Monday, February 17, 2014

Wrestling: High Point, P'burg produce wins for ages

For those of us in this little corner of the high school wrestling world, it doesn't get any better than what the local teams did on Sunday in Toms River.

High Point pulled off one of the greatest comebacks you'll ever see with pins in the final four bouts to earn a 34-33 win over Hanover Park in the Group 2 final, while Phillipsburg blew the roof off the Pine Belt Arena with freshman Robert Melise's stunning pin at 285 pounds that sent the Stateliners to a 32-21 win over Southern in the Group 4 final.

Here's a few notes, stats and thoughts from a tremendous day of wrestling:

1. Phillipsburg's wrestling history is second to none and another chapter was written on Sunday, as coach Dave Post's squad became just the fourth in program history and first in 44 years to finish unbeaten. The Stateliners went a combined 39-0-1 in legendary coach Thad Turner's final three seasons, starting in 1967-68. He departed after going 13-0 in 1969-70, as the Warren County school's 58-match unbeaten streak was snapped the following season with a 20-17 loss to Liberty (Pa.). All of this is not lost on the current group of wrestlers. "They are interested in knowing that past history," said Post, a 100-match winner and former state placewinner for the 'Liners. "They were aware of coach Turner's last years and the guys really wanted to know about it. They care about it. It's such a proud tradition." With 18 Group championships, P'burg is second only to Paulsboro's incredible total of 29 in Group 1.

2. With such a strong tradition comes some great fans, as the P'burg faithful came out in full force to cheer the Stateliners onto victory. For anyone who been to the Pine Belt Arena, the entire section to the right as you enter was, in my estimation, nearly filled by all P'burg fans for the Group 4 semis and final. When freshman Robert Melise rolled and pinned Southern heavyweight Jesse Bauta for the dramatic pin, the sea of Garnet and Grey clad fans rose to their feet with thunderous applause. It was great to see a strong student presence as well, something we don't get enough of at other schools in this area. I actually sat in the bleachers behind press row to get a better view and the fans remarked about how loud and proud the P'burg fans were during what was an incredibly tough and entertaining match. That section also rattled the cage of Southern coach John Stout, who actually left the bench and ventured over to engage some of the diehard P'burg fans in the front row. Following the loss at 285, Stout was periodically casting his attention to the stands from his seat on the bench. One thing was for sure, Melise certainly got more than enough pats on the back after the match. "At least 500 to 600," he said. "My shoulders are pretty worn down right now."

3. A team is not measured by stars alone. To win a Group championship, it takes a collective effort, and as this season progressed, several High Point wrestlers started to turn the corner. Senior Colby Brands and junior Ryan Cullen -- both full-time varsity members for the first time -- emerged as solid contributors, as the Wildcats became the first team in program history to win back-to-back Group 2 titles. Brands (16-16), of course, was the one who started the string of four straight pins to beat Hanover Park. What was the secret to his improvement? "This was my first year on varsity, so at first it was getting adjusted and my record wasn't so good," said Brands, who rallied from a 2-1 deficit by using a chin whip to deck Mason Sangillo in 3:32. "Starting toward the end of the year, something started to click. [Senior 285-pounder] Gunny Wassong started talking to me after matches. And our coaches are great. Kellen [Bradley, former Kittatinny star wrestler] came in midway through and really helped me." Speaking of Wassong, he came through in a loss, holding Hornets star heavyweight Nick LaShell to a 4-2 decision, while freshman 106-pounder Chase Babus pulled off a five-point move to get a key major decision and what turned out to be a very important bonus point. Cullen's contributions before Sunday were also integral to putting High Point in a position to repeat, including a big win in the North 1, Group 2 final against River Dell. Even sophomore Jared Kobis made a brief return -- taking a forfeit win at 145 in the Group 2 semifinal win over Delsea.

4. Bobby McDonnell held High Point's fate in his capable hands -- getting the fourth pin to deliver another Group 2 title and a third state championship for a group of seniors that had a lot to live up to several seasons ago with the departure of four individual state champions, Nick Francavilla, Drew Wagenhoffer, Ethan Orr and Billy Smith, along with placewinner Joe Gaccione, from the Group 3 title team in 2011. This current bunch, who were freshmen on that squad, kept the tradition going. "We knew we had the potential to fill their shoes," said McDonnell, who needed just 1:55 to flatten Thomas Hunt and set off a wild celebration. "Three state titles and two in consecutive years. No other High Point team has done it. It's just awesome." Junior Jason Gaccione would love nothing more than to make it a three-peat next season to go one title up on his brother, Joe, who was a freshman on the Sussex County school's first state championship team in 2008.

By the numbers

3 -- Number of Group championship teams from Region 1 -- half of the field. Along with High Point and Phillipsburg, DePaul claimed the Non-Public B title with a 52-15 win over Camden Catholic. The victory snapped the Irish's run of 10 straight state titles. Kittatinny, Roxbury and Wayne Valley also made the trip to Toms River.

0 -- Number of championship teams from the Shore area, which was shut out for the first time since 2004, when Paulsboro (1), Kittatinny (2), Phillipsburg (3), Absegami (4), Camden Catholic (A) and St. Mary's-Rutherford (B) won titles that season. The Shore has won eight of the last 10 titles in Group 4, with only P'burg (2012 and '14) interrupting that string. The 'Liners got some measure of revenge against Southern, which beat the Warren County school three straight years in Group 4 -- 30-25 in the 2005 final, 32-25 in the '06 and 40-15 in the '07 semifinals.

2 -- Varsity wins for P'burg freshman Robert Melise heading into the Group 4 final. Both victories were forfeits.

12 -- Wins for Stateliners senior Garrett Wolfinger, who was an unsung hero all season and a big contributor to the unbeaten season by competing at 145 or 152, wherever the team needed him when it bumped the lineup. In what was likely his final high school bout, Wolfinger was pinned by Southern's Nick Racanelli, the only bonus points of the match allowed by P'burg.

15 -- Total combined number of seniors in the High Point and Kittatinny starting lineups. Both will sustain heavy graduation losses, but both programs are strong and will still be the ones to beat in their respective sections next season -- North 1, Group 2 and North 1, Group 1, respectively. Though keep an eye on Newton which should challenge for the top spot in Kittatinny's section.

33 -- Total of Group championships contested since 1982.

9 -- Combined total of pins by High Point in its wins over Hanover Park and Delsea. McDonnell and fellow senior Kyle Stoll were the Wildcats with two on the day. Not to be lost in the shuffle was Gaccione's pin at 145 against Hanover Park, which kept the Sussex County school breathing in that one.

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