It all comes down to this.
Countless hours spent training. Grinding out rep after rep and shot after shot. Showing up bloodied, bruised, and sometimes broken – few sports demand more of their competitors than collegiate wrestling, all for an opportunity to earn a place on a podium stand in the middle of March.
This year the venue is Detroit, Michigan, but the goal remains steadfast and true: get your hand raised and advance.
For the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, seven wrestlers earned their spot in the 33-man brackets at their respective weight classes at this year’s NCAA Championships, the most since 2017, with each looking to make a run towards a national title.
A top-8 finish at their respective weights would earn them All-American status, a prestigious honor in itself. Two Scarlet Knights enter the tournament with NCAA All-American finishes in their career, with Sebastian Rivera (3x) and John Poznanski (1x) looking to add another this weekend in Detroit.
As a team, Rutgers Wrestling hopes to outpace their 9th place performance at the 2019 NCAA Tournament where Anthony Ashnault (149lbs) and Nick Suriano (133lbs) took home national titles and Coach Scott Goodale was named Division I National Coach of the Year.
For Rivera, the goal is to secure a national title to close out his career, a la former Rutgers’ champion and current coach Anthony Ashnault, who also came into his last tournament as a 3x NCAA All-American before grabbing the gold medal in his final run.
Rivera’s collegiate career has been stellar to say the least: on top of the three NCAA All-American finishes, he owns 109 victories and is the only wrestler to have multiple wins over Iowa’s 3x National Champion Spencer Lee, who has looked all but invincible against the rest of his competition.
The Scarlet Knight Rivera enters his final collegiate tournament as the three seed, the same position he found himself in last year, and will take on Oklahoma’s Jacob Butler, the 30th seed, in his opening round match.
Rivera suffered a knee injury during the last weekend of the regular season, but Coach Scott Goodale says it will be a non-factor, “he’s even better because he got some forced rest, he’s ready to rock for sure.”
Rutgers’ other returning All-American, John Poznanski at 184lbs, enters his second NCAA tournament as the 20th seed after an up and down regular season. Poznanski was great in the first semester, going 10-0 before the holiday break, but struggled in the latter half of the year, as he finished out 5-5 before the Big Ten tournament, where he was 0-2 before receiving two medical forfeits to finish in 9th place.
None of that matters now, though, as he enters his final competition of the season with a clean slate, looking to find that spark that earned him a 4th place finish last year. He’ll open his tournament with a familiar foe, Maryland’s 13th seeded Kyle Cochran, who owns two wins over Poznanski this season, including a 4-0 decision at the Big Ten tournament a few weeks ago.
Coach Goodale mentioned during his tournament week press conference that the goal is to get some confidence back for Poznanski, “It’s our job to get him in positions where’s he good at and been good at for a long, long time. Hopefully, we’re able to get the best version of John Poz.”
Making his NCAA tournament debut, Rutgers’ “leadoff” man Dylan Shawver picked up the 23rd seed and will square off against Northwestern’s 10th seeded Michael DeAugustino. The two never met this season, despite being in the same conference, but DeAugustino finished 4th at the Big Ten tournament while Shawver secured a 7th place medal.
Shawver is a scrappy, strong wrestler who is always looking to score and his match with DeAugustino should be a fun one. At a glance, outside of the top four or five seeds at 125lbs, the bracket appears to be quite volatile and if Shawver is wrestling well, he could find himself within striking distance of a podium finish.
True freshman generally don’t qualify for the NCAA tournament, mainly because most take advantage of a redshirt season to help them acclimate to the arduous collegiate wrestling schedule and everything that comes with it. For Rutgers’ Joe Olivieri, that seemed to be the plan as late as January 7th, before he was thrust into the starting lineup after Sammy Alvarez could no longer make the cut to 133lbs.
The timing wasn’t ideal as the team was just beginning the Big Ten portion of their schedule, which meant ranked opponent after ranked opponent for the young Olivieri. To his credit, he performed well, going 5-4 before the Big Ten tournament and earning a ranking as high as No. 15 nationally.
