Rutgers wrestling defeats in-state rival at the RAC

Scarlet Knights beat Rider in front of over 4,000 fans

BY DOUG McKENZIE Correspondent

What was billed as a showcase event for some of the top wrestling in New Jersey turned out to be just that.A

ERIC SUCAR staff Rutgers' Trevor Melde (left) battles over position with Rider's Fred Rodgers during their 141-pound bout held at the Rutgers Athletic Center in Piscataway on Jan. 24. Melde won the match by a score of 3-0 as the Scarlet Knights won the meet by a score of 18-16. ERIC SUCAR staff Rutgers’ Trevor Melde (left) battles over position with Rider’s Fred Rodgers during their 141-pound bout held at the Rutgers Athletic Center in Piscataway on Jan. 24. Melde won the match by a score of 3-0 as the Scarlet Knights won the meet by a score of 18-16. fter watching Long Branch High School knock off the state’s top-ranked team from High Point on criteria on Saturday afternoon, over 4,000 wrestling fans in the Rutgers Athletic Center in Piscataway got to watch the Scarlet Knights do something they hadn’t done since 2003: beat instate rival Rider University.

“It was great. There were a lot of alumni here, and the fans were into it,” said Rutgers head coach Scott Goodale. “It was neat to see. It was great to see them come out. We just need to get more comfortable wrestling in this type of situation. And the better we get at it, the more open we’ll be and the harder we’ll wrestle when we do compete in front of crowds like that.”

Putting that many people in the seats (there was a program-record 4,067 fans reported in attendance) is something that Goodale hoped to do when he took over the program in the summer of 2007. After helping to mold the Jackson Memorial High School wrestling team into a national power during his tenure there, Goodale came to Rutgers hoping to do the same thing with the Scarlet Knights’ program. The early returns were positive; he attracted what some experts labeled the No. 3-rated recruiting class in the nation prior to this season.

His reputation throughout the state of New Jersey led to the Rutgers program generating a buzz that wrestling fans throughout the state have been pining for for years. With some of the nation’s best high school wrestling located right here in the Garden State, having a national-contending program at the state’s university seemed like a logical match.

And now it appears to be happening. The Scarlet Knights improved to 18-5 (a school record for wins, topping the previous mark set in 1991-92) with their 18-16 win over Rider on Saturday, and ending a five-match losing streak to the Broncs.

Rutgers opened the match with six quick points as the Broncs forfeited the 125- pound bout. Rider’s Jimmy Kirchner then beat RU’s Mike Demarco, 1-0 at 133, before Trevor Melde beat Fred Rodgers, 3-0, to put RU up 9-3.

Rider’s Nick Weaver then knocked off RU’s Kellen Bradley, 3-2, at 149, before freshman Scott Winston (a three-time state champion at Jackson Memorial) picked up his team-leading 32nd win of the year by beating Michael Kessler, 3-2. Ranked 12th in the nation in his weight class, Winston has been every bit as good as advertised this year, and is quickly becoming the face of the program.

Rutgers’ Matt Pletcher then knocked off Rider’s Jason Lapham in overtime, 3-2, at 165, to give the Scarlet Knights a 15-6 edge, and Mike Whalen then followed it up with an 8-3 win over Mike Ward at 174. Whalen’s win was the 71st for his career, putting him in a tie for 23rd all time, while Pletcher is right behind with 70 career victories.

At 184, Rider’s top wrestler, Doug Umbehauer, scored a 20-7 major decision over sophomore McPaul Ogbonna. However, in defeat, Ogbonna’s efforts helped seal the win for his team.

“For Ogbonna not to get pinned against the No. 6-ranked wrestler was huge for us,” Goodale said. “It was about saving points.”

Rider’s Matt Miller then beat Karim Mahmoud, 7-5, in overtime at 197 to get within 18-13 before the Broncos’ Ed Bordas ended the match with a 6-2 win over redshirt freshman D.J. Russo. Like Ogbonna, Russo helped his team win by minimizing the points allowed.

“Russo took one for the team, not going on the bottom where he’s good on the mat. But his opponent is very good on top, and we did not want to give him a chance on top,” Goodale said. “It was four or five minutes of boring wrestling on their feet, and D.J. didn’t win the bout but he stayed off his back, and those are the little things you have to do when you are in a close dual meet.”

Goodale used the word “boring” a couple of times to describe the action on Saturday, admitting that it was not the most exciting collegiate match he’s coached.

“I would have liked to have seen more wrestling, but I think because of the atmosphere — this was the first time that a lot of our guys were wrestling in front of a crowd like that, which is why we have to continue to compete in these situations,” he said. “I knew they would be tight, both teams wrestled tight, so it made for kind of a boring match. But the bottom line is a win is a win, and we are certainly on our way to building something.”

Putting together more matches like Saturday’s can only help Goodale to achieve his goal of creating a national powerhouse at Rutgers. Wrestling at the RAC for the first time since a 38-3 loss to Oklahoma in 2001, the Scarlet Knights showed glimpses of the potential that have people believing that Goodale’s vision is attainable.

Heading into the Rider match, Rutgers dropped a tough 24-21 match to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., on Jan. 18. Though they wrestled well and had won six consecutive dual matches (including an impressive come-from-behind 20-18 win over Army on Jan. 11), the loss to the Hokies left RU in need of another benchmark win.

It is for that reason, among others, that Saturday’s win over Rider was cause for celebration within the RU wrestling community.

With a team that features 24 student-athletes from New Jersey, Goodale has begun to keep some of the state’s top talent from heading west to some of the nation’s elite wrestling programs.

Saturday’s victory was the first for any of the current Scarlet Knight grapplers over Rider, as well as the first time they’ve wrestled in the RAC. It is part of Goodale’s vision to have his team showcased against some of the elite teams in the nation at the RAC on a regular basis. With that kind of exposure, the coach is confident that his team will continue to attract fans as their success grows.

Beating Rider in front of 4,000-plus fans was yet another important moment in the progression of the RU wrestling program. However, if the Scarlet Knights continue to follow blueprints laid out by their head coach, there will be much bigger matches to come for this blossoming program.

RU returns to action on Saturday, Feb. 7, when it faces American University at the College Avenue gym at 5 p.m. Four of the top high schools in New Jersey (Jackson Memorial, Brearley, Brick Memorial and Eastern Regional) will wrestle prior to Rutgers taking on American.