Thursday, March 16, 2017

Wrestling: Phillipsburg sets schedule for 2017-18

Phillipsburg coach Dave Post confirmed on Wednesday that his schedule for the 2017-18 season is nearly complete, with the exception of two dates -- Dec. 20 and Feb. 1, 2018 -- that have yet to be determined. 

Phillipsburg celebrates its fourth straight Group 4 title in February.
The Stateliners, who finished 16-1 this past season and won their fourth straight Group 4 title for the program's 21st state championship overall, will open next season by returning to the King of the Mountain Tournament at Central Mountain (Pa.) High School, where they competed from 2010-13. Post's teams had opened the past two seasons at the Beast of the East Tournament in Newark, Del., since the Warren County school was unable to attend King of the Mountain, which ran the weekend before the season officially opened in New Jersey.

"We are really excited to go back," said Post, whose 2014-15 team went to the Reno Tournament of Champions. [King of the Mountain] finally moved [the dates] back this past year so we could go, but we unfortunately sent the Beast of the East contract in already."

In addition to its mandated six dual meets against Skyland Conference Raritan Division opponents, Phillipsburg, which is 112-18 overall in Post's seven seasons, will once again face Raritan, Cranford, Kittatinny and Hanover Park in independent matchups. All four of those teams appeared in the final New Jersey Wrestling Writers Association Top 25 poll for 2016-17.

One notable addition is Newton, which owns a 9-6-1 edge overall against P'burg dating to 1947. The Braves are the only program in the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex area that leads in an all-time series vs. the 'Liners, including a 31-27 victory in the last meeting on Dec. 30, 2009. P'burg, which is 260-52-3 against HWS teams in its 71-year history, won the six previous matchups from 1956-2008.

P'burg, which returns 10 starters, including state medalists Cody Harrison (eighth at 126) and Brian Meyer (third at 145), will square off against Ocean Township for the first time in its final dual meet of the regular season on Feb. 3, 2018. The 'Liners are 41-15 overall against Shore Conference schools.

The annual matches against Pennsylvania's District 11 are also on the docket -- Easton (Jan. 20) and Parkland (Jan. 25). The 'Liners have beaten Easton in three of the last four seasons, including a 40-27 victory on Jan. 21 -- the most points ever scored against the Red Rovers in the series. However, Easton still has a 63-17 overall lead since the storied rivalry began in 1947.

Here's the complete P'burg schedule:

Dec. 15-16 -- at King of the Mountain Tournament (Mill Hall, Pa.)
Dec. 20 -- TBD
Dec. 22 -- Delaware Valley
Dec. 23 -- Newton
Dec. 28-29 -- at Bethlehem (Pa.) Holiday Classic (Liberty High School)
Jan. 3 -- at Bound Brook
Jan. 4 -- Raritan
Jan. 6 -- Cranford
Jan. 10 -- at Hunterdon Central
Jan. 11 -- at Kittatinny
Jan. 13 -- Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex Tournament (at Phillipsburg)
Jan. 17 -- at Warren Hills
Jan. 18 -- at Hanover Park
Jan. 20 -- at Easton (Pa.)
Jan. 24 -- North Hunterdon
Jan. 25 -- Parkland (Pa.)
Jan. 27 -- Southern
Jan. 31 -- Voorhees
Feb. 1 -- TBD
Feb. 3 -- Ocean Township
Feb. 5 -- Sectional first round
Feb. 7 -- Sectional semifinals
Feb. 9 -- Sectional finals
Feb. 11 -- Group championships at Toms River North
Feb. 17 -- District 9 Tournament at Phillipsburg
Feb. 21, 23-24 -- Region 3 Tournament at West Orange
March 2-4 -- State Tournament at Atlantic City

Note: Bold indicates Skyland Conference Raritan Division matches.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Wrestling: Easton Lions Club Classic matchups, info

The 37th annual Easton Lions Club All-Star Wrestling Classic -- originally slated for Tuesday night -- was postponed until March 21 at Easton Area High School's 25th Street Gymnasium.

The match pits seniors from New Jersey against their counterparts from Pennsylvania's rugged District 11. The high school event, slated for 8 p.m., is preceded by a youth event at 6.

Pennsylvania won last year's event, 33-15. New Jersey, which has lost the last four events, had won three straight and four of the five classics prior to a 32-15 setback in 2013. Pennsylvania leads the overall series, 21-15, dating to 1981.

Bouts will be three periods of 2 minutes, 1 1/2  and 1 1/2 minutes in length.

Tickets, available at the door, are $6 for adults, $4 for seniors (65 and older) and $3 for students.

Tentative high school matchups (New Jersey listed first):

113 -- TBA vs. Diego Santiago (24-11, 52-23, D5, R4), Easton.

