original photos courtesy of Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com
Hanging prominently in my office is a framed, autographed picture of one of my favorite wrestling photos of all-time, Iowa State’s bloody, battered, and bandaged, Jon Reader moments after winning his lone NCAA title at the 2011 NCAA Championships. Is it because I was a huge fan of his wrestling style or the Cyclones, themselves? Not necessarily. If you were to ask me to pick out a single picture that represents the word “wrestler” that is the shot that I would choose. The image has it all, the proverbial blood, sweat and tears, all at the same time, in one photo. The emotions of a fifth-year senior who has come close to winning in the past yet has never seen it all come together, one who takes advantage of his last shot at glory and comes out a winner. Hence, a hundred emotions rolled into one moment captured in time of a tense, flexing Reader, seconds after letting out a primal scream. At that point in time, nothing else mattered, not the numerous close losses to in-state rival Ryan Morningstar early in his career, not the painful tiebreaker loss to heavy underdog Jared King of Edinboro in the 2009 NCAA semifinals, not missing the podium during a junior year marred by concussions and knee injuries. The years of grueling practices, moments of self-doubt, all of the trials and tribulations, none of that mattered because Jon had just reached the pinnacle of folkstyle wrestling and achieved a childhood dream by winning an NCAA title. In doing so, he became one of my favorite wrestlers.
Despite being a heck of a nice guy, an outstanding wrestler, and a highly respected assistant coach, that alone doesn’t make Jon himself one of my favorite wrestlers. My favorite wrestler doesn’t wrestle for a particular school or even exists at all. It’s more of an idea than one specific person. My favorite wrestlers are the rare breed of one-time NCAA champions who have won their only titles as a senior.
We’re currently in an era where the seniors who win their only NCAA title is becoming more and more rare. With middle school kids having the ability to train with DI-caliber coaching, easily accessible online video libraries of the current and past greats of our sport, and single-sport specialization at younger ages, freshmen and sophomores winning NCAA titles has become the norm. From 2000-2009, only four freshmen were able to capture NCAA Championships. Since 2010, 13 wrestlers have accomplished the feat including one every year since 2014. In turn that is producing more multiple time national champions. It used to be that the NCAA Champions were generally comprised of guys who rose through the ranks and had to pay their dues before dominating as seniors. Today that is not quite as common.
This conversation is topical because at the 2019 NCAA Championships we had two champions that could join the club of my favorite wrestlers, Anthony Ashnault (Rutgers) and Drew Foster (Northern Iowa). Last season there was only one of these athletes in Michael Macchiavello (NC State), and in 2017 there were none. You’ve got to enjoy and praise them because they don’t come around very often anymore. Though Ashnault and Foster are both seniors who won their only titles this year, their respective journeys to the apex of collegiate wrestling could not be any more different.
Ashnault was regarded as one of the top ten wrestlers in the high school Class of 2013, a strong group that featured the likes of three-time NCAA champions Zain Retherford (Penn State), J’Den Cox (Missouri), as well as Isaiah Martinez (Illinois), Adam Coon (Michigan), Bo Jordan (Ohio State), and Nathan Tomasello (Ohio State). Anthony was arguably as highly thought of as any of these fellow top recruits and why not? He had just become the second New Jersey wrestler to win four high school state titles in their single-class, talent-rich competition, and first to do so while going undefeated. Most of the usual suspects were ready to sign Anthony, but he opted to stay in-state and help build something special at Rutgers. At the time of his signing, though head coach Scott Goodale had improved the product on the mat and generated newfound excitement surrounding the team, they still had not produced an All-American under his watch, a tenure that started in the 2007-08 season. It took a massive leap of faith on Ashnault’s pair to buy into the vision that Goodale and his staff were selling for the future of wrestling at Rutgers.
From the moment he took the mat as a freshman in the 2014-15 season, Anthony was rolling and seemed to set new program records. First freshman All-American, first Big Ten champion and the list goes on. In his initial three trips to the NCAA Championships, Ashnault finished eighth, fourth, and sixth. As both a sophomore and junior his hopes of earning an NCAA title died in the semifinals with a loss to the eventual champion Dean Heil (Oklahoma State). All along the way, critics were claiming that he wouldn’t be able to stand atop the podium while wrestling for Rutgers. To make matters worse, a knee injury sidelined Anthony for the entire 2018-19 campaign.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have Foster who was far from a blue-chip recruit in high school, In fact, he was never able to win a state championship in Iowa and some questioned whether he was even a DI-caliber wrestler. Drew went to Northern Iowa because of his relationship with assistant coach Randy Pugh, but still needed plenty of time to adjust to the rigors of DI wrestling. After a solid redshirt season, Foster went 15-19 as a freshman and was not able to qualify for the 2016 NCAA Championships. He still plugged along, making steady improvements and was not only a qualifier in 2017, but the 12th seed. Foster quickly transitioned from being known as “the guy that warmed up at nationals in the NASCAR shirt” to a contender after he knocked off #5 Zack Zavatsky (Virginia Tech) in the second round 4-3. Drew would end up having a long history against the Hokie over the next two-plus years. Drew finished the tournament as an All-American, in seventh-place. As is often the case in wrestling, you take two steps forward and one back, and for Foster, the step back was a 1-2 showing at the NCAA Championships as a junior when he missed the podium altogether.
