The Open Mike area collected six medals in the 82nd State Wrestling Championships, including thirds by North Hunterdon's Ryan Pomrinca and Phillipsburg's Max Elling. Both were favorites to reach the championship round, where Hunterdon-Warren did not have a finalist for just the 11th time since the tournament began in 1934, and for the sixth time since 2001.
From 1942-98, the H-W area produced at least one finalist each tournament. In addition to this season, the area was shut out of the finals in 1935, '36, '37, '38, '41, 2001, '04, '05, '08 and '09.
Voorhees junior Kyle DiNapoli, eighth at 120 pounds, and Phillipsburg sophomore Robert Melise, fifth at 220, were the only underclassmen in the HWS area to earn medals at Boardwalk Hall.
Sophomore on rise
It's been an eventful first two seasons for Melise, who was a hero in Phillipsburg's win over Southern in the 2014 Group 4 final. For an encore, the sophomore capped a fine season with his a state medal in his first appearance in AC.
With two seasons left, could this be the first of three medals and possibly a state title? Brandon Hull is the Stateliners' last champion and the program's 33rd overall -- winning at 220 in 2012.
Melise said he started to turn the corner as a wrestler in the youth program, as an undersized upper weight. As a freshman, he had to drink water just to weigh-in at 195 to wrestle 220. Now, Melise is a legitimate upper weight, and he said he benefited this season by competing at 285 early on.
"It wasn't until my eighth-grade year that I was actually decent," said Melise, who finished 38-9 on the season and is 43-15 overall. "I was about 150 wrestling in the 240-pound class. It really set me up for high school, going undefeated in grade school."
Working with assistant coaches Josh Haines (a two-time PIAA Class AAA state champ for Northampton) and Bryan Kopesky (three-time District 1 runner-up for the 'Liners) also prepared Melise for dropping to 220.
"The 220-pounders shoot [for takedowns], and I have gotten better at defending shots," Melise said. "Haines and Kopesky shoot like 106-pounders."
Melise and junior Brandon Paetzell should be P'burg's best hopes for a finalist next season. Paetzell is a two-time state placewinner, finishing second at 106 in 2014. He was sidelined most of this season with a hand injury.
Keep an eye on North Hunterdon junior Brian Smolinsky next season. Despite going 0-2 in his first trip to states, Smolinsky enjoyed a breakout 36-4 season, winning his first District 17 title and placing third in Region 5 at 152 pounds.
Smolinsky made a believer out of Pomrinca, who said the experience of getting to Boardwalk Hall will benefit his teammate next time around.
"The first time [in AC] is a little daunting," said the Lehigh-bound Pomrinca, a three-time placewinner and Hunterdon-Warren's all-time wins leader at 155-13. "He'll be here again."
Pomrinca lamented not being more aggressive in a 2-1 overtime loss in the 126-pound semifinals to eventual champ Patrick D'Arcy of Holy Spirit. After that loss, Pomrinca went back to his hotel and regrouped mentally for a run at a second third-place medal.
"Nothing was stopping me in the last tournament of the year," he said.
"He got himself together in a hurry," said Lions coach Tim Flynn, who has coached seven state placewinners in his six seasons at the helm. "Some people are so crushed after losing in the semifinals, they can't [come back ready for the wrestlebacks]. [Sunday] morning, he was ready to go."
Pomrinca scored a 4-1 win over Randolph's A.J. Vindici in the consolation semifinals before beating DePaul's Matt Noble for a second time in the tournament, 7-3, for third. Pomrinca beat Noble, 3-2, in the quarterfinals on Saturday. In two previous meetings, Pomrinca won decisions of 7-5 in 2012 and 3-1 in '13, when Noble was at Bridgewater-Raritan.
All in the family
It was a bittersweet tournament for High Point's Jason Gaccione and coach John Gardner, who is also Gaccione's uncle. The season ended with another state medal for Gaccione, who placed fifth after a fourth-place finish as a sophomore, but it was the final time that Gardner will get to coach a family member.
Gaccione's brother, Joe, had a fine career for the 'Cats that concluded with a third-place finish at 145 in 2011, the same tournament in which High Point crowned four state champions.
"I'm very happy [Jason] placed," said Gardner, who won three state medals and the 1990 state title at 189 pounds for the Sussex County school. "I'm happy he was able to walk off the mat for the last time with a win. I hadn't really thought about it [being the last time] too much, until I watched him run out [to the mat]."