120 -- Jacob Falleni (35-8, 90-26, D1, R2), Lenape Valley, vs. Luke Werner (36-6, 141-36, D2, R2, S2), Liberty.

126 -- Alec Gleason (42-5, 109-24, D1, R1, S5), East Brunswick, vs. Trevor Tarsi (27-16, 68-35, D2, R5), Nazareth.

132 -- Matt Valli (35-8, 105-23, D1, R3), Warren Hills, vs. KJ Fenstermaker (39-3, 159-16, D1, R1, S3), Northampton.

138 -- Matt Kolonia (43-4, 130-32, D1, R2, S7), Delaware Valley, vs. Dan Moran (43-6, 151-27, D2, R2, S2), Northampton.

145 -- Nick Lombard (38-3, 119-19, D1, R2, S5), Monroe, vs. Brock Wilson (41-7, 125-38, D1, R1, S3), Nazareth.

152 -- Cole Marra (33-7, 69-27, D1, R3), North Hunterdon, vs. Hayden Keleher (36-11, 45-22, D3, R4), Easton.

160 -- TBA, vs. Ryan Farber (25-2, 123-25, D1, R1, S2), Northern Lehigh.

170 -- Joey Schiele (44-3, 107-32, D2, R1, S7), Morris Hills, vs. Mike Labriola (44-0, 166-12, D1, R1, S1), Bethlehem Catholic.

182 -- Michael Iodice (38-9, 100-26, D1, R2, S6), Hunterdon Central, vs. Travis Stefanik (37-2, 154-34, D1, R1, S1), Nazareth.

195 -- Jack Miller (42-5, 94-32, D1, R3, S5), Westfield, vs. Carlo Perugini (24-10, D1, R6), Liberty.

220 -- Robert Melise (38-4, 121-22, D1, R1, S5), Phillipsburg, vs. Nathan Feyrer (29-12, 61-48, D2, R2), Parkland.

225 -- Victor Lacombe (41-3, 92-18, D1, R1, S3), Hunterdon Central, vs. Devin Fontanez (42-5, 121-25, D1, R2, S3), Saucon Valley.

285 -- Charlie Tordik (32-4, 83-24, D1, R4), North Hunterdon, vs. Niko Camacho (42-5, 93-19, D1, R1, S5), Bethlehem Catholic.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Wrestling: Home is where it's at for HWS champs

ATLANTIC CITY -- Homegrown champs are a special thing these days.

Delaware Valley junior Kyle Lightner, who dominated his way to the 195-pound state title and one of eight underclassmen to win titles, will look to join Jamie Wicks (1987-88) and Brent Conly (1992-93) as the only wrestlers at his school to win back-to-back championships next season. Jeff Segreaves (148 in 1975), John Pasterkiewicz (103 in '88), Ricky Krieger (189 in '93) and Dan Kelly (112 in 2007) are the other state champs for the Terriers.

Hunterdon County produced five medal winners for the third time in six years and the first since 2014, as Lightner, along with teammate Matt Kolonia (seventh at 138), North Hunterdon junior Andrew Gapas (eighth at 132), and Hunterdon Central seniors Michael Iodice (sixth at 182) and Victor Lacombe (third at 220), were all first-time placewinners.

"It's great," Del Val coach Andy Fitz said of the county's showing in AC. "Every kid who places, that's another article written, and maybe a family can connect with it."
Nick Palumbo (far bottom right) and Kyle Lightner with the rest of the champs.

Lightner and Lenape Valley senior Nick Palumbo, the 145-pound winner, were among the 11 public school champions, which means quite a bit nowadays. Both coaches agreed that it's a major deal for their programs.

"It was wonderful to show that our area can still get the job done," Fitz said. "There's nothing better than a kid like Kyle coming up through the program and winning. Everybody feels great about it."

For Lenape Valley, Palumbo being the school's first champ makes it sweeter. Heck, they even threw him a party back at the school on Sunday night, with a police escort into town.

"He stayed with us and believed in us," said Patriots coach Doug Vetter, who has coached three of the school's four finalists after becoming its first with a runner-up finish at 189 pounds in 1990.  "He didn't get sucked into a parochial school. He had faith in the program and it worked out. Switching schools so you can be on the more popular team is not how I am. For him to be 46-0 and show that kind of composure ... to be a state champ ... that's a dream come true."

Palumbo was happy to stay home and make history, especially since Vetter is stepping down after 16 seasons. The coach and wrestler shared a unique bond.

"I wouldn't have been able to do it without him," Palumbo said.

"It's something that doesn't need words," Vetter said. "You just feel a connection with a person."

The public vs. non-public debate rages on, and one of the issues for realignment was a projected 30 percent of this year's medals going to wrestlers from private schools. The final numbers show that private schools accounted for 33 of the 112 placewinners, or roughly 29 percent, so the projections were pretty accurate. Only five of the 14 finals did not involve a private school wrestler, while 106, which had five private school wrestlers in the Top 8, and 120, were matchups between non-public wrestlers.

