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Jersey Boys lifting Rutgers to greatest heights
By Mike Finn
Richie Lewis and Scott Goodale know there is a lot more to their hometown of Toms River, N.J., that what Hollywood has suggested in making this community more than a backdrop in television shows like “Jersey Shore” or “Boardwalk Empire.”
“There are many different walks of life in Toms River,” said Lewis, who grew up in this community of 90,000 that sits less than 10 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. “You have your middle class, you have your filthy rich. Growing up, you see a variety of cultures.”
Lewis also added there is something residents take with them from Toms River.
“You have to be street smart and smart quick,” said Lewis, who like Goodale — the head wrestling coach at Rutgers University for the past decade — have taken such mental skills 50 miles to the north in Piscataway, N.J., the home of the Scarlet Knights.
For it was Goodale, who returned to his home state after a successful college wrestling career at Lock Haven in nearby Pennsylvania during the 1990s to first become a successful high school coach at Jackson Memorial and later to Rutgers in 2008. For a program that began in 1930, the Scarlet Knights have enjoyed their most success under Goodale, who has helped his wrestlers earn six of the school’s 14 all-time All-American honors.
And while Lewis, a senior at 157 pounds, has yet to earn a Top 8 finish for the Scarlet Knights since returning to New Jersey as a two-time junior college All-American at Iowa Central, he did even something more remarkable in the past week: winning a U23 World Freestyle championship at 70 kilograms for the United States, Nov. 26, in Bydgoszcz, Poland.
What made that championship so remarkable is that Lewis — who never won a state high school championship or national junior college title — was competing in his first World-level international tournament.
“My style has always been grind it out and keep pushing,” said Lewis. “Recently, I’ve tried more flashy stuff and have gotten a little bit stronger and I’ve definitely have gained a lot more confidence.
“I also envision stuff and I think about things before it happens. I envisioned myself listening to the national anthem. I do this hundreds of times. That’s also how I keep my emotions in check because (winning) has already happened in my mind, my world; just not everyone else’s world yet.”
Oddly, Lewis chose wrestling despite the fact that his father, Joseph, was a legendary New Jersey high school basketball coach for 17 years at Cardinal McCarrick High. But Richie proved he was a strong prep wrestler by finishing third, fifth and seventh for Toms River High School before going to Iowa Central in Ft. Dodge, Iowa.
He also remembers what his mother, Maria, preached to him as a child, in dealing with doubters.
“My mom had built something in me to never give up,” said Lewis, who admitted he had to change something else in his mindset. “I can truly say I never gave it 100 percent at practice or in my lifestyle. That has changed as I’ve gotten older. It was a change in my style and my beliefs.
“There is also a quote that I live by: “If you never quit, you can never be defeated.’ You only truly lose when you accept defeat, so I keep pushing myself.”
Lewis’ recent World success also comes at a great time for Rutgers, which is projected to finish even higher than 2016, when the Scarlet Knights claimed a school-high 15th place at the NCAA Championships in nearby New York City. According to WIN’s latest Tournament Power Rankings, Rutgers is ranked ninth in the TPI with seven ranked wrestlers; three of whom are ranked in the Top 8 in their weight class.
That includes Lewis, ranked fifth at 157, sophomore Nick Suriano, the transfer from Penn State who is rated second at 125 pounds, and three-time All-American Anthony Ashnault, who is ranked No. 5 at 141.
What also makes this group unique is that they are all Jersey Boys: Suriano from Paramus and Bergen Catholic High School; and Ashnault from South Plainfield High School.
“In Jersey, no one does it better,” said Lewis. “We are gritty. We have style.”
“When I first started here, I thought if we could get the best guys to stay home, it would allow us to have some big success and that’s the way it has worked out,” said Goodale, who loves the fact that many former New Jersey preps decided to stay in their home state for college.