At the conference tournament, Olivieri went 2-2 to finish in 9th place but I have a feeling the Scarlet Knight is primed for a run this weekend at nationals. In his opening round matchup, Olivieri will face off against Oregon State’s 11th seeded Devan Turner, a 4x national qualifier who owns a single ranked win on the season.
Senior Mike VanBrill, the 11th seeded wrestler at 149lbs, began his varsity career on the banks in an outdoor dual meet at SHI Stadium back in 2017. It was an exciting back-and-forth match against Maryland’s Ryan Diehl, a ranked wrestler who edged out the young Scarlet Knight 10-9.
Although the outcome of the match wasn’t what VanBrill was looking for, it showed the Rutgers’ faithful that the unheralded freshman was here to stay- but few could foretell that he would be a mainstay in the lineup for almost half a decade.
Now the redshirt senior looks to close out his career by earning a spot on the All-American podium this weekend. He’ll start his tournament against Marcus Robinson, the 22nd seeded wrestler from Cleveland State who fell to VanBrill during the regular season, 5-2.
VanBrill’s preparation is different from what Coach Goodale is used to, but he trusts the senior, “he goes about it a little bit differently-maybe he doesn’t go about it my way,” Goodale continued, “but he’s very in tune with his body and knows what works for him.”
Throughout the season, Rutgers’ 14th seeded wrestler at 197lbs Greg Bulsak, has used slick takedowns and smothering rides to pick up most of his wins. He rides legs like a lanky 141lbs wrestler and his armbars/power half-nelsons have been known to send opponents to the ice bath for extended recovery sessions.
A 4x national qualifier for Clarion, Bulsak made his way to the banks for his graduate year and had a great regular season for the Scarlet Knights, starting 15-0 and entering the Big Ten tournament with a 19-4 record where he picked up a 7th place finish.
Along the way, he took out returning national runner-up Nino Bonaccorsi at the inaugural MatMen open and Wisconsin’s Junior World Champion Braxton Amos, beating the latter three times this season. For some added motivation heading into his opening round bout against Cornell’s 19th seeded Jacob Cardenas, a former two-time NJ State Champion, Bulsak is a single victory short of 100 for his career.
Coach Goodale has raved all season about Bulsak’s “workmanlike” approach to the sport of wrestling and it would be excellent for the graduate senior to cap off his career with an All-American finish, a goal that when looking at his 197lbs bracket seems more than achievable.
“Playing with house money,” is how Coach Goodale responded when asked about the mindset of the 33rd seed at 174lbs, Connor O’Neill. The second to last seeded wrestler at the Big Ten tournament a few weeks ago, O’Neill earned himself a spot at the national tournament by picking up an 8th place finish.
“He’s gotten better these last three weeks,” said Coach Goodale, “what that means, we’ll see, but he’s gotten better.” The Scarlet Knight O’Neill has been the mainstay at 174lbs for Rutgers this season as returning All-American Jackson Turley was out of the lineup for the majority of the first semester with injuries before getting season ending surgery early in the second semester.
For this tournament, O’Neill will square off against Dom Solis of Maryland, the 32nd seed, in his opening round match. Solis has gotten the better of O’Neill this season, beating him by major decision in the regular season, and 10-4 in the Big Ten tournament. But O’Neill is playing with house money and should be wrestling as loose as he has all season.
My prediction for the winners at each weight:
125: Nick Suriano (Michigan)
133: Daton Fix (Oklahoma State)
141: Sebastian Rivera (Rutgers)
149: Austin Gomez (Wisconsin)
157: David Carr (Iowa State)
165: Alex Marinelli (Iowa)
174: Mekhi Lewis (Va Tech)
184: Aaron Brooks (Penn State)
197: Eric Schultz (Nebraska)
285: Gable Steveson (Minnesota)
The 2022 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships kick off this Thursday, March 17th at 12:00PM EST from Detroit, Michigan. The full schedule can be found here. All rounds can will be streamed via ESPNU with all the evening sessions airing on traditional ESPN.
Check back here throughout the three day tournament for our recaps and coverage.