PITTSBURGH — Nick Suriano stood in the middle of the mat, arms spread out, just taking it all in. He had done it, he had made Rutgers history. The 133-pound national champion battled his way through a competitive bracket to earn a match against No. 1 Daton Fix at the national tournament, and after a second sudden victory, he soaked in the glory. He was a national champion.
His achievement was replicated at 149-pound when teammate Anthony Ashnault became Rutgers' second NCAA national champion after he beat Ohio State's Micah Jordan for the third time this season in Pittsburgh on the big stage.
Suriano and Ashnault talked about this moment after booking their tickets to the finals on Friday night.
"The goal coming in was to have me and Nick be champs, and our whole team supports us for that," Ashnault said after his semifinal win. "Our families and our fans, and it was kind of expected for us both to be in the finals, and now we're ready to go win it."
And win it they did. The matches played out in almost opposite ways, starting with Suriano's nail-bitter win at 133 pounds.
Suriano had been looking forward to another shot at a title since he fell to Spencer Lee in last year’s final. And to have his shot against Fix was more than perfect for the junior. Fix topped Suriano earlier in the year in a marathon dual that ended in a controversial hands-to-the-face call, and Suriano wanted revenge. He knew that Rutgers had never had a national champion; people reminded him of that all the time. He knew he had a shot to be the first, but he needed to conquer the negative thoughts.
“We all have negative moments in our lives where we find negative things instead of focusing on the positive, instead of focusing on working harder, getting better, getting stronger, we focus on dwelling, and I was worried about the past,” Suriano said, reflecting on his journey to the finals. “It happens. If you want to be great, you want to be good, you've got to think big.”
On Saturday night, in front of over 18,900 fans in PPG Paints Arena, he did it. Suriano's journey to the top of the podium was anything but easy. He survived Illinois's Dylan Duncan, Virginia Tech's Korbin Myers, Minnesota's Ethan Lizak and Michigan's Stevan Micic before beating Fix to take home the first-place trophy. He hoped to be joined by teammate 149-pounder Anthony Ashnault as a champ, but in that moment, it was all him. The first Rutgers national champion.
Suriano stood on the podium with this national championship trophy in his typical Suriano style. He was proud. He was Rutgers proud.
"I didn't quit through this whole journey," Suriano said. "And it came down to not quitting this last match. I was going to quit. I was this close. I was thinking about it. He rolled me like that. And like I got out. I made sure I was going to get out. And I looked in his eyes, and I said, I'm going to take him down."
He smiled to the fans during the award ceremony and held up his trophy as a champion, standing up there as long as they would let him. Then it was back into the tunnel to watch Ashnault battle.
Ashnault came out fighting against Jordan, and he carried his firepower all the way through to end the match 9-4. His moment on the podium, which came after the 157 pound match ended, was just as sweet, as he grinned at the Rutgers fan base and clutched that golden NCAA trophy.
Dressed in his Rutgers grey sweats, Ashnault looked as happy as could be. He exchange a look with the fans, almost as if he was letting them know, "yeah, we did it."
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All of a sudden, in the span of less than an hour, Rutgers had gone from one champ to two.
"So I'm grateful for (Suriano); he pushed me a lot," Ashnault said. "He could be one of the reasons why I finally jumped to get in here. He transferred, another workout partner. He's an awesome kid. I'm so freakin' happy. Rutgers got a chance, and we broke through that wall. And it's going to be uphill from now."
Ashanult will go out a champion, and Suriano will return next year to fight again. But for now, as the 2019 tournament comes to a close, one thing he clear: he and Ashnault have raised the bar for Rutgers wrestling, and they've done so together.