“When you wrestle in high school here, it is such a big deal,” said Goodale. “These guys understand that and want to wrestle in front of all those fans and families. I like to think we are building excitement here. (Wrestling at Rutgers) is a happening. That does not happen everywhere. There are billboards on the New Jersey Turnpike with their faces on them. You will see Rutgers wrestling everywhere that you go and it’s because of the guys we have in our program.”
But the coach also knew he had to change that philosophy if Rutgers would challenge the likes of Penn State, Ohio State and Iowa.
“To do well nationally, you also have to get the best guys outside the state of New Jersey,” he said. “We are in an incredibly hard conference. For us to compete on the highest level, we can’t just count on the best New Jersey wrestlers.”
And Goodale also believes his program is getting so close to capturing a first-ever individual championship and first-ever team trophy by finishing among the top four teams at the NCAAs.
“If you finish in the top four and earn a trophy, that means you’ve done a heck of a job, but for us to do that means we will have to have an individual champion,” said Goodale, who added he would love to see Ashnault, the program’s first three-time All-American, reach the top step on the All-American podium in Cleveland, Ohio, this March.
“(Anthony) is the face of our program and no one deserves it more,” said Goodale. “He took a chance on coming to Rutgers and could have gone any place.”
Academic problems forced Lewis to travel to Iowa Central and he was not sure he would return to New Jersey after finishing second and third at the NJCAA nationals.
“My first visit to Rutgers, I got here and saw Anthony Perrotti, who was like a big brother to me,” said Lewis of the former Scarlet Knight, who finished eighth last March in St. Louis. “I saw his passion and his family around and felt I could do something similar.”
And Lewis enjoyed a successful first season at Rutgers in 2015-16 when he finished 27-7 and was seeded No. 9 at the national tournament. Unfortunately, a shoulder injury that first arose when he was 14 and tore his labrum reappeared and Lewis went 1-2 in Madison Square Garden.
“At the NCAAs, I lost to (Virginia Tech’s) Nick Brascetta,” recalled Lewis. “I was up 5-3, but when I posted on his head, my shoulder slipped out of its socket and I ended up losing that match 8-7. Wresting back, I could not move my arm and lost. That was a really bad experience. I think I got misdiagnosed and doctors were telling me to rehab and not to have surgery. I started to feel better but it continued to keep slipping out. I wanted to keep wrestling because I wanted to graduate.”
Lewis tried to return last season and defeated Princeton’s Joe Tavoso in the season opener that was held outside in Rutgers’ football stadium, but said he completely tore the shoulder muscle in that match, which led to him undergoing season-ending surgery.
“As a coach, you never want to say, ‘Get the surgery … or don’t get the surgery because we want (them) to wrestle for the sake of the team,’ ” said Goodale. “We believed we had a very good team last year and wanted him to wrestle, but we left it up to him.”
And while the team settled for 19th place at the 2017 NCAAs, that rest helped Lewis focus on his future.
“I don’t know if I would have won the Worlds without the surgery, but I would not have the same mentality that I do now and maintain the training capacity had I not had the surgery.”
Goodale hopes his other wrestlers learn from Lewis’ experience.
“I just hope that he comes back with that same confidence and that same hunger to wanting to wrestle the best guys,” said Goodale. “I know our other guys will take a piece of that hunger. Because when you win at this school, it’s a big deal.”
Lewis does not believe he has a target on his back this college season after the Worlds. Instead, he will treat every college match before the NCAAs as a preparation for a final college goal.
“The training stays the same and the obsession stays the same. It’s the focus that changes,” said Lewis. “When I was at the Worlds, I was just focused on Poland. Even when we wrestled against Maryland (in November), I wasn’t thinking about Maryland. I was thinking about Poland.
“To me, it’s all training. I thought about the Maryland match as training, as practice. Next week when we wrestle against Iowa, I will look at that as practice. It will be the same when we wrestle Penn State and Ohio State. That’s how I plan on winning an NCAA title.”
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