Saturday, March 19, 2016

Wrestling: Smith falls short of All-America status

NEW YORK -- Billy Smith certainly experienced the highs and lows at the NCAA Division I Championships on Friday night.

Not long after a stunning pin put Smith in position for a medal, the Rutgers red-shirt senior and former High Point state champion saw his fine four-year collegiate career end with a 3-2 loss to Lehigh's Max Wessell in the Blood Round at 285 pounds before a crowd of 18,309 at Madison Square Garden.

Smith (31-10), one of 10 qualifiers for Rutgers, fell one round shy of All-America status on a day where the Scarlet Knights produced multiple All-Americans -- Anthony Ashnault (141) of South Plainfield and Anthony Perrotti (165) of West Essex -- for only the second time in program history and first since 1952.

Rutgers' Billy Smith (left) in action against Lehigh's Max Wessell.
Smith -- one of just four Rutgers wrestlers to make four consecutive national tournament appearances along with Scott Winston (2009, 2011-13), Dan Rinaldi (2010-13) and Andy Roy (2002-05) -- could have really made it a Sussex County party with an All-American finish.

In 1952, former Newton state champ Emil Perona (fourth at 157) and Ray Vohden (fourth at 177) both earned AA status for the Knights.

It would have been a long way back for Smith, who had to win a pigtail bout at 285 on Thursday night before dropping an 8-4 decision to Oklahoma's Ross Larson, whom Smith beat, 8-1, back in November.

By decking Riley Shaw of Cleveland State, Smith moved one win away from becoming an All-American and was riding high after hitting a tight headlock to get the fall in 1:39. It was another first for Smith.

"I never tried [a headlock] in a match before," said Smith, who finished 105-39 overall at Rutgers and is one of just 16 to record 100 wins. "I just kind of walked into it. I was just trying to defend [a headlock attempt by Shaw]."

Against Wessell, Smith tied the score a 1 with a quick escape in the third period in a bout that lacked action on their feet. Wessell got in on a single-leg attempt with about 35 seconds to go and they were still tied up on the mat with time winding down as Rutgers coach Scott Goodale pleaded his case for a stalemate. But referee Gary Kessel awarded a takedown with 12 seconds left to send Wessell on in the consolations.

Smith, a fourth-place finisher in the Big 10 Tournament, had beaten Wessell, 3-2 in a tiebreaker, when they met on Feb. 20. That victory gave Rutgers an 18-15 win over Lehigh in the NWCA National Duals Championship Series. Smith finished with a combined mark of 243-59, including a 138-20 record at High Point, where he won the 285-pound state title in 2011, one of four champs for the 'Cats in Atlantic City.

So what's next for Smith? Being an education major it might not be a stretch to see him in the coaching ranks one day, possibly at High Point. You can bet coach John Gardner would love to have Smith on his staff. And who knows? Maybe Smith, who has always been a class act, succeeds his former coach in Wantage down the road.

Bernstein on the brink

It also was a sad ending for former Voorhees state finalist Jadaen Bernstein, who had to medical forfeit in the Blood Round. The Navy sophomore banged heads with Indiana's Nathan Jackson with 1:33 left on the clock in the second period during their match in the 174-pound quarterfinals, and Bernstein had to leave the arena under the concussion protocol.

Bernstein later returned to finish the bout, losing a 14-4 major decision. Bernstein was unable to go in the evening session where he was slated to face Zach Epperly of Virginia Tech.
Navy's Jadaen Bernstein (left) battles in the 174-pound quarterfinals.

Bernstein (34-13) had the place buzzing on Thursday when he dropped No. 4 seed Ethan Ramos of North Carolina, 13-8, in the opening round. It was sweet redemption for Bernstein, who lost a 5-2 decision to Ramos, a Hawthorne grad, in the 2013 New Jersey state finals at 170 pounds.

Bernstein beat another New Jersey wrestler, Gordon Wolf of Lehigh, 15-4, to reach the quarterfinals.

At Voorhees, Bernstein was a three-time District 17 and Region 5 champion, finishing second in the state in 2011 and '13. He also placed seventh in '12 and is the school's all-time wins leader at 135-19.

Back points

Delaware Valley's Mike Pongracz was the only other wrestler from the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex area to qualify. Pongracz (23-6), a junior at Chattanooga, went 1-2 at 141 pounds. Pongracz, a three-time District 17 and two-time Region 5 champion, is Delaware Valley's all-time wins leader with a career mark of 148-16 from 2009-13. He was a three-time state placewinner -- fifth in 2012 and '13 and eighth in '11.

In a bizarre scene on Friday afternoon, Lehigh coach Pat Santoro lost a replay challenge because the feed was unavailable in the bout between Ryan Preisch and Harvard's Devon Gobbo. The bout appeared headed to overtime when Gobbo got a questionable reversal and back points before the third-period buzzer. A bout that should have been 5-5 heading to OT was ruled a 9-5 victory for Gobbo, much to Santoro's chagrin when told the replay was unavailable.

Gary Kessel officiates a match at Madison Square Garden.
Always great to see Kessel in action at the nationals. Regarded as one of if not the best in the high school ranks, Kessel is a true gentleman. Word has it that Hopatcong's first region champion (136 pounds in 1973) and former East Stroudsburg University coach is retiring from the Division I ranks as an official. He will continue to do Division III and high school matches in New Jersey.

Ashnault finished fourth at 141 and Perrotti was eighth at 165. Perrotti is a two-time All-American, also placing eighth in 2015. Mike Leta is still the highest finisher for Rutgers -- third at 130 pounds in 1960.

Sussex County made another mark in the tournament when Princeton's Brett Harner became the school's first All-American since 2003. Harner, who finished eighth at 197 and is the Tigers' ninth AA, is coached by former Newton standout Chris Ayres. Princeton is making a move under Ayres, now in his 10th season, as the program wrestled for an Ivy League title for the first time in 30 years.

It was ridiculous not to have the semifinal matches centered on the floor Friday night in what has become the traditional dog-bone shape with two mats in the middle and four on the outside for consolations. Apparently, it would have cost $2000 to move the mats into that position in between sessions, so there were six together and the semis on the furthest two mats from the head table. Sad considering what a great venue the Garden is for the sport.

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