Next in 'Liner

Seems like after every season, the torch gets passed on to the next star.

For Phillipsburg, junior Brian Meyer will assume that role for 2017-18 after his third-place finish at 145 pounds in the 84th State Wrestling Championships on Sunday at Boardwalk Hall.

"Nobody has worked harder. We have to drag him out of the practice room," said Stateliners coach Dave Post, whose program had three medal winners -- including sophomore Cody Harrison (eighth at 126) and senior Robert Melise (fifth at 220) -- for the first time since 1998.

Brian Meyer on the podium to the right of champ Nick Palumbo.
"He was a Fargo All-American [in freestyle], and after he lost last year and finished a round short [of a medal in Atlantic City], he's been relentless. We told him [in the offseason] that we were going to put him anywhere [in the lineup] that we needed to win, and against the best guys, because we believe you can beat anybody. He responded by saying, 'I'm looking forward to it.'"

Meyer (39-8), one of 12 state placewinners from the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex area, believes P'burg would have had a another medal winner if not for an unfortunate injury.

"[Drew Horun] would have been the fourth," Meyer said of his friend and teammate, whose senior season ended a week before the postseason due to a knee injury. "He just had surgery a couple of weeks ago. First time in 20 years that we had three or more, that's a tribute to the kind of team we had."

How serious is Meyer about his wrestling? Consider this. When he lost a tough 3-2 decision to Nicholas Santos of St. Peter's Prep in Saturday afternoon's quarterfinals, Meyer, who avenged that loss by pinning Santos in the third-place bout, didn't look at his phone until later that evening -- roughly a span of nine hours.

"I needed to refocus. You have to find what works for you," said Meyer, who will enter his senior season with a career mark of 92-32.

Post said he would like to see Meyer bulk up and come back around 170 pounds for the 2017-18 season. The 'Liners will graduate four of their five upper weights, including Melise, but they return every starter from 106 through 160. Post would have some flexibility up top with junior Shamyr Brodders (160 this season) and sophomore Austin Roth (170-182) likely to be coming back in the 182 or 195 range.

Honorary Brave

Andy Iliff with his award. (Theresa Iliff)
Newton wrestling legend Andy Iliff was honored prior to Sunday's championship round when he was presented with the NJSIAA State Assistant Coach of the Year Award.

Iliff is part of an excellent staff at his alma mater that includes assistant coaches Ted Sibblies, a state runner-up for the Braves in 1989, and Dave Young, a state runner-up for Morris Hills in '90, under head coach Eric Bollette, a former Kittatinny placewinner.

"It feels good," said the humble and classy Iliff, who is the school's last state champion, winning back-to-back titles -- Nos. 81 and 82, the most in state history, in 1986-87. "But I wish this could be a group award. I feel it should be. I'm just a sliver of the whole thing."

This staff really enjoys working together and it shows on and off the mat. But you always have to keep your head on a swivel as Bollette and Sibblies are the pranksters and instigators of the group -- all in good fun of course -- with Iliff as their primary target.

"When they're not making fun of me it's great," Iliff, a West Point product whose son Thatcher and daughter Ashley wrestled for Braves, said with a big smile.

As for being Newton's last champion, there is nothing Iliff -- pronounced Eye-liff, not E-liff, as it was by the clueless tournament announcer who kept saying Pope John the 22nd instead of the 23rd all weekend, would love more than to be rid of that distinction.

"I would like to be a distant memory," he said. "They can't pronounce my name now."

Could sophomore Wyatt McCarthy be No. 83? Time will tell, but McCarthy gave runner-up Ricky Cabanillas of DePaul all he could he handle in the second round before getting pinned in the first overtime tiebreaker. McCarthy won his first wrestleback bout before dropping a 7-2 decision to red-hot Nicholas Lombard of Monroe -- who won five in a row after a first-round loss in finishing fifth.

Back points

Region 2 led the way with 20 state medals, followed by Region 8 with 18 and Region 5 with 17. Region 4 was next with 15 and Region 3 had 14, including three from Phillipsburg. Regions 1, including three from Pope John in runner-up JoJo Aragona (120), Robert Garcia (fourth at 132) and Eddie Ventresca (sixth at 113), and 7 each had 10, while Region 6 was last with eight.

Region 5 had the most champs going 4-for-4 in the finals, including Bound Brook's trio, while Regions 3 and 8 had three apiece. Regions 4 and 7 had no gold medals.

Just looking over some of the numbers, the Shore Conference, which has 44 schools, produced 13 medals, up one from last year, while the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex area, which has just 18 schools, took home 11. So, the Shore area, which pushed for this insane realignment of districts and regions, had a grand total of 32 more wrestlers in Atlantic City only to collect one more medal. It just shows you that you can shuffle the deck anyway you want it, but the cream always rises.

