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Shannon Scovel | NCAA.com | March 15, 2021

Sebastian Rivera might be the next, perfect, Rutgers wrestling champion

DI Wrestling: 2021 Selection Show

Sebastian Rivera isn’t worried.

He’s not worried about his loss at the Big Ten tournament, he’s not worried about who he’ll face in the NCAA tournament, and he’s not even too worried about what will come after he finishes this crazy, unprecedented season. He’s just not a guy who worries. And why would he be? 

“I train so hard it would be crazy for me not to have so much swagger and confidence,” Rivera said in an interview with NCAA.com. “I don’t think there’s anyone in the country who can compete with me, and that’s just the mentality you have to have when you train as hard as I do. There’s no reason not to be confident in what I’m doing." 

BIG TEN RECAP: Sebastian Rivera finishes third at the Big Ten tournament

Rivera enters this year’s NCAA tournament as a No. 3 seed at 141 pounds after dropping the Big Ten semifinals match to Penn State’s Nick Lee, the No. 2 seed in the tournament, in one of the wildest matches of the conference tournament. He and Lee both have one loss this season. Iowa’s Jaydin Eierman, the No. 1 seed, holds an 8-0 record with 60+ percent bonus. 

Rivera’s path to the NCAA finals will put him on a collision course with Lee again, if both athletes wrestle to seed. Rivera looks forward to the opportunity. He’s fully aware that he’s part of one of the toughest brackets in the national tournament. He’s been in this position before, taking sixth in 2018 in a loaded 125-pound bracket, third in 2019 at the light weight again and then earning the top seed in a deep 133-pound bracket last year.

Wrestling in the spotlight is just what he does. But this time, he’ll be wrestling for his home state, something in which he takes enormous pride.

The journey back to Jersey

Just over a year ago, a 133-pound Rivera walked off the mat at the RAC after topping Penn State’s Roman Bravo-Young in the 2020 Big Ten tournament and delivered one of the most memorable post-match press interviews. "Who doesn’t want to win in Jersey?" he bellowed to the packed crowd in the famous Rutgers gym. He was home, and he wanted people to know that he didn’t forget his jersey roots. 

Rivera's not alone as a standout wrestler from Jersey — he follows a long line of Garden State natives who have found recent success at the NCAA wrestling tournament. In fact, of the ten national champions in the 2019 tournament, four — Nick Suriano, Anthony Ashnault, Mekhi Lewis, and Anthony Cassar — came from Jersey and two represented their home state in Rutgers’ Scarlet and Gray singlets. The state of New Jersey has been growing as a wrestling hotbed over the past two years, but the 2019 NCAA tournament proved to be a turning point for the state and for the Rutgers wrestling program specifically. 

Ashnault and Suriano made history in 2019 when they became the first two NCAA wrestling champions in Rutgers program history, leading Goodale to be named NCAA Tournament Coach of the Year. In June 2020, Goodale and Co. added another native New Jersey athlete who could add his name to the growing list of homegrown champs to finish on top. 

Rivera's return was highly anticipated, but his message to Jersey was simple. When he announced his move on social media on June 26, he headlined the decision with three words: “I’m coming home.”

The three-time NCAA All-American and two-time Big Ten champion wrestled his first four years at Northwestern and made a name for himself with some monumental victories, in particular his 2018 Midlands Championship and 2019 Big Ten Tournament wins over two-time NCAA Champion and Hodge Trophy winner Spencer Lee of Iowa.

Last year, Rivera bumped up to 133 pounds and battled injury throughout the season before ending the year at the Big Ten tournament with wins over Roman Bravo-Young and 2018 NCAA champion Seth Gross. He earned the No. 1 seed at the cancelled 2020 NCAA tournament and was named a NWCA First Team All-American. His intensity and savviness have helped him make a name for himself as a dangerous lightweight, but as Rivera eyes a title as a Rutgers wrestler, he’s now attempting to achieve his goal of being a national champion up a weight at 141 pounds. 

