The Rutgers wrestling team sent seven wrestlers to the NCAA Tournament last season – the second-most since head coach Scott Goodale took over the program in 2007.
This season three qualifiers return eager to shake the “qualifier” title off their name. Be it mentally or physically, these Scarlet Knights are up to the challenge.
“I wasn’t very satisfied with where I ended up last year. I mean yeah, I qualified. You could put under my belt that I’m a qualifier but it’s not really where I want to be,” said redshirt junior 165-pounder Nick Visicaro (Long Branch, N.J.). “Honestly I don’t really care if that’s there or not. Everyday I’m just going to push a little harder, work a little harder and just make sure I understand what I’m doing wrong and try to fix those things.”
Visicaro, who finished 15-11 last season, dropped his first round decision, 6-1, before falling, 6-2, in the first consolation round. Two of his other returning teammates suffered a similar fate, as redshirt sophomore Billy Smith (Wantage, N.J.) dropped a pair of one-point decisions in the first round and consolation first round 3-2 and 2-1, respectively.
Senior Vinnie Dellefave (Toms River, N.J.), one of two seniors on the team this season, took his first round match, 3-1, against Penn State’s No. 12 Jordan Conaway before falling in consecutive matches and having his podium dreams denied.
Needless to say, neither of the three has had to look far for motivation during the offseason.
“That’s what drives you,” said Dellefave, who finished with a 27-10 clip last season. “This sport’s not that fun if you’re not winning. I just want to keep winning and get on the podium.”
As far as rankings go, RU was not found in the Intermat or WIN Magazine Preseason Polls, with the USA Today/ NWCA/ AWN Coaches Poll still pending.
Individually, just two Scarlet Knights have received recognition. Dellefave was ranked the No. 17 wrestler at 133 pounds by WIN Magazine while Smith was tabbed the No. 20 heavyweight by AWN.
But do not expect any of the Scarlet Knights’ 26 wrestlers to lose sleep over rankings.
“The polls definitely don’t discourage us in anyway because other years it was the same deal,” Visicaro said. “We’re always ranked way off the charts and then throughout the year usually we climb up. It definitely does motivate us.”
Smith (27-9) admitted he does not look to far into the rankings. He did, however, acknowledge his tough road ahead in order warrant attention similar to the elite heavyweights around the country.
“I absolutely want to get to that All-American level, but there are a lot of things that come before that,” Smith said. “I’ve got a tough road ahead of me and have to take one match at a time. More importantly, EIWAs – I had a very poor EIWA Tournament last year and that’s where I have to improve first. Our first matches, the ones leading up to EIWAs, EIWAs and then I’ll cross that road when I get there.”
Smith finished sixth place in the EIWA Tournament last season hosted at the RAC, another motivating factor for the Wantage, N.J., native. Visicaro finished fifth at 165 pounds, while Dellefave took third at 133 pounds.
This season, the trio is looking to close out matches sooner rather than later.
“I think I just had to keep continuing to wrestle seven minutes,” Dellefave said. “Sometimes last year I got into a situation where I’d gut it out in the third period but now I want to score as many points as possible going into that third period so it’s easier.”
For all the Scarlet Knights, the first step to Oklahoma City, Okla., for the 2014 NCAA Wrestling Championships begins on Nov. 3 against Hofstra.
But for these three, the road to the podium started last March, and they are ready to make Rutgers proud.
“Our fans take pride in our accomplishments,” Smith said. “It’s not just us that’s out there wrestling you can feel the fans with you. It helps you stay motivated, it keeps your mind straight and they demand a lot from you. You’ve got a lot of pressure on you but you’ve got to keep things in perspective.”