Not to be lost in the shuffle from a long three days of wrestling was the fact that Iodice earned his 100th career win in the wrestlebacks -- pinning Chris Nielsen of Pinelands to reach the consolation semifinals. Iodice, who lost his next two bouts, finishes 100-25, and is the 20th Red Devils wrestler to reach the century mark.

The 220-pound medal winners, including Melise and Lacombe.
Speaking of Central, what a finish for Lacombe, a Lehigh recruit, who defeated two state champions this season -- Lightner (8-7 on Feb. 1) and Howell senior Eric Keosseian (5-1 on Jan. 7), who won the 220-pound title on Sunday. The Rebels had three medal winners in all, including runner-up Kyle Slendorn (126) and seventh-place finisher Darby Diedrich, who knocked out Central junior Hunter Graf in the wrestlebacks. Howell, which returns the bulk of its team next season including two state medalists, has been on a major roll since a 28-27 win over the Red Devils in the Group 5 final on Feb. 12 -- thanks in large part to Keosseian's huge 4-3 win over Lacombe -- on a last-second takedown -- in that one.

The sport and our area will really miss Melise and Vetter. The Phillipsburg star, an extremely humble and nice young man, didn't have the finish he wanted or expected to have in Atlantic City, but he showed tremendous heart in rallying back to take fifth. P'burg fans love their wrestlers and their wrestling, but other than Brandon Paetzell, few come to mind who were as popular with the faithful than Melise, who is still considering his college choices for wrestling, not football. And he appreciated them just as much.

"I love every single one of these people," he said after the consolation finals. "I will always have love for that gym and that environment. It's one of the best places to wrestle in the country, if not the best."

Morris Hills snapped a long drought as senior Joey Schiele finished seventh at 170 pounds. Schiele is the school's first placewinner since Dave Young reached the finals in '90. Morris Hills is coached by former Kittatinny standout Brian Bollette, a brother of Newton coach Eric Bollette.

There are mixed reviews coming in from the new tournament, which included fourth-place finishers in each region this year, expanded the brackets to 32. Gapas was among four wrestlers to earn a trip after placing fourth in the region. But it added extra rounds and made for a very long Saturday with two wrestleback sessions to start before the quarterfinals, which got underway about an hour after the scheduled time of noon.

This will need to be addressed in the offseason, and according to one NJSIAA official, one possibility is starting earlier on Friday, possibly at noon instead of 2:30 p.m. We also don't need an endless parade of awards -- essentially a back-patting session for the state -- that pushes the championship round from 3 to 4 p.m. on a Sunday. And speaking of that, this tournament needs to start on Thursday and end on Saturday night, when the stands would have been a lot fuller for the finals. Anyone who thinks attendance was not down for the finals this year could not have been in the arena to see it for themselves. Longer days do not hold the fans' interest. Haven't we seen that enough with quads and tri-meets?

Bronze stars: Meyer, Lacombe among area placers

ATLANTIC CITY -- Phillipsburg junior Brian Meyer is looking forward to the offseason work ahead of him. After all, he says that's where the fun is.

Meyer was rewarded for the time he's put in to make himself a better wrestler, placing third at 145 pounds on Sunday at the 84th State Wrestling Championships on Sunday at Boardwalk Hall.

"I love the offseason," said Meyer (39-8), a first-time placewinner who pinned Nicholas Santos of St. Peter's Prep in sudden-victory overtime for the bronze medal. "That's when I really enjoy wrestling. It's not as much of a grind. All that work in the offseason has translated to success in the postseason."

Robert Melise (second from left) and Victor Lacombe on the podium at 220.
Meyer, along with Phillipsburg teammates Cody Harrison (eighth at 126) and Robert Melise (fifth at 220), were among 12 wrestlers from the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex area to earn medals. Hunterdon Central senior Victor Lacombe was the area's other third-place finisher at 220.

Lenape Valley senior Nick Palumbo (145) and Delaware Valley junior Kyle Lightner (195) won their first titles, while Pope John sophomore JoJo Aragona (120) was a runner-up.

Rounding out the placewinners were North Hunterdon junior Andrew Gapas (eighth at 132), Pope John freshman Eddie Ventresca (sixth at 113) and sophomore Robert Garcia (fourth at 132) , Delaware Valley senior Matt Kolonia (seventh at 138) and Hunterdon Central senior Michael Iodice (sixth at 182).

Meyer earned some redemption by avenging a 3-2 loss to Santos in the quarterfinals on Saturday.

