through. Another loss to Heil, this time 8-3 dropped Ashnault to wrestle-back rounds but he had a shot to finish third, which would be the highest finish in program history. Then that 3rd place match came. Joey McKenna, then at Stanford as a true freshman, burst onto the scene and edged Ashnault 7-6 in the third place match.

There was worry in the air. Now what? Ashnault lost to his rival and was just beaten by the new kid. When was it to be his time? To put it in perspective, Ashnault finished the year 32-4 and was already a 2x All-American and 2016 Big Ten Champion. That’s pretty good isn’t it? For Ashnault, it wasn’t enough.

Redshirt Junior: 2016-17 - New Rival, More History

Ashnault was pegged as a title contender again to start the year. Rutgers Wrestling was starting to rise in the Big Ten and also nationally. They put on a show early in the year with the “Battle at the Birthplace,” an outdoor wrestling match at High Point dot Com Stadium with in-state rival Princeton. While the Scarlet Knights would win the bout, all eyes were on Ashnault and a redshirt freshman named Matt Kolodzik. These two had split meetings the previous season at the Midlands Tournament, but now Kolodzik was in the varsity lineup, trying to take what Ashnault wanted.

A 4-3 loss to Kolodzik, after giving up a takedown at the buzzer sent shockwaves through the country. Another challenger to Ashnault, his first and only home loss of his career, and questions about later that season. New threats would not stop coming. First Heil, then McKenna, now Kolodzik. It seemed Ashnault was up against it. That’s of course, until he ran through another Big Ten bracket, won his second conference title, and stormed to the semi-finals once again in the 2017 NCAA Tournament. He quarterfinal opponent to clinch All-American status? Kolodzik.

Roy DeBoer

With a 6-2 win, Ashnault conquered his foe and evened up their series 2-2. Ashnault became the first 3x All-American in program history, but he had his Achilles heel next: Heil.

This one was closer, but Ashnault could not seal the deal to get to the finals once again. A 4-2 decision and two losses later, Ashnault found himself in 6th place at 141, two places below 2016. He finished with a 30-6 record and was already one of the most accomplished wrestlers in school history, but that elusive national title felt even further away. No one quite realized how far though.

2017-18: Where’s Shnaulty?

This season will ultimately be remember for Nick Suriano transferring in from Penn State and eventually going on a run to become the first national finalist in school history, before losing to Iowa’s Spencer Lee to finish 2nd at 125 pounds.

But where was Jersey’s favorite son? There was news of Ashnault’s offseason knee and shoulder surgeries, but to miss a whole season? His final season? Say it ain’t so! No way.

Well, yes way. While rumors circulated that Ashnault might make a surprise return in December when Rutgers hosted Iowa at the RAC, behind the scenes, the coaching staff and Ashnault knew, it wasn’t in the cards. Not even remotely possible. In the public eye, Goodale and company did what they should’ve done, don’t rule out a return. In the end, everyone did what was best for Ashnault: shut it down, get healthy, and see what would happen after the conclusion of the 2018 NCAA Tournament.

They left it up to the NCAA. A sixth year of eligibility. Now, the NCAA has been more lenient with collegiate wrestling than other sports, but Ashnault’s return was no guarantee. What sound crazy at the time was Ashnault was content with not wrestling again. If it happens, it happens. It seemed as if this was a more “zen” type of Shnaulty. He would let the pieces fall into place and control what he could control.

Then, that magical day happened.

He’s BAAAAACKKKKKK.

2018-19: We Mob

One last ride. One last chance.

Ashnault put everything on the line this season. A bump up to a healthier 149 pounds. The speed, the agility, the strength, the masterful technique. It was all falling into place.

The season opening quad meet was met with total dominance from Ashnault. This was shaping up to be a magical season.

The wins just kept coming. They didn’t stop. Ashnault climbed the all-time wins list at Rutgers and he was ranked as high as No. 2 heading into a showdown with Princeton at the RAC. That No. 1 wrestler? Kolodzik.

Oh baby. A potential NCAA Finals preview with two jersey titans clashing? Sign me up. Princeton head coach Chris Ayers claimed Ashnault would not score on Kolodzik in this match up. He was...well, I’ll just let you watch this one again:

There was no doubt who was No. 1 and who was the favorite for an NCAA title.

To the Big Ten Tournament we go!

Ashnault, the No. 1 seed rolled his way to finals and he took on Ohio State’s Micah Jordan for the second time. This encounter would be closer, but a late reversal and dominance on top sealed the 8-6 win for Ashnault as he captured his third Big Ten title, the only wrestler in Rutgers history to do so.

Then there were three days in March. The final three days of the season. The first No. 1 seed at NCAA’s in Rutgers history and the favorite to bring home the gold.

Ashnault pulled out something new: win by dominating the ride on top. He was always this good, but this good? Wow. It came to fruition in the semi-finals. This was the round Ashnault could never pass. How about during this historic season, the man in front of him happened to be his greatest rival? One last showdown with Kolodzik stood in the way of the finals and Ashnault finally coming together. A 2-0 victory got it done and Rutgers was mobbin’ into the finals.

Not just Ashnault, but Suriano as well.

It always seemed like destiny that Ashnault would become the first National Champion in program history. When Suriano’s weight class went first and he captured the title in a thrilling victory over Oklahoma State’s Daton Fix, the pressure of being the first was gone. Now, it was just time to wrestle. It was just Ashnault, Jordan, Rutgers, and New Jersey.

The dream of a lifetime. It finally came true. Rutgers’ favorite son had finally done it. The words could be said: Rutgers’ Anthony Ashnault is a National Champion.

The losses, the injuries, the adversity, the doubt...all gone.

The mountain had been scaled. Ashnault did what he set out to do: win a national title for Rutgers and put the program on the map. He did that and then some. The ripple effect of Ashnault and Suriano’s titles cannot be understated. This is setting a plan in motion for Rutgers to be a National Powerhouse, on the same level as squads like Penn State, Iowa, Ohio State, and Oklahoma State. Rutgers is coming.

2019 National Champion

4x All-American

3x Big Ten Champion

123-18 - Rutgers all-time winningest wrestler

Yeah, that’s pretty good. As Hans Gruber would (sort of) say: “John Wayne will walk off into the sunset with Grace Kelly.”

Well, Anthony Ashnault is walking off into the sunset as a National Champion from Rutgers University. What say you Mr. Ashnault?