NEW YORK – The sell-out crowd at Madison Square Garden on Thursday gasped and awed, but Steven Rodrigues heard none of it.
His second-round match at the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships against Penn State’s Geno Morelli went from one overtime period to another, and one false move would have cost the Illinois senior dearly. But as he’s shown over and over again — from his time as a high school state champion at Fox Lane until now — Rodrigues is not the type to panic.
“I just had to stay composed,” he said. “That’s the main thing. You train so hard and you have to train for adversity. I had some adversity in that match and I had to fight through it.”
The 165-pounder won his first-round match with a 5-2 decision over Cornell’s George Pickett, but Morelli was a stingier opponent. Neither Rodrigues nor Morelli was able to notch a takedown in regulation, so they went to overtime tied at 1-1.
Morelli nearly escaped in the third overtime period to win the match, but Rodrigues held on desperately to force an ultimate tiebreaker situation. That’s where he showed that he had more in the gas tank, notching an elusive takedown to come away with a 3-1 decision.
“That’s actually the first time that I’ve been in a tiebreaker situation like that,” Rodrigues said. “That’s a big match. I know he’s not seeded, but I knew he was going to fight. I just kind of showed the guts that I have and we’ve got a big day tomorrow.”
Friday will bring an even more difficult challenge.
Rodrigues is lined up to wrestle third-seeded Bo Jordan of Ohio State in the quarterfinals — a familiar foe who is responsible for two of Rodrigues’ three losses this season.
“I’m going to have to wrestle a lot better to beat that guy and keep moving forward in the tournament,” Rodrigues said. “He’s gotten to his offense early. I’ve got to get to mine early and make him wrestle at my pace — just get after him.”
While Rodrigues was able to keep his national title hopes alive, it was a harsh day for another local competitor.
Somers product Brian Realbuto, a junior for Cornell, entered the tourney as the No. 2 seed at 174 pounds after reaching the NCAA finals last season. The two-time All-American was shocked in the first round, losing a 7-4 decision to Iowa State’s Lelund Weatherspoon. Realbuto took a 4-2 lead in the second period, but gave up a reversal to tie it at 4-4 before Weatherspoon sealed the win with a takedown in the final 20 seconds.
To make matters worse, Realbuto went down writhing in pain in the final seconds of the match, clutching his left knee. The injury brought back memories of his freshman year, when he shocked the country by reaching the semifinals, only to tear the ACL in his right knee.
“The doctors told me they think it’s an ACL, MCL (tear),” Realbuto said. “With 10 seconds left, I hit a desperation move and tried to hit a lat drop. My toe got caught around his ankle and I kind of just yanked my own ACL out.”
Despite the devastating news — in true warrior fashion — Realbuto decided to gut it out and try to wrestle in the consolation round.
“I came here to wrestle,” he said. “Had (the injury) happened in the finals or the semis, like it did two years ago, it would have been a little bit different. I would have already put up points on the board for my team. … I wanted to score some points for my team, so I went out there. I was hoping to get a couple points, but it didn’t work out.”
Realbuto, who was clearly limping despite going out in between sessions to purchase a brace, managed to keep his second match close against Chattanooga’s Sean Mappes. He was originally ruled the winner on a last-second takedown, but the call was reversed after it was determined that time had expired, giving Mappes a 6-5 decision.
“I tried to move around before on (the knee), and I kind of knew it was buckling to the inside,” Realbuto said. “I went out there knowing it was going to hurt and just hoped I could stay out of bad positions.”
The bracket at 174 pounds was the most unpredictable of the tournament. Not only was Realbuto knocked off in the first round, but so was No. 3 seed Blaise Butler of Missouri, No. 4 Ethan Ramos of North Carolina and No. 8 Zach Epperly of Virginia Tech.
The quarterfinals are scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. on Friday. For complete results, visit http://on.ncaa.com/W2016D1.