When trying to decide who is the favorite for a national title at 197 pounds this season, picking a winner seems like playing a game of roulette. All you have to do is drop a bunch of names, spin a wheel and let the ball find its way to a random chance. With a weight class featuring eight returning All-Americans, a freshman phenom from Missouri at the top of the rankings and no undefeated wrestlers left standing, on paper, 197 pounds could be the toughest and most wide open division in collegiate wrestling.
Sitting under the radar, poised for a title run is the quiet and confident No. 3 ranked senior tri-captain Jerry Rinaldi.
After bursting onto the scene a year ago with a fourth-place finish at last year’s nationals in Oklahoma City, Okla., Rinaldi has picked up right where he left off. After a Body Bar Invitational title, the sociology major has rarely struggled in posting a 17-2 record this year. Over the course of more than three months, his only losses have come in close fashion to Penn State’s Phil Davis and Missouri’s Max Askren, the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked wrestlers in the country.
[img_assist|nid=21410|title=I am Maximus|desc=Senior co-captain Jerry Rinaldi salutes the crowd after pinning Zach Morse in the Red’s 56-0 shutout of Princeton last Saturday.|link=none|align=left|width=84|height=100]
“After last year I was satisfied being an All-American after finishing fourth,” Rinaldi said. “This year the same finish won’t yield the same feelings. I’m not wrestling to finish second or third. I’m here to end up No. 1.”
As to what makes Rinaldi successful, it’s a blue-collar attitude combined with superior physical tools that sets the Lodi, N.J., native apart. Rinaldi, who towers over most opponents at 6-2, has earned a reputation for being a suffocating wrestler that halts all offensive game plans.
“It’s an advantage to have that height and leverage,” said assis tant coach Damion Hahn, a former two-time national champion at 197 pounds. “Still, if you look at that weight class, a lot of the guys are real tall. I wrestled at 197 and I was a little shorter, but it definitely helps having that length. At 197 pounds they aren’t heavyweights and they aren’t lightweights, so the class itself eliminates some of that quickness. Fortunately for Jerry, that’s where he excels.”
If Rinaldi ends up on the top podium at nationals this season in Detroit, it will be because of hours of hard work spent inside the Friedman Wrestling Center fine-tuning his style and technique. Described as a defensive wrestler last season, Rinaldi has worked hard this year in bettering his offensive skills on the mat.
“One of the biggest things we’ve changed with Jerry is his approach to becoming a more offensive wrestler,” said assistant coach Tyler Baier ’05. “If he does win a national championship, his offense will be the reason he wins it. This year he finally has confidence in all of his shots and as a coaching staff, we’ve been happy seeing him put it all together.”
Aiding Rinaldi in his final hurrah adorning a Red singlet has been the recent additions of Baier and Hahn to the coaching staff. Given that a majority of the top-ranked wrestlers at 197 pounds hail from schools in the Midwest, the former four-time All-American Hahn was brought in from the University of Minnesota to mentor Rinaldi and let the protégé train against a style similar to that of what Rinaldi will see at nationals.
“The guys that Rinaldi will be wrestling have that unique brawling, hands-on style practiced in the Big 10,” Hahn said. “Here in the East everything is a little more technique-based, so we’re trying to expose Jerry to that different kind of style a little more.”
With the EIWA tournament only three weeks away, finishing first among the East’s best is an accomplishment Rinaldi has yet to be able to put on his resume. With that motivation in mind, He is out to prove that he is more than just a name scrambled together with the elite of the 197 pound weight class.
“Nobody ever bets against him,” Baier said. “He’s always been kind of underrated, but he knows that doesn’t matter. This is his last shot at a national title and with our team peaking and some of the other guys in the weight class wearing down, he knows that this is his time.”