| Ashnault produces a fourth-place finish at the 2016 NCAA tourney.
Photo: Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com
But it was the newly added Big Ten institution Rutgers that got Ashnault’s signature on signing day in late 2012.
Ashnault, now a junior for the Scarlet Knights, was the No. 28 recruit in the nation and the first undefeated four-time state champion in the state of New Jersey, a state with a strong wrestling tradition.
Highly touted with opportunities all over the country, Ashnault decided to keep his talents close to home.
“Every place I was getting recruited to was advertising their history and success that they created with the guys that went to school there. The whole time I was thinking that I could be an All-American or a national champion anywhere I go as long as I work hard,” Ashnault said. “Going to an Oklahoma school or Michigan would have been tough because my family wouldn’t get to see me wrestle during the season unless I was on the East Coast. It was important to me to be close so they could see me compete.”
For Ashnault, there was no better place than Rutgers. The campus was only 15 minutes from where he grew up in South Plainfield. He spent countless days going to Rutgers football games and wrestling duals with his family as a kid.
He also had a special relationship with the wrestling program as his brother Billy, who spent three years at Rutgers and was a two-time NCAA qualifier for the Scarlet Knights, now serves as the Director of Operations.
Anthony admits that as a kid he always wanted to be like his older brother, which was the reason he began wrestling at only 4 years old.
In addition, he had watched for years as the program bloomed before his eyes under the direction of head coach Scott Goodale.
“Rutgers wrestling was just there and always going to be like that until someone special like Goodale came in and made a huge difference,” Ashnault said. “I wanted to be a part of something special that wasn’t completely developed yet and I could help create. It was exciting and the opportunity to do it in New Jersey was really cool. Not a lot of good New Jersey wrestlers stayed in state at the time. Everyone wanted to go somewhere else.”
Since stepping on Rutgers’ campus as a student, Ashnault has made it his mission to not only reach his greatest potential as a wrestler but also to draw the attention of New Jersey high school wrestlers to the program.
“New Jersey loves wrestling. Competing for Rutgers has made me want to be the best I can be in wrestling to show the fans and high school wrestlers in New Jersey that this is the place to be and we can be successful in wrestling in our home state and don’t need to go far,” Ashnault said. “That’s something that still drives me now. I feel like we’re at a point where kids are starting to realize that and we’re getting some of the best talent in New Jersey. I think that tells a lot about the culture of the program now and where Rutgers wrestling is trying to get to.”
Since starting his collegiate career, Ashnault has made himself more and more prominent at 141 pounds. He is the mix to win an NCAA title, entering the 2016-17 season ranked No. 3 in the country.
Last season, he fell in the semifinals of the NCAA Championships in Madison Square Garden to eventual national champion Dean Heil. He went on to finish fourth to earn his second All-America honor.
“When I stepped out on the mat last year in Madison Square Garden, I thought I was prepared, but there are a lot of things that you don’t think about when you go to the national tournament like the fans, the atmosphere, the pressure,” Ashnault said. “I think I just let too many outside things get to me. In hindsight, I realize that I just have to stay within myself. One thing I’ve really been focusing on this year is that there’s only one thing I can control and it’s putting out the maximum effort each and every day in every period and every match. If I do that, things are going to work out for me."
Although the season has barely started, Ashnault’s wrestling has made a statement of his intentions to be on top of the NCAA podium come March.
Earlier this month, he took on 2016 NCAA runner-up Bryce Meredith of Wyoming in the NWCA All-Star Classic. Meredith got out to an early 4-1 lead, but Ashnault rallied back to defeat Meredith 8-6.
“That was a big match for me. I was looking forward to it because it was the national runner-up and wrestling him was something I was really looking forward to. It was good gauge of where I am because I was down 4-1 and I was able to stay calm, keep my composure and win the match. It made me realize that maybe if I can wrestle a little bit more solid of a match and get a better start then who knows what that final score would have been,” he said.
This weekend, Ashnault and his team will wrestle in front of one of the biggest crowds they’ve seen.
RU wrestling will face Princeton at High Point Solutions Stadium, home of Rutgers football, for an event known as Battle at the Birthplace.
It will open an exciting Saturday for Rutgers fans as the Scarlet Knights look to break their total attendance of 17,464 from the 2015-16 season in a single match.
The dual will be followed by a Big Ten football showdown between RU and Penn State.
Wrestling outdoors has become very popular, and a big crowd is expected on Saturday.
“[Rutgers and Princeton] both have one of the best teams that we’ve had in a long time. There are going to be some really exciting matches on top of an exciting venue,” Ashnault said. “Everything about it will be fun, and hopefully Rutgers puts on a show. I know there are going to be a lot of people there who have never seen wrestling so hopefully they can fall in love with Rutgers wrestling from this. People are working hard to promote the sport in general and help put it on the map, and this is just one way to get people more excited about wrestling.”
Of course, if Ashnault reaches his goal of becoming an NCAA champion in March, that will be another big reason to be excited about Rutgers wrestling.