Jordan Pagano scored three takedowns in the biggest win of his wrestling career, but it was a reversal that made the moment possible.
Not the kind of reversal worth two points on the mat. The kind that alters an entire future.
After spending his freshman year as a walk-on with recent five-time national champion Penn State, Pagano transferred to Rutgers, where he put together enough tournament wins as a redshirt sophomore to earn his shot last month as the new starter at 174 pounds.
"I just wasn't getting the look from Coach Cael (Sanderson) that I wanted," Pagano said of his Penn State experience. "It's nothing against them. I know when you have blue-chip recruits and a walk-on like me who is just trying to get better, I hadn't had the opportunities that I wanted."
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Pagano, who started training with the Scarlet Knights Wrestling Club in eighth grade, was especially close with Rutgers volunteer assistant coach Joe Pollard. That relationship made it difficult to leave New Jersey after high school and easy to return one year later.
"It was really hard to go to Penn State and leave Jersey behind and Coach Pollard behind and Rutgers behind," said Pagano, who was 8-8 as an unattached wrestler during his redshirt year with the Nittany Lions. "They were upset. I was upset. I almost didn't even want to go to Penn State, but it was an opportunity I couldn't pass up."
Because he walked-on at both schools, Pagano didn't run into any NCAA transfer penalties such as sitting out a season or restrictions on in-conference moves. Still, he didn't jump right into the lineup at Rutgers, backing up two-time All-American Anthony Perrotti at 165 last season.
The wait continued behind redshirt senior Phil Bakuckas earlier this season.
"I was able to grab a coach when I needed to," Pagano said. "I felt like really part of the team here where I didn't at Penn State. It wasn't what I expected it to be, but it looks like it turned out for the best."
It certainly seemed that way last Friday when Pagano upset No. 4 Ryan Preisch -- a possible national title contender for Lehigh -- to improve to 24-7, including 6-1 in duals and two other victories against nationally ranked opponents.
"It's a signature win," Rutgers coach Scott Goodale said, crediting Pagano's commitment. "He lives a lifestyle that allows moments like that. Sooner or later it's going to happen for anybody who lives it like him. He's making a name for himself -- and he deserves it."
Pagano's smooth transition as a transfer could be because he did it once before.
"Jordan is where he is because he's doing the right things all the time and he's been chipping away and working Netspor hard for all these years," Bergen Catholic coach Dave Bell said. "It's all coming to fruition for him."
Bell told Sanderson that the "dogged" Pagano had a "huge upside" because he saw annual steady improvements. But Penn State brought in the nation's No. 1-ranked recruiting class that year, including two 2016 NCAA runners-up and several wrestlers around his weight.
Is Pagano, who was ranked No. 19 before his win, inserting himself in that All-American conversation?
"He's very confident that he'll be on the podium in the nationals, and I am as well," Bell said. "I'm hoping that he not only All-American's, but at some point he's a national champion. I believe he can do it."
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More importantly, upsetting Preisch restored Pagano's belief in himself -- something he lost at Penn State.
"I feel great going into Big Tens now," he said. "I felt pretty good going in in the first place. This just win just solidifies how good I really am. That's something that's been my issue growing up.
"I haven't ever been confident. I've gotten really confident this year with some big wins. This is by far the biggest win. Now I'm confident in all three positions: I can ride anyone, I can get out from bottom and I can take anyone down."
Pagano went 5-2 in the Midlands Championships and 3-1 in Big Ten duals but is still the wild card in his weight class entering next weekend's two-day tournament in Bloomington, Ind.
"He just stuck to an unbelievable game plan," Goodale said. "He didn't sit on a lead and he just kept getting to the kids' legs. That's how you have to beat these guys. You have to match their intensity. If you think about the score and you are watching the clock, you will never win. He didn't do that for a second and kept getting after it."
Consider Pagano's progress -- especially in defensive positions -- a reward for Rutgers coaches for giving a second chance to a New Jerseyan.
"It's something that I assume was pretty hard for them," Pagano said. "I'm so thankful to have them because they are kind of the guys where I'm like, 'Hey, can we work out in the morning? I have something to work on. Or can we watch film?' I just know they want to get me better."
Ryan Dunleavy may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @rydunleavy. Find NJ.com Rutgers Football on Facebook
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