Gaccione was seven seconds away from reaching his own state final, when he gave up a reversal in a 3-2 loss to Brick Memorial's Alec Donovan, who went on to win the title.
"It's a very difficult thing being so close to where you truly want to be," Gardner said. "He was pretty close to being in the finals."
Gaccione was part of a special senior group that included Dom Gallo (126) and Mike Derin (132). Gallo was a two-time District 3 champion and state qualifier, while Derin won a pair of District 3 and Region 1 titles -- finishing eighth in the state as a sophomore. This season, Derin's season ended prematurely with a knee injury. As a team, these guys were a part of three sectional titles and two Group 2 championships.
Gallo and Gaccione also added their names to the program's list of 100-match winners.
"Jason, Dom and Mike picked up the pieces when we needed guys to step in. A lot of people had written us off [after graduating a lot of talent from the 2010-11 squad that won the Group 3 title]. "If you look at the success these guys had, it's pretty amazing."
"I loved every second of my career," said Gaccione, who will continue to wrestle at Division II Millersville next season.
The senior also said he'd like to coach in the future. Maybe we'll see a Gardner-Gaccione combination on the High Point bench in a few years.
End for AC?
In speaking with NJSIAA executive director Steve Timko during the fall, there are few options when it comes to hosting the State Wrestling Championships. The NJSIAA's latest three-year deal with Boardwalk Hall ended in 2015, and Timko said the Prudential Center in Newark is being considered as a potential site.
Atlantic City has hosted the championships 21 times from 1992 to 2015, with the tournament shifting to the Meadowlands for the 2000 and '01 tournaments while Boardwalk Hall was undergoing renovations. Only Princeton University (22 from 1970-91) has hosted more state tournaments than AC.
Other former hosts include the Elizabeth Armory (nine times, 1947-55), Rutgers (seven from 1959-65) and Asbury Park Convention Hall (four from 1966-69). In addition, 10 high schools have been sites for the tournament -- Union, Somerville, Roselle Park, Teaneck, Grover Cleveland Jr. (Elizabeth), Springfield, Thomas Jefferson, Rahway and Belvidere (1946). Union hosted the first four tournaments from 1934-37.
Newton senior Gus Protogeropoulos (seventh place at 195) is the seventh state placewinner for coach Eric Bollette. Not bad for a wrestler who was 6-17 as a freshman, his first season in the sport.
"I made the most of what I had," Protogeropoulos said. "I was in karate my whole life. [After that freshman season] it motivated me and I wanted to get better. It's a bad feeling to know it's over. I wish I had started earlier."
It was heartbreak city for five other Sussex County wrestlers -- Hopatcong's Joe Aumann (113), Kittatinny's Austin Scrivani (132), High Point's Jared Kobis (138), Lenape Valley's D.J. Barrett (182) and Sparta's Gavin Lally (220) -- who all finished one round shy of earning a medal. Both Kobis and Lally lost in OT in their final bouts.
Elling, who became Phillipsburg's career wins leader early on in the state tournament, also owns the single-season record in going 43-4, eclipsing Jake Kocsis' total of 41 wins last season. Elling finished 128-37 overall.
Region 1 produced a total of 16 medal winners, including Wayne Hills junior Daniel Kilroy, who became the Passaic County school's first placewinner with a fifth at 170 pounds. Kilroy is also just the second wrestler in the program to win a Region 1 title.
County gold breakdown
New Jersey has crowned a total of 988 state champions since 1934. Here's a breakdown of winners produced in each county since that first tournament. The 2015 champs for their respective counties in parentheses:
Bergen 113 (Nick Suriano, Shane Griffith, Joe Grello and Kevin Mulligan of Bergen Catholic; Kyle Bierdumpfel and Zack Chakonis of Don Bosco Prep)
Ocean 62 (Alec Donovan, Brick Memorial)
Morris 61 (Gerard Angelo, Hanover Park; Joe Tavoso, Delbarton)
Monmouth 38 (Tyree Sutton, Keansburg)
Passaic 22 (David McFadden, DePaul)
Atlantic 20 (Patrick D'Arcy, Holy Spirit)
Hudson 7 (Christian Colucci, St. Peter's Prep)
Cape May 4
Mercer 3 (Brandon Cray, Steinert)