The Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex area collected eight medals -- up two from last year -- in the 83rd State Wrestling Championships, including seconds by Phillipsburg's Brandon Paetzell and Robert Melise, as they were favorites to reach the championship round. They gave the Stateliners multiple finalists for the first time since 1997. Last year, Hunterdon-Warren didn't have a finalist for just the 11th time since the tournament began in 1934.
Pope John freshman JoJo Aragona (106), Lenape Valley junior Nick Palumbo and Hunterdon Central sophomore Hunter Graf (113) and junior Victor Lacombe (220) joined Melise as the only underclassmen in the HWS area to earn medals at Boardwalk Hall.
"It's a great feeling to take third place," said Aragona, who lost a 3-0 decision to champion Joe Manchio of Seneca in the semifinals. "It's better to end with a win instead of a loss. This will definitely be a drive for me to work harder than ever before. It's just a bump in the road."
Back for more
Melise, who trimmed down from around 235 pounds after football, where he's also a terror on the defensive line, declared thst he plans to be back at 220 for his senior season. The pride of P'burg, who as a freshman scored that stunning pin against Southern that turned the Group 4 final, feels that next season will be his to become the school's 34th champion. Brandon Hull was the last for the 'Liners when he won at 220 in 2012.
Speaking of Hull, coach Dave Post confirmed that Hull will be joining his coaching staff for next season. And it's a big relief to Post and assistant Scott Silvis as Hull will be Melise's main practice partner. Former Easton star Brad Gentzle does an outstanding job with the lower weights.
"I've made it this far twice at 220, fifth last year," said Melise, who finished three wins shy of the school's single-season mark [Max Elling had 43 last season] and saw his 36-match winning streak snapped with a 12-3 loss to Holy Cross stud Matt Correnti, his school's sixth champ and first since 2003, in the state finals.
"Who can stop me next year at 220?"
Good question. Melise is by no means cocky. The classy junior is extremely confident in his abilities and knows exactly where his strengths are on the mat. For a big man, Melise is quick and can shoot takedowns better than most his size.
As for Atlantic City, Melise feels like he's home when at Boardwalk Hall.
"I love The Pit, but this is a very similar feeling here," said Melise, who is 83-18 overall.
Safe to say the rest of the state now knows just how dangerous Lacombe is on the mat. The Hunterdon Central junior was a bracket buster as he twice beat DePaul's Scott Lavelle, who finished third at 220 a year ago. Lacombe pinned Lavelle in their fifth-place bout, as he trailed, 5-4, late in the third period before hitting a half off a double-leg shot.
Credit Red Devils assistant coach Leigh Hall for predicting that Lacombe could make a serious run in his first trip to AC, and the two have spent a lot of time together in the practice room. Hall is a former district champion at Delaware Valley (heavyweight in 1985) and one of the nicest guys in the sport. Needless to say, he was as thrilled by Lacombe's fifth-place finish, as Lacombe was in earning his first medal.
"I did a lot of work in the offseason [and coach Hall] has helped me a lot," said the soft-spoken Lacombe, who has French roots and did not start wrestling until his freshman year. "He shows me a lot of things. I work hard every day, lifting for football and going to clubs."
It will be interesting to see if Lacombe also returns at 220. If so, we could possibly see Melise vs. Lacombe in the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex and state finals next season. Melise pinned Lacombe in overtime when they met in a dual meet this season.
Lacombe and Graf are also the first state medal winners for coach Jon Cantagallo-Rohm, who just finished his second season at the helm.
Paetzell's 3-1 loss to Clearview's Zack Firestone in the 132-pound state final was a bummer for many who wanted to see the Stateliners' favorite son claim that elusive gold medal. The tears were flowing after that one, as Paetzell worked so hard to return following a second serious hand injury that sidelined him from Dec. 23 to Feb. 20.