"He dominated me on the mat, and I think I was definitely better on my feet," said Meyer, a three-time district and two-time region champ who is 92-32 overall. "I used that to my advantage the second time around. You can't expect to go from losing a close match to pinning the same guy the next time. It was an exclamation point on the win. I'm very happy with the way I wrestled."

Hail to the Victor

There were several great stories involving area wrestlers, but one of the feel-good moments was when Lacombe converted a takedown with 16 seconds left in sudden-victory overtime for a 6-4 victory over South Plainfield sophomore Zach DelVecchio in their third-place bout at 220.

Lacombe (41-3), who lost a tough 3-1 decision to Don Bosco Prep junior Peter Acciardi in the semifinals, avenged two previous losses to Melise in the consolation semifinals by getting a late takedown in the third period en route to a 7-3 win in sudden victory.

"It was tough [to lose in the semis]. I was really upset that I lost," said Lacombe, who was pinned twice by Melise the last two seasons, including this year's Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex Tournament finals. "But my coaches told me that if I didn't push myself [in the wrestlebacks], I would regret it the rest of my life. So, I went for it. Melise beat me over the summer, too, so it was nice to beat someone who beat me three times."

After finishing fifth at 220 as a junior, Lacombe  wanted to improve on that performance. Not too shabby for a wrestler who entered the sport as a freshman and finished with an overall mark of 92-18.

"My goal was to place higher than last year," said Lacombe, who will head to Lehigh next fall where he projects to be a heavyweight in college.

Lacombe credits Central assistant coach Leigh Hall, one of the wrestler's biggest fans, for helping to get him this far.

"He's helped me a lot," Lacombe said. "He is always there for me and he believes in me."

Fine 'Liner

It was quite an emotional few days for Melise, his coaches, teammates and legion of fans as the three-time placewinner came up short of his goal to become the school's 34th state champion and first since Brandon Hull won at 220 in 2012.

Melise (38-4) closed the books on an outstanding career with his second fifth-place medal after finishing second in 2016. After a tough 2-1 loss to DelVecchio in the quarterfinals -- on a locked hands call in the ultimate tiebreaker -- Melise regrouped to reel off two wins in the wrestlebacks before the loss to Lacombe.

"Coach [Dave Post] is always saying, 'You have good ones and bad ones,'" said Melise, who scored a 6-4 win over Sean O'Malley of Hasbrouck Heights in his final match. "You can't wrestle bad matches here and it really showed [in the loss to Lacombe]."

As the thoughts of not putting on the P'burg uniform again and having practice on Tuesday after taking a much-needed day off on Monday, Melise was overcome with emotion.

"That's when it will really set it," he said, fighting back tears. "Wrestling here is one of the best experience of my life. I love every guy on the team, and most of all my coaches. I've always had high expectations. I'm sorry I couldn't have done better for them. I feel like I let them down and myself."

That last statement is really quite ludicrous, considering what Melise has meant to his program and the entire town the last four years. No one will ever forget his unexpected pin as a raw freshman to catapult the Stateliners to their Group 4 title win over Southern in 2014. And that was just one of many key victories.

"He means a lot to everybody," said Post, who also was overcome with emotion when talking about Melise's impact on the program. "He's just a likable kid. He apologized to us. When you wrestle for P'burg, you're carrying the whole town on your back. I've been there before. He could have sailed off into the sunset [after the win against Southern]. We told him not to let being a three-time placewinner at the state tournament be the apex of your life."

Junior grade

Gapas bounced back from a second-round loss in Atlantic City -- one of just four wrestlers in the field to place after finishing fourth in the region. It was Gapas' first and North Hunterdon's seventh medal in the last four years after missing in 2016.

After dropping a tough 6-5 decision in overtime to Raritan's Russell Benson in the pre-quarterfinals -- giving up the decisive points on a reversal at the buzzer in the second rideout -- Gapas had to win three in a row just to reach the medal rounds.

"I didn't have too great of a performance at regions, so I needed to step it up and try to place at states," said Gapas, a Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex champion who dominated Benson -- a 9-2 win --when they met in a dual meet earlier this season.

Gapas (38-7), the school's first placewinner since Ryan Pomrinca finished third for his third medal in 2015, will get right back to work with one more chance to get higher on the podium next season.

"I'm going to train as hard as I can every day," said Gapas, who is 72-21 overall.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Wrestling: Lightner joins Del Val elite in state title run

ATLANTIC CITY -- Just mere moments after winning his first state championship, Delaware Valley junior Kyle Lightner was already geared up for a repeat.

"Next year, I'm coming for another," said Lightner, who capped a dominating run to the 195-pound crown with a 5-1 win over Collingswood senior Michael Taulane on Sunday at Boardwalk Hall.

Lightner (42-2) captured Delaware Valley's ninth state championship and its first since Dan Kelly won at 112 in 2007. He was one of two winners for the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex area, joining Lenape Valley senior Nick Palumbo, who rolled his school's first title at 145 pounds.
Kyle Lightner and Nick Palumbo were crowned first-time champs on Sunday.