Missing the 2017-18 season entirely allowed Ashnault to receive a sixth-year of eligibility which he decided he would use while competing at 149 lbs for the first time. The weight was one of the few that did not feature a returning NCAA champion and was headed up by in-state rival Matt Kolodzik (Princeton). It didn’t take long for Anthony to show that he was a different, more dominant version of himself during his last shot at an NCAA title. Ashnault racked up bonus points in 11 of his first 13 matches of the year, a span that includes him running through the field at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational. He would grab hold of the top ranking after dominating Kolodzik during their highly anticipated dual 10-2, a billing he would never relinquish. After finishing the Big Ten tournament unscathed and carrying this third conference title, Anthony was a sure bet to receive the NCAA’s number one seed a 149 lbs, something that he had never had in his three previous trips.
Also at the CKLV Invitational was Foster, who suffered an 11-8 loss in the semifinals to returning All-American Taylor Venz (Nebraska). He would later grab third after defeating Zavatsky for the second time in the tournament. A few weeks later Drew would stand alone atop the podium at the Midlands Championships, which he won for the only time in his career, by downing Iowa’s Cash Wilcke in the finals. Down the homestretch of his senior season, there were a few hiccups along the way as Foster fell to Venz again, along with Big 12 competitors Jacobe Smith (Oklahoma State) and Sammy Colbray (Iowa State). He would make up for it by downing Colbray and eventual All-American Dakota Geer (Oklahoma State) in the Big 12 Championship to win his second conference title in as many years. The win would help him earn a sixth-seed at the NCAA Championships in Pittsburgh.
The NCAA tournament and his subsequent title run ended up almost anti-climatic for Ashnault who was never seriously tested throughout the event. His 2-0 shutout of Koldozik in the semifinals made him the first four-time All-American in program history. Two matches after Nick Suriano won Rutgers’ first national championship, it was Anthony’s turn and he was facing a familiar foe, Micah Jordan (Ohio State), his opponent from the CKLV and Big Ten finals. Jordan’s only two defeats this year came at the hands of Anthony. In both matches, Micah was able to mount a late rally and his prowess on his feet had to be a concern for the Rutgers staff. There was no such late charge this time as Ashnault cruised to a 9-4 decision and claimed the one honor that had eluded him for three plus years, national champion. Though Suriano technically did it first, the Rutgers fans still know that Anthony was the one who believed in their team when few others had and was a symbol for the loyalty and toughness of not only their school, but their sometimes-maligned home state of New Jersey. Suriano’s name may go in the record book first, but it was a record book that has been written and rewritten by Shnaulty from South Plainfield.
With undefeated, 2016 NCAA Champion Myles Martin (Ohio State) sitting atop the 184 lb weight class, even some of the most loyal UNI backers told me that Foster has a good shot at “making the finals” on the bottom half of the bracket. Of course, what was unsaid what that most of us had mentally conceded the title to the Buckeye. As the saying goes, that’s why they wrestle the matches. Foster got by a tough freshman, Louie DePrez (Binghamton) in the second round to set up a quarterfinal match with, none other than, Zack Zavatsky. Despite the two wins by Drew at the CKLV Invitational, it was Zavatsky who got the third seed at the weight class. The bottom half of the bracket now appeared to be wide open after #2 Shakur Rasheed (Penn State) fell to the 15-seed Chip Ness (North Carolina). Foster jumped out to an early lead on his rival from Virginia Tech and never looked by winning 6-2, setting up a semifinal match with Ness. Suddenly, in the NCAA semifinals, it was Foster who was the favorite. After a steady dose of timely attacks from his feet and a punishing top game, Foster punched his ticket to the NCAA finals where he would NOT be facing Martin. Myles gave up a late takedown to sophomore #5 Max Dean (Cornell) which ended up being the difference maker. Now, even though Drew was not facing an undefeated Martin, he still had a tall task facing him in the finals. Over the past two seasons, he had met Dean four times and only came out victorious once. In the second round of the 2018 NCAA Championships, it was Max won relegated Foster to the consolation bracket with a 6-0 win. This time it was different, with more tough mat work from Foster, which gave him the possibility for a riding time point heading into the third. A timely sweep single with just under 30 seconds remaining in the match and a rideout out gave Foster the win and made him the first Panther to win an NCAA title since Tony Davis did so in 2000. Head Coach Doug Schwab had his first national champion as well. The team had made great strides under Schwab and as the final seconds ticked off the clock and with Dean flat on the mat, the giddy Schwab shuffled down the side of the stage then turned to his assistants as if he needed confirmation that Drew Foster was really going to win a national title. In four years he had gone from under .500 to one of only 10 wrestlers that could walk out of PPG Paints Arena as national champions.
In the 2019 NCAA Championships, we saw two warriors, both with two vastly different stories who were able to persevere through the grind that is a DI wrestling career and get their hands raised in their final collegiate bout and finally get to call themselves a national champion. Anthony Ashnault and Drew Foster are both the newest members of the club entitled, “My Favorite Wrestlers.”