Dylan Caruana paced the floor of the West Gym’s wrestling practice room, visualizing the strategy he would use to take down his teammate. It had once again come down to a “wrestle off” — a single bout to determine who got the coveted starting spot in the Bearcats lineup.
“Every single year, I didn’t really solidify my spot,” Caruana said. “I’ve always had to wrestle off and have been the backup at some points in all four years.”
The redshirt senior, who wrestles in the 141-pound weight class, certainly won’t be a backup when he competes at the NCAA Wrestling Championships in St. Louis, Missouri on Thursday. At the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association (EIWA) Championships earlier this month, he punched his first ticket to the national stage, taking down two seeded opponents to secure a qualifying spot.
“[Caruana] is just a guy that embodies every characteristic of what we want our student-athletes to be,” said BU head coach Matt Dernlan. “It couldn’t have happened to a more deserving individual. I’m so proud of him.”
Last season, Caruana failed to advance to the NCAA Championships, dropping both of his matches at the conference tournament. He cites that disappointment was one of the driving forces behind his success this year.
“I took it really hard — not going to nationals and not really doing well,” he said. “You’ve just got to bounce back and be resilient.”
He’s done that and more this season, posting an overall record of 18-15. Despite entering the conference championship unseeded, Caruana upset Army senior Logan Everett and Harvard freshman A.J. Jaffe, who ranked fifth and sixth in the conference, respectively.
“It was just a matter of finally finding the right mentality for myself and coming through,” he said. “I was able to find a really good balance. There was no pressure; the team didn’t need me to win. It was just me out there chasing my dreams.”
Since the second grade, those dreams have always involved wrestling. It has been a defining aspect of Caruana’s life, providing a channel for his above-average energy levels and motivating him to succeed in other areas. He credits his parents for sparking his love for the sport.
“I always used to get in trouble at school, so my parents found an outlet for me and that was wrestling,” Caruana said. “They really helped me become a better student and shape me up as a person.”
His family also supplied plenty of perspective when it came to the importance of hard work. Caruana, a native of the Buffalo suburb Kenmore, remembers harsh winters when his dad would come home freezing and soaking wet from his job as a plumber, making his own problems seem trivial.
“My parents have always been role models for me,” he said. “I feel like I come from a blue-collar family, and that was always something I took pride in.”
At 5-foot-6 and 141 pounds, Caruana has one of the smallest statures on the Bearcats’ roster. His impact off the mat, though, is anything but undersized. As one of only two seniors, he has made it a point to lead by example for his teammates.
“I try and do the right thing day-in and day-out, especially when you’re an upperclassman and people are looking up to you,” he said. “You’ve got to hold yourself accountable. I try to call them out as much as I can to make sure they’re living the right lifestyle and making the right choices.”
For Caruana, the realization that his time at Binghamton was coming to an end triggered a re-evaluation of his efforts this season, including going to bed early and living “like a grandpa, basically.”
“This year, I’m just all in; if there’s anything I can do, I’m doing it,” he said. “I love wrestling and I love wrestling for this team, so it’s pretty scary knowing that there’s not much time left in my career.”
Tyler Deuel, BU’s only EIWA Champion, was Caruana’s teammate for three years before graduating in 2015. He remembers Caruana as a character off the mat, always joking about something, and an intense competitor in the circle.
Deuel is one of a handful of Bearcats to compete at the NCAAs, so he possesses an acute knowledge of what lies ahead for Caruana.
“[To be successful], you have to shrink your world,” Deuel said. “He’s going to go up against these big names, but that’s just the nature of the beast. He has to remember what he’s been doing all season and know he’s there for a reason.”
In the first round, Caruana is set to face Stanford sophomore Joey McKenna. When the pair squared off most recently in December, McKenna, who currently ranks third in the nation, easily defeated Caruana, 17-2. In spite of the stiff competition, the significance of his final chance to represent BU isn’t lost on Caruana.
“I’m reaching the end of my career, so I either have to show up or get out,” Caruana said. “It’s like a do-or-die situation for me.”