It was just a quick exchange near the end of practice a week into the regular season, but it resonated with me and signified a deeper meaning. Rutgers head coach Scott Goodale was leading his team through "live go's" in Tuesday's practice centered around top/bottom work. As the team moved towards the end of the session, Goodale attempted to create a scenario that many of his wrestlers will face just over two weeks from now at the onset of the 2022-23 season.
"30-second tiebreakers," Goodale yelled in his deep, gruff voice. After the first 30 seconds, Goodale implored his wrestlers to swap positions with the caveat that "if you rode your opponent out for the full 30 seconds, you should probably choose neutral." With riding time typically a deciding factor in those situations, you're guaranteed to prevail if the score is tied after the second tiebreaker.
Directly in front of me, sophomore Devon Britton got down in the bottom position, ready for Goodale's signal. The head coach had watched Britton's previous go and said, "Didn't you ride him out," to which Britton confirmed, but stated he wanted to score. Goodale didn't argue or challenge Britton's decision, but stood with a concerned look on his face. In a drill designed to enhance situational awareness, was his wrestler making a bad decision?
Hearing Goodale's exchange with Britton, assistant coach Joe Pollard bounded over and exclaimed, "He believesâ€¦I love it!" A mere seconds after Goodale started the next : 30-second period, Britton was able to get a reversal and rode his teammate for the duration of the tiebreaker.
I'm not sure if anyone else in the room cared that much about this back-and-forth that took only :20 seconds during a 90-minute workout, but it felt symbolic to me.
Belief. Belief is an important word when it comes to the growth of the Rutgers wrestling program under Goodale.
Earlier in the day, Goodale and Pollard took me on a tour of the Scarlet Knights state-of-the-art RWJBarnabas Health Athletic Performance Center, a building that opened just over three years ago and houses the wrestling team. Just about every fancy bell-and-whistle that a prospective student-athlete could want or need is available to Scarlet Knight wrestlers. That wasn't always the case. Before moving to their new digs, Goodale's team trained and competed at the old College Ave recreation building that was built in the 1930's.
As we're walking through the team's current home, Goodale reminisces on the team's former home and says how he used to have to emphasize a gritty, no-frills approach to training when taking prospective recruits through the College Ave gym affectionately called, "The Barn."
Despite having facilities that were not on par with the rest of the Big Ten (and before that; EIWA), Rutgers signees had a belief in Goodale and Rutgers. One of the earliest was #2 overall Scott Winston in 2008 and later #8 Anthony Ashnault in 2013. Both signified to the rest of the New Jersey wrestling community that Rutgers wrestling was for real. Even though the program had failed to produce an All-American since 2002, these top prospects and instant high school legends stayed in-state and helped lay the groundwork for a new generation of Rutgers wrestling.
In September of 2016, Rutgers University and the athletic department showed their belief in Goodale's squad by breaking ground on the Athletic Performance Center. Just six months before the building opened, the wrestling team proved it was worthy of such an investment by delivering the first (and second) NCAA wrestling champions in school history as Ashnault and Nick Suriano won their respective weights in Pittsburgh.
Fast forward to October of 2022 and we see Britton and his belief in himself and his training during Tuesday's practice session. It was also a feeling reciprocated by Goodale who believed in his pupil's instincts at that moment. The young 133 lber is not alone in this mentality. Up-and-down the Rutgers lineup, the wrestlers believe in their coaches and their own abilities. They have the belief that they can do something special at Rutgers and in their home state (for many of them). Hand-in-hand are the high school and club coaches, along with the parents, that no longer feel it's a necessity for their wrestlers to leave the state to taste collegiate success.
As I was thinking about and rethinking the exchange between Goodale and Britton, there was another incident that caused me to look further than the surface level.
After the team finished their on-mat workout, they transitioned into a yoga session. I used the couple-minute break to knock out a few interviews with team members. As the session began, 2022 133 lb NCAA qualifier Joey Olivieri came over to speak with me. With respect to the mood in the room for the yoga session, Olivieri and I stepped out into the hall for our interview. Just outside the front door to the wrestling room are the logos of all 14 Big Ten schools embossed on the wall. I picked out a random spot to conduct the interview; however, Olivieri asked if we could move to the left so that Rutgers' block "R" was the one that stood out in the background.
In talking to Olivieri and his teammates, I realized that the "R" is not just a logo. It's not something they take lightly. They're proud to wear the "R" on the front of their singlets as they get their hand raised in front of thousands of rabid Jersey wrestling fans smack dab in the middle of Jersey Mike's Arena.
I'd learn later in the day from Coach Pollard that Olivieri has plenty of family connections with the school and came up wrestling in the local clubs. The kid was born to wrestle for the Scarlet Knights. In fact, when Olivieri was given his offer, he didn't hesitate and committed on the spot. The staff actually sent him home to talk such a big decision over with his family and call back a few hours later. It was no surprise when Olivieri called back at exactly 4pm, as instructed, and reaffirmed his commitment.
Rutgers' transformation from DI anonymity, before Goodale's arrival (in 2007), to a national player that has produced at least two All-Americans in every NCAA tournament since 2016 is one of the better success stories in college wrestling. With the belief from the school administration, local wrestling community, and student-athletes, the next question is, how high can they go?
Rutgers is a program that returns a pair of All-Americans from the 2021 campaign, along with five others that have qualified for nationals at one time or another. There is plenty of excitement and anticipation surrounding this season from the coaching staff, as is the case at most schools. Rutgers' is actually rooted in a bit of uncertainty. But the good kind.
Dean Peterson, the #10 overall recruit in the Class of 2021, is making his case for a starting bid at 125 lbs, a weight currently held by #22 Dylan Shawver. Sammy Alvarez is up at 141 lbs, a weight class much more favorable for the long-limbed wrestler than 133 was. Without a clear-cut favorite nationally, Alvarez is almost certain to rise from his current ranking of 15th. The last time Alvarez was a starter he earned the #10 seed at nationals in 2020. 2022's top recruit, Brian Soldano, is eager to hit the mat and could be a year-one starter if the staff decides to redshirt All-American John Poznanski at 184 lbs. Speaking of AA's, Jackson Turley missed most of the 2021-22 season due to injury, but is back. The same for Billy Janzer at 197. It's not a stretch to think that the Scarlet Knights could again put three on the NCAA podium (like in 2021) or more.
Below are links to the interviews and tour (Located on our Rokfin page)
Head Coach Scott Goodale
125 lber Dean Peterson
125 lber Dylan Shawver
133/141 lber Joey Olivieri
141 lber Sammy Alvarez
149 lber Anthony White
165 lber Connor O'Neill
184 lber Brian Soldano
184 lber John Poznanski
285 lber Boone McDermott