After becoming the first undefeated four-time state champion with a dramatic win in the closing seconds of Sunday’s 138-pound NJSIAA Wrestling Tournament final, South Plainfield High School senior Anthony Ashnault made a spontaneous victory lap.
He sprinted a flight of 35 stairs from the Boardwalk Hall arena floor to the main concourse and into the waiting arms of his parents, Bill and Sue, who stood near a corridor between sections 105 and 106 with tears filling their eyes.
Family has always been the most paramount component of the grounded 17-year-old’s life, and there was no way 11,149 screaming fans were going to interfere with his ability to share with his parents what is arguably the most significant moment in New Jersey high school sports history.
Ashnault, whose sore ankle was literally black at one point this season, managed until Sunday to keep the severity of the injury under wraps, often wrestling at less than 100 percent on the way to securing his 170th career victory with a thrilling 4-2 decision on a takedown with 12 seconds remaining against previously unbeaten Gary Dinmore of Hunterdon Central in a rematch of last year’s 126-pound final.
Nearly a thousand South Plainfield supporters, all wearing Kelly green T-shirts to reflect the school’s official color, and the rest of the fans in Boardwalk Hall, which Ashnault’s mere presence helped sell out for the first time in the tournament’s history, gave New Jersey’s third four-time state champion a rousing standing ovation.
By the time Ashnault returned to the floor to take his place atop the podium – he previously won titles at 106 and 112 pounds – former Delbarton star Mike Grey, who along with Bound Brook graduate Andrew Campolattano also won four state titles, was waiting center stage to present Ashnault with a commemorative plaque.
“Congratulations,” Grey told Ashnault, who was named the tournament’s Outstanding Wrestler, “and welcome to the club.”
Surrounded by reporters following his historic victory, Ashnault, who will attend Rutgers University in the fall, was unable to quantify his emotions.
“I’m just really excited,” he said. “I can’t really describe it. I’m speechless. I’m just really grateful for everyone that’s helped me. That’s all I could really say.”
Ashnault respectfully – and for the first time in his storied career – declined interview requests following Saturday’s 3-1 semifinal decision over Toms River East’s Robert Lewis, a sign that the pressure was mounting (the bout marked just the second time all season Ashnault had not scored bonus points on an opponent).
Rutgers coach Scott Goodale, who had a front row seat for the finals and watched Ashnault’s semifinal on film, said his future star did wrestle the last two matches tight.
“This (situation) and this place will do that do you,” Goodale said, “but champions find a way. You could tell he wrestled with a lot of pressure, with something on his back, but that’s what special guys do – they gut it out and win.”
Ashnault opened the scoring against Dinmore on a single-leg takedown 1:20 into the bout. Following a tilt attempt, Ashnault released Dinmore with 15 seconds left in the first period, cutting the deficit in half. After riding Ashnault out for the entire second period with the crowd seeming to turn against the reigning three-time state champion, Dinmore escaped 22 seconds into the third to knot the score.
“I heard a huge boo,” Ashnault said. “I just tried to stay calm. I may not have done my best down there (on bottom). I didn’t like how I just didn’t come out and really work on putting moves together. I just tried to keep zoning, because you have to overcome adversity in a match and in life. I knew what I had to do to get the ‘W,’ and no matter what was going to happen, I was going to be the guy getting my hand raised at the end of the match.”
Dinmore acrobatically escaped a single-leg takedown midway through the third period, somersaulting out of bounds and appearing to hit his head on the concrete floor near the edge of the mat. Ashnault wound up scoring a double-leg takedown by the edge of the mat with nine seconds remaining to stake his place in history.
“I was just going to keep attacking,” Ashnault said. “I kind of felt him giving me position. I said, I’m going after his legs again and again and again and sooner or later I’m going to finish.”
Ashnault and Dinmore were expected to meet in the final leg of a tri-meet in late January but South Plainfield coach Keivn McCann, who allowed Ashnault to wrestle in the opener against Bridgewater-Raritan, when he pinned in just 16 seconds, forfeited to Dinmore because he felt Ashnault, who was clearly not 100 percent, did not have ample time to prove he could compete in the ensuing dual, which the Tigers had already clinched.
“It was really bad,” said Ashnault, speaking to the media for the first time about his injury. “We just tried to keep it on the down low. I still have to tape it up. You can tell it’s still swollen. I just tried to keep it hidden. I don’t like people to know (the nature of an injury). I just tried to convince myself that I’m not hurt.”
McCann, who knew had difficult the season was at times for Ashnault, summed up the four-time state champion’s career-ending win best.
“It was an unbelievable day, tournament and season,” he said. “With all the pressure that was on him, he handled it well. He’s a class act all around.”