Princeton and Rutgers create the New Jersey RTC to build Olympians and improve wrestling in the state

By Gary Abbott, USA Wrestling | Oct. 10, 2016, 1:26 p.m. (ET)
There is no doubt that Div. I wrestling is very competitive. College programs truly want to be the best team in their state, for bragging rights, recruiting advantages, fan following and much more. You need to be the king of your local hill before you venture out to take on the mountains around the nation.

However, when it comes to the bigger picture, such as building the United States into a stronger world power on the Olympic and World level, while also helping strengthen youth and high school wrestling in the area, working together makes great sense. That was the genesis of the development of the New Jersey Regional Training Center, an initiative between Rutgers and Princeton which is now underway.

Both Rutgers and Princeton have existing Regional Training Centers, where athletes are already in training for World and Olympic competition. So why combine efforts?

“It came from our camp here at Princeton,” said Princeton Coach Chris Ayres. “We are trying to build something for Tokyo 2020, to get someone over there in the Olympics from the Princeton RTC. When we spoke to our supporters, they wanted to make something bigger, which would attract more outstanding athletes to the program. That’s when we reached out to Rutgers. It is really not about Rutgers and Princeton, it is about New Jersey. We thought that this was a smarter avenue to put someone in Tokyo.”

Two major Princeton supporters who helped initiate the project were Rich Tavoso and Mike Novogratz. Not only have they been leaders in the development of the Tiger wrestling program and their growing RTC, but both are leading stewards of USA Wrestling’s Living the Dream Medal Fund. Their passion for wrestling includes not only their alma mater, but also for Team USA on the Olympic and World level.

“When we looked at it from the Princeton and Rutgers perspective, both have RTC programs. We know both programs very well. Both have aspirations to be bigger and better. To do it yourself is hard to do. The idea is to have a program that can produce World and Olympic champions,” said Tavoso, who is serving as the chair of the combined New Jersey RTC.

“We are in New Jersey, which is a hotbed state for wrestling. The campuses are 30 minutes apart. Rutgers is in the Big 10 and Princeton is in the EIWA, so that does not become a factor. They already compete against each other and the programs get along well. If we combine our efforts, bringing in Princeton and Rutgers support and other resources from the state of New Jersey, it could become one of the top RTC programs in the country. A lot of the pieces go well together. We felt that we should think outside the box. This will benefit both college programs and will also benefit USA Wrestling,” he added.

When the idea was shared with Rutgers Head Coach Scott Goodale, it made great sense as a positive way to improve his program, while helping build wrestling both locally and on the international scene.

“The people involved like Mike Novogratz and Rich Tavoso are passionate about it. They want Princeton to do more and we want to do more. For us to join in, it means more Senior-level athletes for our wrestlers to train with and learn from. You are bringing their resources and our resources together. With Princeton just 20 minutes away makes it an even better fit. We are looking for the same thing,” said Goodale.

An example of cooperation between Rutgers and Princeton will occur in a few weeks, when the Tigers travel to compete against the Scarlet Knights at the Battle at the Birthplace, an outdoor dual meet in Rutgers’ football stadium. This concept was created last year, when Oklahoma State travelled to Iowa for an outdoor dual meet in their football stadium and set the national record for attendance.

“The match in the football stadium with Princeton had nothing to do with the RTC effort. We have a good working relationship with Princeton. I like Chris (Ayres) and we have the same vision. It is an arms race in wrestling. This RTC puts us right in the thick of it. We want wrestling to grow in the state. It is a healthy relationship. We do want to beat them on the mat on November 19,” said Goodale.

“Competing in a football stadium is exciting. Creating an RTC that can produce gold medalists is exciting too. This will help our college programs for sure. But we are thinking bigger than building our programs. The primary incentive is to allow individuals to train, make World and Olympic teams and win medals for the United States,” said Ayres.

Almost all of the Regional Training Centers around the nation are based at one university. However, last year, the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel, colleges within a block of each other in Philadelphia, announced the creation of the Pennsylvania RTC. They have hired Olympic champion and former USA Wrestling Assistant National Freestyle Coach Brandon Slay to run the program, and are bringing in elite athletes to train there. Working together for a greater benefit made sense to those Div. I rivals, just as combining forces is making sense to those at Rutgers and Princeton.

There are already some very talented wrestlers with international aspirations training at either Rutgers or Princeton. Former Wisconsin NCAA runner-up Tyler Graff enters his second year of elite training at Rutgers. He is joined in New Brunswick by New Jersey native and NCAA runner-up for Indiana Taylor Walsh, and Rutgers All-American Anthony Perrotti. Down at Princeton, former Ohio State standout Nick Heflin is a top freestyle hopeful actively training with the Tiger program. The New Jersey RTC practices will be split between the two campuses.

The next big step is bringing in a nationally-respected freestyle coach to head up the RTC, to expand the program with leadership and skill, while recruiting more talented athletes. This is an important next step for the RTC and its leadership.

“The plan is bringing in a coach with international success and then the athletes will follow. We will have two times as many wrestlers for them to train with. We have had a few conversations about a coach. The timeline for our coach is that if we found the perfect coach, we would hire him tomorrow. The coach will be the driver of this program. We want the right person. However, we also know a lot of people might be committed to another program until April 1. We will hire when we have the right match,” said Tavoso.

Tavoso and Novogratz are among a group of prominent wrestling leaders from both universities and from across the state who are forming a board and going through the process of creating a non-profit organization. Included in the leadership team will be influential people from the New Jersey wrestling community, not just those on the college level.

Making the sport stronger for the youth of the state by providing more opportunities in the international styles is one of the key goals of the RTC. Goodale was one of the state’s most successful coaches at the high school level, when he led Jackson Memorial High School before taking the Rutgers job. He understands how this could impact the wrestling in New Jersey.

“That is one of the benefits. We are focused on getting freestyle and Greco back in New Jersey. We are not being as well represented in Fargo and other levels as we should be. In New Jersey, freestyle used to be the biggest thing around here. After scholastic season, it’s freestyle season. Let’s go. This gives us a central place to train and learn. It will help all of New Jersey wrestling. There are so many opportunities to wrestle the scholastic style. There needs to be more focus on freestyle and Greco-Roman tournaments and a place to train in the international styles. I think you can do both folkstyle and freestyle. We need more guys doing freestyle at the grassroots,” he said.

Both coaches said that other area colleges, including Rider, the College of New Jersey and others, could get involved in the future if they wish as the project develops.

“We are not excluding anyone; it’s anyone’s RTC. Rutgers and Princeton are just getting it going,” said Ayres.

Bringing people together to benefit youth, college and international wrestling at the same time seems to resonate with those who share a passion for the sport.

“We both went to our boards so it would not come out of the blue. Everyone is supportive. We also talked to people within the New Jersey wrestling community. There is enthusiastic support for this,” said Tavoso.