Rutgers is a logical fit for Rivera given his Jersey demeanor, flash and his natural inclination toward wrestling in front of his home fans. His return seemed only natural. This year’s program has wrestled in an empty arena because of COVID though, finishing the regular season without a team win and without too much noise. Rivera, however, has been a bright spot. A leader for the Scarlet Knights in a season of adversity, Rivera is a perfect combination of the two national champs who came before him and will look to add his own “National Champion” banner in the rafters after this weekend.

Following the path laid by Suriano and Ashnault

Rivera knows he has the potential to be the latest hero in the Jersey wrestling world, but he isn’t thinking about those who came before him as much as he is focused on his own path. 

“Those guys [Ashnault and Suriano] aren’t on the team anymore or in the room, so obviously we’d like to have that performance like that again, two national champs, it’s possible, but we’re just worried about ourselves, just what we can do to do our best performances,” Rivera said. “It’s hard to worry about other people during this time, it’s a very selfish sport at the end of the year.” 

Rivera might not be thinking about the former Scarlet Knights, but his state's fans are certainly excited about the potential of adding another name to the list of national champs in the Rutgers wrestling room, and the parallels between his story and those of his predecessors is eerie. 

RUTGERS WRESTLING: Nick Suriano and Anthony Ashnault win titles 

A lightweight transfer who has missed out on a title in the past, Rivera has parts of 2019 Rutgers NCAA Champion Nick Suriano’s story within his own journey. He’s returning to the state that made him into who he is today, and now he wants to end that story with the R Block on his chest. Suriano came to Rutgers after his freshman year at Penn State where he suffered a serious ankle injury that kept him out of the national tournament. His transfer caused a bit more controversy than Rivera’s, as he transferred within conference as an undergrad whereas Rivera made his transfer as a grad student after earning his degree from Northwestern. Rivera left a legacy with the Wildcats in Evanston, but his resume has continued to be built in the Garden State.

Like Suriano, Rivera has also had his share of injuries during his career too, in particular missing out on part of the 2019-2020 season but roaring back to win a conference title in 2020, just like his Rutgers counterpart did in 2019. He’s a scrappy competitor, and he wants to do what Suriano did for the Scarlet Knights in Jersey. Rivera’s decision to transfer and battle for the win for Rutgers embodies the advice that Suriano gave in his press conference after winning his first title: “if you want something you just gotta fight and go get it.” 

There’s a persistence to Rivera’s story, a patience to his journey that resembles that of Rutgers’ other champ, now-graduated Anthony Ashnault. Rivera, like Ashnault, will try to win this title as a grad student, balancing the commitments of an advanced degree with the pressures of winning a title for his team. He’s following in the footsteps of Ashnault, heading to a school that the 2019 graduate and champ put “on the map.” 

“We're not just producing All-Americans and national finalists and Big Ten champs now,” Ashnault said of Rutgers after winning his title. “We're taking top-10 in the country as a team, and now we're national champs.” 

Rivera has the potential to be a national champion. He beat the 2018 and 2019 125-pound champion twice, and he also beat the 2018 133-pound champ.

He’ll have different foes this year in Lee and Eierman, but he looks good at the weight and is 8-1 on the year with his best win being over Chad Red. Rivera’s loss to Lee in the Big Ten semifinals came in sudden victory, an incredible scramble, and he was in the match from the start with the first takedown. 

"He's very beatable," Rivera said, when reflecting on his match in an NCAA.com interview. "I'm not going to say more on it." 

Even with Eierman and Lee in his path, Rivera's certainly in this title chase too, but it won’t be easy. The Rutgers grad student is a performer though, and he likes when the pressure’s on. He especially likes when the pressure's on and he gets to represent New Jersey. 

Jersey is a championship state, having put four title winners on the podium in 2019 with two wrestling for an in-state school. Will Rivera be the next Jersey guy to take home gold? 

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