NEW YORK -- From the minute he stepped foot inside Rutgers University's wrestling room, Anthony Ashnault had his eye on winning an NCAA title. Now he's just two wins away.

Ashnault defeated Old Dominion's Chris Mecate, 5-4, in the NCAA 141-pound quarterfinals on Friday morning at Madison Square Garden, becoming Rutgers' first national semifinalist since 1960. A takedown with 18 seconds left in the third period gave Ashnault a 5-2 advantage, and he held on for the one-point win to clinch All-American status for the second straight season.

"I was very confident, just relaxed," Ashnault said. "The coaches keep telling me the work's been done and there's nothing to be worried about at this point."

Rutgers redshirt sophomore Anthony Ashnault defeated Old Dominion's Chris Mecate, 5-4, to reach the NCAA 141-pound semifinals. (Photo credit: Rutgers wrestling.)

Ashnault (32-3), the No. 4 seed, will face Oklahoma State's Dean Heil (30-1), the No. 1 seed in tonight's semifinals, 8 p.m. on ESPN.

Ashnault scored first with a far-side ankle pick in the first period to go up 2-0, and was close to tilting Mecate for back points when Mecate tied the bout with a reversal. Ashnault was able to escape and take a 3-2 lead into the second period.

Ashnault took defense in the second, but Mecate was able to consistently use a leg ride to keep Ashnault down for the entire two minutes. With riding time up over one minute, Mecate elected to go neutral to start the third period. That put him right in Ashnault's wheelhouse, however, and the Rutgers redshirt sophomore scored with a double-leg takedown on the edge late in the third to go up 5-2. Mecate escaped, and his riding time bonus added another point, but Ashnault's work on his feet was enough to put him one step closer to becoming a national champion.

"I've been there many times before in my career, so it wasn't the end of the world," Ashnault said about needing a takedown in the third period. "I knew If I just kept attacking, even if I didn't get it, going into overtime the more I got to his legs the more tired he'd be. When I start to feel tired I know my opponent is 10 times more tired because of the pace I wrestle at and the movement I have. If I got to his legs on a clean attack I was probably going to finish. That's what happened in the last 20 seconds."

Ashnault's improved top game and the fact he almost scored near-fall points in the first period was a huge factor in the bout. If that's not the case, Mecate likely takes defense in the third where an escape plus his riding time point would have put him in the driver's seat.

"It's awesome when guys pick neutral because that's my best position," Ashnault said. "To be good on top makes them pick neutral, and I'm very confident there. How do you want it? I'm either going to take you down or turn you."

Ashnault is the fourth national semifinalist in Rutgers history and the first since Mike Leta at 137 pounds in 1960. As a semifinalist, which guarantees him no worse than a sixth-place finish, Ashnault is Rutgers second two-time All-American, joining Anthony Surace (7th and 8th at 142 pounds in 1980 and 1983, respectively). Ashnault was eighth at 141 pounds last season.

"I’m moving on to the semifinals of the national tournament and seeing my dreams as a little kid come true right in front of me," Ashnault said. "It’s a really cool experience right now."

"I've envisioned walking out into the finals so many times. I want it to be reality, and I'm going to do everything i can in the next round to get it done."

Senior's Anthony Perrotti (165) and Billy Smith (heavyweight) each advanced in their respective wrestlebacks and are two wins away from achieving All-American status. Richie Lewis (Toms River East) at 157 pounds and Nick Gravina at 184 pounds saw their seasons come to a close with losses in the wrestleback round.

 

Wrestling editor Bob Badders can be reached at badders@allshoremedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.