Among those champs for the Terriers are two-time winners Jamie Wicks (1987-88) and Brent Conly (1992-93), and Lightner is eager to become just the third to win back-to-back titles.

"This feels great. It feels amazing to be up there with the legends at Del Val," said Lightner, who is Hunterdon County's first champ since Hunterdon Central's Alex Shaffer won at 119 in 2010. "They are the people I always wanted to be like. I wanted to be Jamie Wicks."

Speaking of Wicks, who was in attendance on Sunday, Del Val coach Andy Fitz likened his wrestler to the legendary champ earlier this season. There are some physical similarities and Lightner's style is a lot like Wicks, known as a dominant mat wrestler -- turning opponents with legs and cranking them over with a vicious power half.

"He is Wicks-esque, you can say," said Fitz, who has his first state champ in 10 seasons after guiding Bobby Stevely to the 125-pound final in 2010. "The power half was Jamie's go-to move and Kyle's."

Lightner, now 68-10 overall, got a takedown in the first period and nearly rode Taulane, who pinned Lightner with a headlock last season, for the entire second period without giving up a point until he was called for locked hands with five seconds left on the clock.

"It was locked hands," Lightner admitted. "I realized as soon as I did it. I wasted a lot of energy trying to not give up a point, and I did."

Lightner escaped early in the third period for a 3-1 lead and later spun behind Taulane for a match-icing takedown with five seconds left on the clock.

"I wasn't real offensive as I usually am," Lightner said. "He was a real strong boy."

Like Palumbo, competing in freestyle and Greco Roman helped Lightner to his title run. In fact, he doesn't believe it would have been possible without that experience, not to mention being fanatical about practice sessions.

"I was able to control the ties. The whole third period was using ties and Russians ... that's from wrestling Greco," said Lightner, who placed at Fargo over the summer and said he enjoyed freestyle as well. "It worked well. I didn't let him get a single bit of offense on me."

Lightner will most likely get right back to work after doing some physics homework at home on Sunday night, while taking time to celebrate his best win to date.

"I love being on the mat because I care so much about this sport," he said.

Practice was the key to a title run, according to Fitz.

"He was always a competitor, but he wasn't necessarily into the practice end of it," said Fitz, who placed fifth in the state at 160 pounds as a senior in 1990. "The last two or three years, he devoured the practice stuff. And here we are as a junior."

Wrestling: Palumbo stands alone as first LV champ

ATLANTIC CITY -- The wait is over.

Lenape Valley senior Nick Palumbo completed his run to school history with a 5-3 win over DePaul sophomore Ricky Cabanillas to win the 145-pound state title on Sunday at Boardwalk Hall.

In doing so, Palumbo (46-0) capped a fantastic unbeaten season while becoming the Patriots' first champion after head coach Doug Vetter (1990), Chris Ressa (2001) and D.J. Russo ('06) came up short in their title bids.

"It feels awesome. It doesn't feel real," said Palumbo, only the fourth-ever finalist for the Sussex County school since the program began in 1975. "I'm sure it means a lot for everyone [at Lenape Valley]. For me, I'm a state champion. I knew this was always possible, but I had to step it up."

Nick Palumbo displays his wall chart atop the podium at 145 pounds.
In addition to Palumbo, Delaware Valley junior Kyle Lightner won his first title at 195, while Pope John sophomore JoJo Aragona (120) was a runner-up, as the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex area had three finalists for the first time since High Point's magical run of four gold medals and a silver for North Hunterdon in 2011.

Palumbo, who finished third at 145 last season, is the program's first two-time placewinner since Russo, who also placed fifth at 171 in 2005. But the first gold is something to be cherished by an entire community, according to Vetter, who is stepping down after 16 seasons. Former coach Bob Poggi, now the school's athletic director, was on hand to witness the historic moment, as well as former Patriots two-time placewinner and assistant coach Gary Mikolay, who is expected to be the next head coach.

"This is a dream come true, being my final time in the corner," said a teary-eyed Vetter, who lost an 8-5 decision to High Point coach John Gardner in the 189-pound final in 1990 before coaching both Ressa and Russo in their final bouts. "This is something special that I will take to the grave."

You couldn't have written a better script, as Cabanillas opted to wrestle Palumbo's style of match -- going upper body -- including one throw attempt that took both off their feet for a brief moment -- and tying up in the neutral position. After a scoreless first period, Palumbo escaped and later converted a match-turning takedown at the edge off a nice pass-by with just two seconds left on the clock for a 3-0 lead heading into the third.

Palumbo added another takedown with 36 seconds to go for a 5-1 lead and gave up a what amounted to a meaningless reversal with 17 ticks left on the clock.

