When the Stateliners arrived to the venue on Sunday, coach Dave Post was approached by NJSIAA officials, who asked if P'burg could lend a helping hand.
"We were the first team [to arrive for the 9 a.m. morning session] by like 20 minutes," said Post, whose team captured the program's 20th championship with an impressive 40-21 victory over Clearview. "There was a guy from the NJSIAA at the door who said there was a team stuck at its hotel because the bus wouldn't start. He asked if we could send our driver over there."
Phillipsburg (17-3) was happy to oblige. Later, Post found out the team in distress was Paulsboro, which claimed the Group 1 title with a 28-27 over Kittatinny. P'burg and Pauslboro have combined for 2,033 victories and 37 Group championships.
"When we went down to check weight, [head of officials] Vinny Russo thanked us for what we did for Paulsboro. Their kids left a message on our bus [windows that were steamed from the cold], they wrote, 'Paulsboro.' It was pretty funny."
That good deed may lead to Phillipsburg getting Paulsboro back on the schedule, perhaps as soon as the 2017-18 season. The two storied programs have not met since Phillipsburg's 38-21 win at The Pit in 2014. Nearly a month after that victory, a controversial photo with racial overtones and a wrestling dummy wearing a Paulsboro T-shirt in the P'burg practice room surfaced online. Paulsboro owns an 8-7 lead in a series that began in 1999. There was no meeting in '10.
Hopefully, one good turn on the bus will bury all the negativity from a few years ago, and the wrestling community can once again enjoy one of the best rivalry matches in the state. Could it happen? Phillipsburg's schedule does not contain many open dates and Post said a match with Paulsboro will definitely not happen next season.
"Vinny is acting like a mediator. The problem is we've developed such really good relationships with Southern [this year's Group 5 champion] and Hanover Park," said Post, now 96-17 overall in six seasons with his alma mater. "We want to make sure we keep those going. Hanover Park fed all of our kids when we went there [a 43-25 win over the Hornets on Feb. 6]. If Paulsboro reaches out, we will have our ears open."
Thoughts from Toms River
Phillipsburg's run to a 20th state championship -- 12 in Group 4 -- was impressive. After an expected 46-19 blowout in the semifinals against Jackson Memorial, which dropped a 38-12 decision to the 'Liners in last year's Group 4 final, P'burg steamrolled a solid Clearview squad in the finals.
With all of the injuries to key wrestlers this season, including two-time state placewinner Brandon Paetzell (hand), who is expected back for Saturday's District 1 Tournament, the Stateliners were back in a familiar spot on Sunday. What is the key to success year after year?
"It's two-fold. One, we have kids from the town of Phillipsburg," said Post, who led the program to three straight titles for the first time since it won five in a row from 1996-00. "These guys watched us as kids when we first started coaching. It's all they want to be."
Speaking of coaching, hats off to Post and his staff, which includes ace assistants Scott Silvis and former Easton (Pa.) star Brad Gentzle.
"We have a great staff," Post said. "Every one is able to scrap with our [wrestlers]."
Gentzle has been working with Paetzell the last few weeks to get him ready for possible state title run, while senior Tom Kosar has made tremendous strides working with Gentzle the last two seasons. Kosar was thrust into the lineup last season when Paetzell went down for the season with a hand injury. Kosar, who went 11-11 and finished second in District 1 as a junior, is 13-9 this season and is considered to be one of the top 120-pounders in Region 1.
Kittatinny's one-point loss to Paulsboro was especially heartbreaking considering what occurred in the final bout at 126 pounds. Sophomore Calvin Brook converted what appeared to be a clean takedown in the first period against Rick Eli before later giving up a reversal. But Brook's takedown was taken off the board by officials Doug Hesse and Ron Fazio, yet the two for Eli stood. Brook went on to lose a 4-3 decision.
It was an embarrassing scene all-around, as a team point was deducted from Paulsboro following an earlier bout at 160, when Taylor Molfetto was shoved by Anthony Morina after a 7-4 win. The deduction should have happened immediately since it was after the conclusion of the bout. Had it happened during, one match point would have been awarded to Molfetto. Rules interpreter Roy Dragon had to be called over to get things straightened out.
It's a shame that these incidents marred what was really a great dual meet for the Group 1 title. And by the way, scrap the two-referee system, unless you keep one as the lead official the entire match. The assistants rarely overrule each other -- except in this case, go figure -- and it is nearly impossible to keep consistency throughout the match. Almost like umpires in baseball, who usually have different strike zones.
Kudos to Lenape Valley and classy coach Doug Vetter for winning the North 2, Group 2 title and earning a return trip to the Group 2 semis. Despite losing several wrestlers with injuries, including the big loss of senior and Region 1 qualifier Aaron Merkey at 138 pounds, the Patriots gave a good account in a 41-25 loss to eventual Group 2 champ Emerson-Park Ridge. Senior heavyweight Rich Fritzky (skin) was the latest omission from the lineup and his absence was likely a nine-point swing on Sunday.
"You can't hang your head, you play the hand you're dealt," said Vetter, whose team claimed back-to-back sectional titles for just the second time in program history. "They probably knew we didn't have our A-lineup. Their coach [Stan Woods] asked me why we weren't weighing in a heavyweight. In the end, we lost to a better team with a better balanced lineup."
Vetter said next season would likely be a rebuilding year, as the Pats lose 11 seniors, including a strong group of upper weights -- Sam Palumbo at 195 and Ralph Hall at 220 included -- that have essentially carried this team for two seasons.
"I'm not going to focus on next season. We need to get back in the practice room this week and put our wrestlers in the best position for [the District 2 Tournament]. A lot of people counted us out this season. I'm proud of these guys. This team is the epitome of perseverance. When the chips were down, they found a way."