NCAA Wrestling Championships: What to Watch For
The NCAA Wrestling Championships come to "The World's Most Famous Arena" this weekend as hundreds of the country's top grapplers will compete for the title of national champion inside Madison Square Garden.
Shore Sports Network's Bob Badders will be on hand all weekend providing coverage of Rutgers and its full team of 10 national qualifiers, as well as Rider and Princeton with a focus on wrestlers who competed in the Shore Conference.
Wrestling begins Thursday at noon with the pigtails and first round, followed by the second session at 7 p.m that includes the second round as well as the first three rounds of the consolations. The quarterfinals and semifinals, plus more wrestleback rounds where the All-Americans will be determined, will be contested on Friday. The medal bouts and the national championship matchups are on Saturday.
Here are 10 things to watch for this weekend, again with a focus first on the Shore Conference and New Jersey.
10. North Carolina State's Nick Gwiazdowski goes for third NCAA title
We're approaching this preview from a Shore Conference/New Jersey angle, otherwise this would unquestionably be No. 1 on the list. The potential (probable) matchup between Gwiazdowski and Ohio State sophomore Kyle Snyder is among the most anticipated NCAA matchups ever. Gwiazdowski is among the most dominant heavyweights of all-time and is a Hodge Trophy candidate. Snyder became the United States' youngest World Champion ever when he won freestyle gold in August, and announced he would be removing his Olympic redshirt on New Year's Eve. Snyder was also the NCAA runner-up at 197 pounds last season.
9. New Jersey's 37 aim to take over New York City
There are 37 wrestlers in the NCAA tournament that either wrestler for New Jersey universities or wrestled at New Jersey high schools. Rutgers has all 10 of its wrestlers in the tournament, including eight from New Jersey high schools and two - Richie Lewis (Toms River East) and Hayden Hrymack (CBA) from the Shore Conference. Rider has six wrestlers in the tournament with Eastern Wrestling League champions Connor Brennan (165), Rob Deutsch (133) and Ryan Wolfe (197). Brennan wrestled at Brick while Deutsch was a two-time state champion at Eastern. Rider also has Chad Walsh (Camden Catholic) at 157 and Mauro Correnti (Holy Cross) at heavyweight. Princeton has four qualifiers, including EIWA champion Brett Harner (197) and 174-pounder Jonathan Schleifer, a New Jersey state champion while at East Brunswick.
8. Go-time for Giraldo
Rutgers redshirt freshman Anthony Giraldo has taken his lumps while also showing signs of turning the corner in his first season at the collegiate level. He enters the tournament with a 17-14 record, but has the talent to make a serious run at the medal stand at 133 pounds. Giraldo, who won two NJSIAA state titles while wrestling at North Bergen High School, is the No. 16 seed.
7. All-American or bust for Billy Smith
Rutgers redshirt senior heavyweight Billy Smith has made no bones about it - finishing his career as an All-American would be the feather in the cap of a great career in Piscataway. Smith is a four-time NCAA qualifier, the fourth Scarlet Knight to do so, and is the 16th Rutgers wrestler to reach 100 career wins. A former New Jersey state champion at High Point, Smith has been the modal of consistency during his college career. He has been among the best heavyweights in the country over the last two seasons, and the only thing missing is All-American status to cement his legacy.
6. Perrotti wants redemption
Rutgers redshirt senior Anthony Perrotti became the program's first All-American since 2002 when he finished eighth at 157 pounds in 2014, but last season went 0-2 as the No. 13 seed. After having to forfeit out of the Big Ten Championships after reaching the semifinals at 165 pounds because of an injury, Perrotti is healthy and ready for another run at becoming an All-American in his final collegiate tournament.
5. Can Hayden Hrymack battle back in the consolation rounds?
Rutgers senior Hayden Hrymack has been everything Rutgers could have hoped for as a "program wrestler". Hrymack, a Point Pleasant Beach native who attended Christian Brothers Academy where he won a Region 6 title and earned a state medal as a senior, wrestles Missouri's J'Den Cox in the first round. Cox is the No. 2 seed and a former national champion, so the odds of Hrymack advancing are slim to none. If Hrymack (17-14) can put together a run in the wrestlebacks to finish as an All-American it would be one of the feel-good stories of the tournament, plus be a huge boost to Rutgers' push to finish among the top 10 in the team standings.
4. Brennan look to cap career as an All-American
Rider senior Connor Brennan (Brick) is a three-time Eastern Wrestling League champion and the No. 12 seed at 165 pounds. He won two bouts in the NCAA tournament last season and enters with a 27-3 record. Brennan will square off with Duke's Jake Faust (17-8) in the first round where he will begin his quest to earn his first top eight finish at the NCAA tournament. While at Brick, Brennan finished third in the state at 152 pounds as a senior.
3. Lewis's journey continues on the big stage
It's been an uphill battle for Richie Lewis for much of his life, but the Toms River East graduate and Rutgers junior has finally put it all together. He is the No. 9 seed at 157 pounds and certainly has a good shot to achieve All-American status. He wrestles Virginia's Andrew Atkinson (24-9) in the first round. At Toms River East, Lewis was a three-time state medalist.
2. Clagon looks to recapture magic
Rider's B.J. Clagon (Toms River South) became the first Broncos' athlete to achieve All-American status in any sport when he finished fifth at 149 pounds last season after entering the tournament as the No. 15 seed. Clagon (19-10) has had an up-and-down season as a sophomore and again enters the tournament unseeded after finishing second in the Eastern Wrestling League final at 149 pounds. When he's on, however, he can compete with the very best in the bracket. He gets North Carolina's Evan Henderson right off the bat, and a win there could be the start of another special tournament. At Toms River South, Clagon was a two-time state champion, three-time finalist and four-time state medalist.
1. Ashnault tries to make history - again.
From going 170-0 and winning four New Jersey high school state titles to becoming Rutgers' first Big Ten champion two weeks ago, making history is what Rutgers redshirt sophomore Anthony Ashnault does. As the No. 4 seed in a 141-pound weight class considered fairly wide open, Ashnault is a prime contender to win a national title and become the first Rutgers wrestler to reach the very top of collegiate wrestling. Under head coach Scott Goodale, the Scarlet Knights have ascended to a top-10 program in the country and are looking for an All-American for the third straight season. Ashnault winning an NCAA title, and doing so in Rutgers' backyard, would be a seminal moment for New Jersey wrestling.
Wrestling editor Bob Badders can be reached at email@example.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.