And not just because they are teammates on a Rutgers University wrestling team that will push for a Top-10 national ranking this season.
Ashnault and Suriano are the only undefeated four-time state champions in New Jersey high school wrestling history.
Ashnault – who returned from a medical redshirt year and is in his sixth year of eligibility – accomplished the feat six years ago at South Plainfield. Suriano became the second wrestler to win four titles three seasons ago at Bergen Catholic.
Both of their marches to immortality were among the most eagerly-watched moments in the state’s history. And now for one year, they will be in the same lineup.
Ashnault is the only Big Ten champion, winning twice, and three-time All-American in Rutgers wrestling history. Now a junior, Suriano became the program’s first national finalist a year ago after transferring from Penn State.
This year, they will try to make history together – the first national champions in school history. After three seasons at 141 pounds, Ashnault is moving up to 149 pounds, while Suriano is starting the year at 133 but could drop down to 125, where he reached the final last year.
The season begins Saturday with a quad match against Centenary, Fresno State and Johnson and Wales at the Rutgers Athletic Center.
“It’s awesome man, he paved the way for me in high school,” said Suriano, who was a freshman when Ashnault won his fourth state title in 2013. “Then I did it. I traveled the country, went all over the country, kept the record undefeated. I saw him do it. He was someone I looked up to, he was an older guy.
“Now it’s awesome to have him, to train with. We’re both hungry. I was with him all last year, but he was injured. Then he was back this summer and I was injured. But now, we’re going to feed off each other and we’re looking to go to the top.”
For Ashnault, having Suriano in the same lineup with him has provided added motivation in a number of ways.
“It’s awesome just being on (Suriano’s) team, especially you get to see his work ethic and how he competes,” said Ashnault. “It’s definitely very motivating. For me seeing someone push you every day, you get a little bit better just being around him. It’s really encouraging having him on the team, and I’m looking forward to the first time in my career getting to compete with him in the lineup.
“Seeing him compete before I compete will just help me with my performance. He’s an exciting wrestler. You can just picture that in the room times five. His intensity is like no other. He brings everyone else in the room up.”
When Ashnault came, Rutgers was starting to develop into a program that was going to be able to compete with some of the better teams in the Big Ten and the country. Now, he’s seeing the RWJBarnabas Health Athletic Center – the Scarlet Knights’ future training facility – going up near the RAC and Rutgers coming off an 11th-place finish at the NCAAs without him in the lineup.
“It’s been a little surreal (watching the program build up),” said Ashnault. “When I was 17, you think it would happen a little quicker. You get here and realize it’s a process. Now it’s in your face. We’re getting top recruits every year and better classes and new facilities and new amenities. It’s been awesome. I hope I get the opportunity to coach here and continue being around here.”
Rutgers coach Scott Goodale feels Suriano has helped take the weight of the world off Ashnault’s shoulders as the face of the program.
“It’s pretty well documented what (Ashnault’s) meant to this program,” said Goodale. “He could have went anywhere in the country and he came here. He’s had a lot of pressure and expectations. Nick came here and I think that alleviated some of that, but he saw what Nick did and he wants to do it side by side with him.
“Something Anthony has always wanted to do is win a (top-four) trophy at the national tournament, and we have the guys to do it.”
Some of the other best wrestlers in state history have spent time in a Rutgers singlet. Undefeated three-time state champion Scott Winston was in on the beginning of Goodale’s building project at Rutgers – Goodale coached Winston at Jackson – and was a multiple-time national qualifier.
Four-time, once-beaten state champion Andrew Campolattano transferred to Rutgers from Ohio State but lasted only a part of one season before quitting the sport.
But Ashnault and Suriano are the two of the most accomplished wrestlers in state high school history, and they can now achieve their ultimate college goals in New Jersey. If they do that, it bodes well for the future of a program which is already on the upswing.
“If you’re a high school recruit and look at our lineup and two of the best wrestlers in high school from New Jersey. …. Both four-time state champs undefeated, if I was looking at that as a high school recruit, I’d say I can get it done right now,” said Ashnault. “Nick was in the final last year, I’m a three-time All-American, two-time Big Ten champ. There’s no reason you have to go anywhere else to get what you want. You can come right here and be a national champ.
“We’re looking to prove that this year, get two of them. The pace we’ve been improving would be multiplied through the roof. We’re getting good recruits now, but getting (two national titles) is something else to advertise.”
Blll Evans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by leaving a note in the comments below. Follow him on Twitter @BEvansSports. Find and like the NJ.com High School Wrestling page on Facebook.