Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Wrestling: Sparta back on top in crosstown rivalry

It's been a long time since Sparta's wrestling program generated the kind of excitement it did against Pope John on Tuesday night.

The Spartans took another step forward in their rebuilding process with a 42-31 win over their crosstown rivals in a Northwest Jersey Athletic Conference American Division clash at Sparta High School.

Sparta (10-1 overall, 3-1 division) won eight bouts, including senior Jack Velella's match-sealing pin in the final bout at 120 pounds. Leading 36-31, all Velella needed to do was not get tech falled or pinned. Instead, he seized the moment and put a big exclamation point on Sparta's first win over Pope John since Jan. 4, 2008.

"This is fantastic. There is nothing better, said Velella, a fourth-place finisher in District 3 last season who is 3-1 all-time in dual meets against Pope John. "It's a huge turnaround from last year."

Little by little, second-year coach Frank Battaglia and the Spartans are turning the entire program around. By snapping a four-match skid in this series, Sparta now has the most wins in a season since the 2007-08 squad went 11-12. Sparta won a combined 15 matches the previous three seasons -- including an 8-17 campaign a year ago.

"This was real exciting," said Battaglia, who served as an assistant for three seasons under former coach Frank Ciaburri at both Sparta and Kinnelon. "We told the kids from the beginning that it would take a team effort top to bottom to win this match. The kids have been working hard. I'm so proud of them."

Sophomore Ian Burke, a Region 1 qualifier last season, started Sparta off right with a pin at 126 pounds. Pope John (0-9, 0-5) won three of the next four to grab a 16-9 lead -- getting pins from Anthony Gignatelli at 145 and Richard Peterson at 152. Anthony Azzartti added a major decision at 132.

But the Lions' lead evaporated quickly as they forfeited the next three of the next bouts, while Ryan May decked Michael Anderson at 182. Gavin Lally's big 3-1 win over District 3 placewinner Isaiah Bryant really aided the Spartans cause. The bout was tied, 1-1, in the third when referee Frank Leitner warned Bryant for stalling twice in the final 51 seconds, resulting in the winning points.

Noa Merritt's pin in the closing seconds at 285 gave Pope John a glimmer of hope as it trailed, 36-22, with three bouts remaining and the Lions heavy favorites in the next two. But Dominic Koert managed only a 4-0 decision over Garret Gerndt at 106, while Austin Sisco won by default at 113 to make it, 36-31, with one to go.

Lewie Cepero, who had to sit 30 days after transferring from Vernon, needed a big win at 120 in order to complete Pope John's late rally, but Velella quickly ended the comeback attempt.

"I've wrestled him before and he's a great wrestler and very strong," said Velella, one of a few seniors that were part of a program that went 15-53 overall the last three seasons. "We're starting to come together. People are coming to matches. It means a lot. We're excited."

Sparta entered the night sitting in fifth place in the North 1, Group 3 sectional bracket. A berth in the postseason would be sweet for a program that went 3-17 just two seasons ago and didn't have one wrestler win a district match in back-to-back tournaments in 2010 and '11.

But Battaglia isn't looking that far ahead in the process.

"Hopefully we can make sectionals, but that would really be icing on the cake," he said. "That's a long way away. We'll enjoy [this win]. But we can't sit on it. We have to keep moving forward."

Returning a once proud Sparta program rich in wrestling history is the ultimate goal. For now, the Spartans will savor a win over their biggest rivals.

"We've been working hard," said sophomore Walker Schmitzer, who posted a 6-5 win at 138 pounds. "We've trained for this day. Every season we look forward to the Pope John match. Sparta wrestling has come a long way. It's a credit to my coaches and teammates."


126 -- So. Ian Burke (18-2), S, p. So. Nick Esposito (1-6), 1:41.
132 -- So. Anthony Azzartti (2-1), PJ, md. So. Sean McIntyre (0-8), 10-0.
138 -- So. Walker Schmitzer (11-6), S, d. Sr. Tyler Mastrogiovanni (0-4), 6-5.
145 -- Sr. Anthony Gignatelli (7-7), PJ, p. So. Jan Uczkowski (2-10), 2:57.
152 -- So. Rich Peterson (3-8), PJ, p. Sr. Andrew Kero (4-11), 3:37.
160 -- Fr. Al Falco (9-8), S, forfeit.
170 -- So. Connor Lore (10-10), S, forfeit.
182 -- Sr. Ryan May (10-8), S, p. So. Michael Anderson (0-6), 1:37.
195 -- So. Martin Price (1-0), S, forfeit.
220 -- So. Gavin Lally (11-5), S, d. Jr. Isaiah Bryant (1-2), 3-1.
285 -- Jr. Noa Merritt (14-3), PJ, p. Sr. Carlos Goncalves (8-7), 5:52.
106 -- So. Dominic Koert (8-3), PJ, d. Fr. Garret Gerndt (14-7), 4-0.
113 -- Jr. Austin Sisco (12-4), PJ, default over So. Sierra Blasone (7-8), 4:35.
120 -- Sr. Jack Velella (14-5), S, p. Jr. Zeke Lewie Cepero (0-1), 1:26.
Records -- Pope John 0-9, 0-5; Sparta 10-1, 3-1.
Official -- Frank Leitner.

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