Phillipsburg fans support all of their wrestlers with great passion, but Paetzell has carved a special place in their hearts these last four years. And what a career he's had -- three district titles, three region titles and three state medals -- fifth in 2013, and second in '14 and '16. Paetzell is just the sixth P'burg wrestler with three top-five finishes -- joining Rick Thompson (fourth in 1970, first in '71 and '73), John Rutledge (fourth in 1977 and '79, third in '80), John Barna (first in 1980, '81 and '82), Dave Boncher (first in 1984 and '85, second in '86) and Mike Coyle (fourth in 1993, first in '94 and second in '95). John Garriques and Marc DeFrancesco had fifth-sixth finishes (no fifth-place bout) that kept them off this list.
"Everybody saw what he had to go through. The whole town wanted it for him," said Post, a two-time medal winner for the 'Liners in 2002 and '03. "We all hurt for him."
Those in the media need to remain neutral, but you can't help but root for kids like Paetzell and Melise. They are winners on and off the mat. It will be interesting to see what the next chapter will be for Paetzell, who is off to Rutgers next fall. Best believe that we have not seen the last of his title pursuits.
Voorhees senior Kyle DiNapoli, like Paetzell, had to battle his way back from an injury to earn his second state medal. DiNapoli, who was eighth last year, finished one step higher by taking seventh place at 126 pounds.
DiNapoli (31-2), who took his only losses of the season in AC including a 7-4 decision to Roxbury's Troy Stanich in the quarters, scored a 3-1 win over Hanover Park's Lou Raimo for seventh. DiNapoli, one of only eight Vikes to make three state tournament appearances, was sidelined for several weeks with a concussion sustained at the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex Tournament on Jan. 9.
"I think that definitely set him back," said coach Eric Hall, a runner-up for the Vikes in 1996. "He took it very seriously and followed the protocol. To get back here and place one position better, I'm very proud of him."
DiNapoli, who finishes 127-28 overall, ranks second on the school's all-time wins list behind leader Jadaen Bernstein (135-19 from 2009-13). Hall is third at 120-19 from 1992-96.
Four in AC?
It seems the time has come to take the top four finishers from each region, with the goal of seeding a 32-man bracket being the impetus for the change. Region 1 seeding chairman Brad DiRupo is in the process of submitting a proposal to the NJSIAA Wrestling Committee and feels it has a very good chance to pass.
The great divide in the north between the public and private schools could be narrowed a bit with this proposal after the recent separation of the two for the individual postseason tournaments was shot down this past winter.
I'm a bit on the fence of taking the top four, as it will certainly kill the drama of the third-place match at regions. Supporters will point out that the consolation semis will now be the hot round, but you watch as there will be forfeits galore in those third-place bouts with state tournament bids already sewn up, especially if there could be the loss of a favorable seed in AC.
As DiRupo pointed out at that Region 1 meeting on Feb. 22, the sport needs to continue to grow. Change is inevitable, as we once took just the champions to the next level when regions were implemented in 1961. Seconds started making the trip in '71, with thirds also getting bids in '85. Now, 31 years later, we could be on the verge of taking four to states. Stay tuned.
County gold breakdown
New Jersey has crowned a total of 1,002 state champions since 1934. Here's a breakdown of winners produced in each county since that first tournament. The 2016 champs for their respective counties in parentheses:
Bergen 119 (Nick Suriano, Shane Griffith, Joe Grello and Kevin Mulligan of Bergen Catholic; Eric Chakonis, Don Bosco Prep; Kyle Cochran, Paramus)
Somerset 63 (Mekhi Lewis and Stephan Glasgow, Bound Brook)
Gloucester 59 (Firestone, Clearview)
Monmouth 39 (Sebastian Rivera, Christian Brothers)
Burlington 26 (Manchio, Seneca; Correnti, Holy Cross)
Passaic 23 (Brandon Kui, DePaul)
Cape May 4
Mercer 4 (Brandon Cray, Steinert)