"He was letting me get my ties. It was perfect," said Palumbo, who is the school's all-time wins leader with a career mark of 135-27. "[The takedown] was perfect right at the end of the second period."

Palumbo also knew he had to stay on the attack more than he did in a 1-0 win over Cabanillas last weekend in their Region 2 final.

"I needed to be a lot more aggressive," said Palumbo, while will wrestle for the University of Buffalo next season.

Along with crediting his coaches, Palumbo said offseason wrestling in the freestyle ranks helped make him a state champion.

"That's where I learned the two-on-one and the throw-by, which I scored with," he said. "I would tell all wrestlers to get out there and get that experience. It helped me jump so many levels."

Vetter promised tears if this moment came after Palumbo's win in the semifinals on Saturday night. They flowed, not only for the victory, but the special bond he shares with his wrestler.

"This is tough, emotionally," Vetter said. "I'm crying some happy tears. This was 43 years in the making. This was for the community. I received hundreds, not tens, of phone calls and text messages for people in the community, people I've coached who care about Lenape Valley wrestling. You could say there was a little bit of magic in the air."

"It's his last year, and I was happy to fulfill his dream," Palumbo said. "He's one of my all-time favorite coaches. He's always giving me words of wisdom and sharing tips. I wouldn't have been able to do it without him."

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Wrestling: Palumbo, Lightner going for gold in AC

ATLANTIC CITY -- Lenape Valley senior Nick Palumbo is determined to etch a new chapter in the school history books.

If his impressive win by technical fall in the 145-pound semifinals is any indication, the Patriots will soon have that missing piece when it comes to the championship round.

Palumbo worked two-time state placewinner Joe Casey of Bound Brook for a 16-0 win in 4:35 -- using a turk for four sets of back points -- to become just the fourth Lenape Valley wrestler to reach the finals on Saturday night at Boardwalk Hall.

"It was a great confidence boost," said Palumbo, who placed third at this weight last season after finishing third in the region. "Winning by technical fall in the semifinals doesn't happen very often."

Palumbo (45-0) will face DePaul sophomore Ricky Cabanillas -- a rematch of the Region 2 final -- in Sunday's championship round that is slated to begin at 3 p.m.

"I had no preference [for my finals opponent]," said Palumbo, who earned a 1-0 win over Cabanillas last weekend. "I'm on the next level. I've beaten most kids here. I approach every match the same -- wrestle hard to win."

In all, there will be three wrestlers from the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex area going for state gold as Pope John sophomore JoJo Aragona (120) and Delaware Valley junior Kyle Lightner (195) also reached the finals for the first time.

Hunterdon Central senior Victor Lacombe (220) came up short in his bid to become the Red Devils’ 41st finalist and first since Gary Dinmore made three straight appearances (2012-14). Lacombe (39-3) dropped a 3-1 decision to Don Bosco Prep's Peter Acciardi in the semifinals. The last of the Hunterdon County school’s 12 champs was Alex Shaffer (119 in 2010).

Palumbo joined head coach Doug Vetter (1990), Chris Ressa (2001) and D.J. Russo ('06) as the only wrestlers at the Sussex County school to reach the finals. Interestingly, Vetter has been involved in all four, three times as a coach.

"I feel fortunate and blessed," said Vetter, who dropped an 8-5 decision to current High Point coach John Gardner in the 189-pound final in '90. "I lost by a couple of points, Ressa lost by one point [5-4 to Ryan Cunningham of Cherry Hill West at 152] and Russo lost [6-4 to Jack Corcoran of St. Joseph-Hammonton at 215] in one of the most controversial finals that I can remember.

"It's Nick't turn.You can tell he's dialed in and he's in a good spot mentally. He has that look in his eye. I refer to it as being in the zone."

Palumbo, now 134-27 overall and the school's all-time wins leaders, sure was in the zone from the top position against Casey. After taking a 2-0 lead into the second period with an early takedown, Palumbo attacked on top, using the turk three times in the second for three points each turn to build a 13-0 lead. There was little doubt as to his choice to take top in the third period, where he turned Casey a fourth time to end the bout.

I used [the turk] in the regular season, but he gave it up way too easy, so I kept going back to it," Palumbo said. "I think I broke him [from the top position]."

Palumbo wasn't lacking for confidence coming in as the No. 1 seed and this performance only boosted his mental state heading into the biggest bout of his career.

"I'm going to be the first champ," he said.

Lightner strikes again

Who knew that Delaware Valley junior Kyle Lightner was a child prodigy?

Terriers coach Andy Fitz said he was first introduced to his 195-pound wrestler, who was the tender age of just 7, and was told that he had state gold in his future. Well, Lightner has certainly blossomed into one of the best in the state, as evidenced by his pin of Woodstown senior Chad Watt in 2:50.

