Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Wrestling: Season's big meetings a gift in Skyland

We're off and running in the high school season around the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex area. Although it was a bit of a stumble out the gate with the snowy weather on Saturday, which forced a number of teams to stay home and miss their respective tournaments.

This season is shaping up to be one of the best as far as the Skyland Conference Raritan Division is concerned. Undoubtedly the state's toughest division has several key matches on tap in the early going, starting with Hunterdon Central hosting Bound Brook on Wednesday and what should be a dandy on Friday night as defending champion Phillipsburg travels to Delaware Valley for a 6:30 p.m. contest. If you are thinking that it's awful early for that matchup, you are correct as it's the first December meeting in a series dating to 1975. The Terriers will have two duals under their belts -- rolling to a 72-3 win over Notre Dame on Monday and another Mercer County foe in Hopewell Valley slated for Tuesday -- while this will be the first of the season for the Stateliners.

We will take a closer look at that one later in the week, but this is probably Del Val's best shot to take down P'burg in about a decade. The Terriers have won just six times in the 40-year history of the series -- the last was a 42-9 victory at The Pit on Feb. 1, 2006, after winning at home in '05. The '06 match was the third road win in the rivalry for the Hunterdon County school, which also prevailed in 1982 and '84 at the former home gym of the 'Liners. The Terriers' other two wins came at home in '75 and '93.

Speaking of gyms, Phillipsburg will wrestle its first match in the school's spectacular new building with a division clash against Bound Brook on Jan. 4. That one could go a long way in deciding this season's champion. The Crusaders have reloaded with the addition of transfer Robert Cleary, a state placewinner from Edison, after losing four of six against Raritan opponents last season, including a 36-30 loss to the 'Liners.

"I thought it was tough last year," P'burg coach Dave Post said before the season. "We took the Top 14 [wrestlers regardless of weight class] to decide all-conference in our division. We used furthest advancement as the criteria, and you had to be Round of 12 [at states in Atlantic City] to be first team ... and this year is even better."

Phillipsburg, Delaware Valley, Hunterdon Central and Bound Brook all rate as the early favorites in their respective sections, while Warren Hills should be in the title hunt in North 2, Group 3. North Hunterdon and Voorhees, which are both in a bit of a rebuilding mode, will square off on Wednesday at 7 p.m.

'Liners in early Beast mode

P'burg got underway over the weekend with its annual trek to the Beast of the East Tournament on the campus of the University of Delaware.

After a pretty good showing on Day 1, the Stateliners struggled on Sunday, especially in the Blood Round. Only senior Drew Horun came away with a medal, finishing eighth at 195 pounds. Senior Robert Melise, a returning state runner-up, was eliminated one round shy of a medal with a 3-2 loss in overtime to Don Bosco Prep's Peter Acciardi, a returning state qualifier. Melise and junior Cullen Day at 106 were the only P'burg wrestlers to reach the quarterfinals.

"We battled really well on Day 1 in wins and losses," Post said.. "Day 2 just slipped away with a bunch of one-point losses in the Blood Round. We had four in the Round of 12, which was the same as last year, but this time we were in every single match."

Day also lost a tough one -- 4-3 to Bergen Catholic's Nick Kayal -- and finished a round away from a medal. Kayal went on to take seventh. Post said Day, down three with five seconds left, should have been awarded two and two back points, but the official said the second swipe didn't get in before the buzzer sounded, although Post said he heard the ref say, "Two."

P'burg was shorthanded with only 12 wrestlers entered in the tournament. Among the missing were Shamyr Brodders (160) and Dan Fisher (182) due to the decent plan under the state's weight management guidelines. Both are expected to be in the lineup for Delaware Valley.

My 2 cents

Those in these parts are still lamenting the radical realignment of districts and regions that was passed in the offseason and in play for 2016-17. Strictly looking at numbers, those in favor will say it was necessary to equalize the number of teams in each district and region. That's fine, but the landscape was drastically altered, particularly in the north. Consider the 18 schools in the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex area are now spread out over 12 districts and five regions. That's insane. Likewise, the Shore area has 44 schools over 15 districts and four regions. Sister schools in both parts of the state are in different districts. Region 6 helped drive the bus on this proposal. When I spoke with Raritan coach Rob Nucci, who is a fine coach and a gentleman, two years ago, he admitted that no one on the committee was well-versed in the former Region 1 area. It shows. Region 1 as we knew it is over, blown up.

Who would have dreamed walking out of Wallkill Valley Regional High School last March that it would be for the last time after hosting Region 1 for 33 years. Daryl Jones, the school's AD, said he wasn't interested in hosting moving forward since it "no longer felt like Region 1." Jones certainly would know since he wrestled for Wallkill Valley -- finishing fourth in the region at 145 pounds his senior season in 1990.

The Region 1 Hall of Fame, which was to induct former Hopatcong state champion Zach Rey before the 2017 finals, is no more as well. Heck, the Sussex County school is no longer in Region 1, shifting to Region 2 with realignment. Unless you are from this area and have grown up with wrestling as previously constructed, you can't understand how much the history and tradition here means to fans, coaches and wrestlers. Sadly, this obviously was never a consideration in the process. The districts will change up every two years, or at least that's the plan, but the regions we have now are what we are stuck with for the foreseeable future.

Back points

Newton travels to Sparta on Tuesday as the Northwest Jersey Athletic Conference dual meet season gets underway in earnest. The Braves, seeking their first win over the Spartans since 2009, hold a 31-11-1 edge in the all-time series dating to 1961. The teams did not meet from 2010-13 after the Sussex County Interscholastic League folded following the 2008-09 season.

Warren Hills will also come calling to Sussex County on Tuesday for an independent showdown against Lenape Valley. The Blue Streaks will be opening their season as they were unable to travel to the Nottingham Tournament on Saturday. Maybe we get a matchup between Warren Hills senior and county champion Matt Valli and Jacob Falleni, a state qualifier, at 132?

Hunterdon Central has the talent to make this a special season in Raritan Township. The Red Devils would have been a strong favorite for the team race at the Caldwell Tournament on Saturday, but was not able to attend due to weather. Wednesday night's clash against Bound Brook will tell the tale.

Pope John also opened its season at the Beast and had two fourth-place finishers in freshman Eddie Ventresca (113) and sophomore Robbie Garcia (132). It was the Lions' first-ever appearance at the prestigious event.

Speaking of early-season duals between top teams, respected wrestling writer Steve Falk of the Asbury Press makes some solid points in this piece that hit the web on Monday.  It's funny, there's been a lot of talk lately on forums and in print of how the glut of tri-meets and quads and lack of featured duals in prime times are hurting the sport. This is nothing new if you have followed this blog as we've been talking about this very subject for years now. Tris and quads for the most part stink, especially for the fans. Give me a night time dual between top teams or local rivals in a packed house any day. Unfortunately, most schools have outlawed Saturday night events due to the cost of paying overtime for custodians and workers.

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