It was two years ago when Nick Suriano and Anthony Ashnault made history by becoming the first two wrestlers to win national championships at Rutgers. While there is still hope that Suriano could return this season and make another title run, the Scarlet Knights now have another national title contender in the weight class once manned by Ashnault.
Sebastian Rivera is a name New Jersey and Big Ten wrestling fans are well aware of. The Toms River native and 2016 NJSIAA state champion from Christian Brothers Academy became a two-time Big Ten champion and two-time All-American at Northwestern. If you attended or watched the Big Ten Championships at the RAC last March, you might remember him telling BTN in celebration of his second title “Look at this place, who doesn’t want to win in Jersey? C’mon, look at this. Every time. It’s just Jersey. We are a different breed, always will be.”
Rivera posted a 73-12 record for the Wildcats, wrestling at 125 pounds originally and 133 pounds last season. This season Rivera takes another step up in weight at 141 pounds. He is a graduate transfer and chose to come back home to end his college career with one year of eligibility remaining.
Rutgers opens the season on Friday at the RAC against no. 3 Michigan. You can read our season preview here.
Head coach Scott Goodale is thrilled to have Rivera and praised him earlier this week, stating “He’s an incredible leader with an incredible work ethic and he just loves to compete. He’s so darn tough. He has to win at everything. He’s got to win up the stadium stairs. He’s very, very competitive and his mind is just super, super tough. It’s been a while since I’ve coached someone like that for sure.’’
Rivera shined his in recent tune up match before the season begins by earning a tech fall over three-time NCAA qualifier Shelton Mack from Pitt. He was named USA Wrestling’s Athlete of the Week due to the dominant performance.
While he is ranked no. 1 at 141 pounds by FloWrestling to begin the season and gives Rutgers a legitimate national title contender, Rivera isn’t just focused on his own success.
“He’s one of the best leaders I’ve ever coached,’’ Goodale said. “He’s really taken the younger guys under his wing. He’s always in the (wrestling room) late in the night with the guys when nobody else is around. He’s spending a lot of time with our younger guys, which excites me greatly.”
Rivera has plenty of experience to pass down to his younger teammates. He has twice finished a no. 1 seed in the NCAA Championships, finishing sixth in 2018 and third in 2019. He won the 2018 Big Ten title at 125 pounds and the 2019 Big Ten title at 133 pounds. Rivera has his sights set on the trifecta, this season at 141 pounds.
Another reason for transferring to Rutgers was the competition and desire to continue to improve. “Not to knock Northwestern, but there wasn’t many guys to wrestle with in that room,’’ Rivera said. “To come home, I get to wrestle a bunch of different guys. It’s a good feeling to be around these guys and helping them get better step by step.’’
With the NCAA waiver making this season a free year regarding eligibility due to the global pandemic for all winter athletes, Rivera’s plans changed because of that ruling.
“I plan on coming back (next season),’’ Rivera said. “I didn’t plan on wrestling (this season), but when they gave that (the extra year for those who do wrestle), I said, ‘Why not? It’s another year.’”
That’s good news for Rutgers, both for his potential impact on the mat and in the team’s wrestling room.
As for competing in front of his friends and family on a regular basis at the RAC, Rivera will have to wait for now. “I want to wrestle with fans. I want to hear people screaming. I want to hear people getting loud for wrestling again. It’s that time of year.’’
For now, Rivera will have to settle for the cutout fans in the place of real ones. “I think it’s corny (the cutouts),’’ Rivera said. “Hopefully, we can eventually get past COVID and get people in this place. It’s going to be quiet as hell in there on Friday. I don’t think the pictures (the cutouts) are going to help me, but if it can help our guys (his teammates), that’s great.
For Rutgers sake, fans or no fans, having Rivera on the mat wearing a singlet with a block R on it is great news for the next two seasons.