“Growing up, I never would have comprehended being in the state finals,” said Lightner (41-2), now the Hunterdon County school’s 15th finalist overall and first since Bobby Stevely (125 pounds in 2010).

Lightner, the lone Trentonian area finalist, will attempt to become Del Val’s ninth state champion and first since Dan Kelly won at 112 in 2007, when he takes on Collingswood senior Michael Taulane in the championship round slated for 3 p.m. Taulane (38-1), a Region 7 champion, pinned Lightner in 3:00 last season when their teams in the Group 2 semifinals in Toms River.

Lacombe was unable to give the county back-to-back finalists, dropping a 3-1 decision to top seed Peter Acciardi in the 220-pound semifinals. Lacombe, who finished fifth last year at this weight class, was looking to become the Red Devils’ 41st finalist and first since Gary Dinmore made three straight appearances in 2012-14.

Fitz, who now has his second finalist in 10 seasons at the helm of his alma mater, shared the conversation he had with his father many years ago regarding a young, 98-pound Lightner.

“My dad [legendary Del Val coach Vince Fitz] introduced us and told me that [Lightner] would be our next state champ,” Andy said.

Lightner, a Region 5 champion and 67-10 overall, is one win away from fulfilling that promise. He certainly made it look easy in the semis -- getting a takedown nine seconds into the bout and turning Watt twice with the legs in, while nearly getting the first-period pin with a power half. Leading 8-0 in the second period, Lightner got a reversal before stacking Watt for the fall.

“He was a wet noodle on bottom,” said Lightner, who breezed to a 10-2 major decision over Tommy Maxwell of Delsea in the quarterfinals. “I got the arm bar pretty easily. There was no panic ... no stress. Everything was just great. I had a lot of energy. To make the state finals as a junior at 195, I don’t think it has set in yet.”

No quarter

In one of the more stunning results on Saturday, Phillipsburg senior Robert Melise lost his bid to reach back-to-back finals with a 1-0 loss to South Plainfield sophomore Zach DelVecchio -- 2-1 in the ultimate tiebreaker -- with the difference being a penalty point for locked hands with eight seconds left on the clock.

Melise (36-3), a runner-up at 220 last year and fifth as a sophomore, rebounded with two wins in the wrestlebacks to reach the consolation semifinals. In a neat twist, Melise will face Lacombe with the winner moving on to the third-place bout, while the loser can finish no higher than fifth. Lacombe, who has been pinned in two career meetings with Melise, including this season's Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex Tournament finals, was fifth at 220 as a junior.

Phillipsburg sophomore Cody Harrison (126) and junior Brian Meyer (145) joined Melise in the consolation semifinals -- giving the Stateliners at least two medal winners for the fourth straight year and three for the first time since collecting five in 1998 -- Aaron Freer (second at 171), Steve Kempinski (fourth at 215), John McRoberts (sixth at 152), Russ Trauger (seventh at 145) and Zach Miers (seventh at 215). 

Harrison (28-8) will face West Morris ace Shane Metzler in the seventh-place bout, while Meyer (36-8) will get a rematch with Bound Brook's Joe Casey, a three-time placewinner who lost 3-1 when they met in a dual meet earlier this season, for the right to wrestle for third.

Back points

Aragona (34-2), who finished third at 106 last season, has the unenviable task of taking on two-time runner-up Patrick Glory of Delbarton -- one of the biggest favorites in the tournament -- in the 120-pound final. Aragona ended the Cinderella run by Lodi senior Chris Caban, the No. 15 seed, with a 5-2 decision in the semifinals.

Rounding out the medal winners for the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex area are two from Pope John -- freshman Eddie Ventresca (113) and sophomore Robert Garcia (132), along with North Hunterdon junior Andrew Gapas (132), Delaware Valley senior Matt Kolonia (138) and Hunterdon Central senior Michael Iodice (182) giving Hunterdon County an overall total of five placewinners.

Finishing one round shy of a medal were Hunterdon Central junior Hunter Graf (120), who was eighth at 113 last year, and Voorhees sophomore Lewis Fernandes (195).

Voorhees has the longest state title drought in the county with John Brienza (130 in 1998) being its fourth and last winner.

Melise scored a 2-1 win over Hopewell Valley senior Will Ortman in the fifth round of wrestlebacks, dropping Ortman to the seventh-place match on Sunday at 11 a.m. Ortman is just the third wrestler at his school to medal -- joining George Saliba (fourth in 2008) and Mike Markulec (fifth in 2014).

Region 2 led the way with 11 in the semifinals and matched Region 1 with the most finalists at six, followed by Region 5 (9 in the semis) with four and Regions 3, 6 and 8 with three apiece. Region 4 is next with 2 and Region 7, which had only two semifinalists, has just one in the finals.