With the eighth annual Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex Tournament on tap for Saturday at Hopatcong High School, it's time to unveil our area team rankings for the 2016-17 season.
We will take a closer look at the big tournament later this week with a preview on Thursday and weight-by-weight predictions on Friday, but we are also getting ready for a 1 vs. 2 showdown on Wednesday night when top-ranked Phillipsburg hosts Hunterdon Central at 7 p.m. A win for the Stateliners would put them in the driver's seat for the Skyland Conference Raritan Division title.
P'burg coach Dave Post was concerned about a letdown heading into last Wednesday's 39-30 victory over Bound Brook. But that came on Saturday when the 'Liners (3-1, 2-0 division) suffered their first loss -- 36-32 to Cranford.
Hunterdon Central (6-1, 1-1) is coming off a big 30-29 win over Howell on Saturday in what could be a preview of the Group 5 championship match in February. The Red Devils also rolled to a 49-23 victory over Kittatinny, which travels to P'burg for an independent match on Thursday night.
On a sad note, former Belvidere coach Bernie Hart died suddenly on Saturday. Hart, who coached the schools' first state champ Dave Brandt (1973), was a fixture at matches all over the tri-county area and was a true gentleman. He will be missed. Our condolences to Hart's family and friends. Services will be held on Saturday.
Now, onto the rankings.
1. Phillipsburg (3-1) -- Stateliners took a major step toward a 21st straight division championship with their nine-point win over Bound Brook on Wednesday -- highlighted by junior Brian Meyer's huge 3-1 win over two-time state placewinner Joe Casey at 145 pounds. The road loss to Cranford was the first in five meetings with the Union County program. P'burg won the previous four -- all in the sectional semifinals -- 51-9 on the road in 1981, and 50-3 in '82, 65-3 in '89 and 61-8 in '91 all at The Pit. Seniors Drew Horun (14-3 at 195) and Robert Melise (10-2 at 220) are closing in on 100 career wins with 91 and 93, respectively.
Up next: Hunterdon Central at home on Wednesday; Kittatinny at home on Thursday; Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex on Saturday.
2. Hunterdon Central (6-1) -- Red Devils opened last week with a 34-25 win over Warren Hills in a Raritan Division match as senior Peter Nace (8-1 at 126) became the 19th wrestler in school history to record 100 career wins. Central then swept a quad at home on Saturday -- 30-29 over Howell, 49-23 over Kittatinny and 60-12 over West Deptford. Senior Victor Lacombe (10-0 at 220) could hook up with Melise, who won their only meeting last season by pin in overtime, twice this week in the dual meet and county tournament. Lacombe scored a 5-1 win over Howell state qualifier Eric Keosseian on Saturday.
Up next: at Phillipsburg on Wednesday; Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex on Saturday.
3. Delaware Valley (6-2) -- Terriers went 2-0 in Skyland Raritan Division matchups -- beating Voorhees (49-18 on Wednesday) and Warren Hills (37-21 on Friday). The victory over the Blue Streaks avenged a 40-18 loss last season in Washington. Senior Matt Kolonia (13-0 at 138), who is heading to Bucknell next fall, became the 11th member of the Hunterdon County school's 100-win club, while senior Rhys Zigich (13-2 at 145) picked up his 60th career win. Senior Kyle Lightner (12-0 at 195) will be in the hunt for his first county title this weekend.
Up next: Pingry at home on Tuesday; at Watchung Hills on Wednesday; Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex on Saturday.
4. Pope John (5-0) -- Lions are clearly the team to beat in Sussex County and they made some noise statewide on Saturday with a 40-27 win over Delsea in a quad that included wins over Jackson Memorial and Northern Highlands. Junior Jake Brown (2-0) returned to the lineup after the state qualifier missed time with a knee injury sustained playing football. Sophomore Joe Aragona (8-0) was up at 126, so we will see if he drops back down to 120 for the county tournament, while Eddie Ventresca (13-2 at 113), Jake Rotunda (11-2 at 126) and Robert Garcia (13-2 at 132) will also be in the title hunt.
Up next: Jefferson at home on Tuesday; Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex on Saturday.
5. High Point (6-1) -- Keep an eye on the 'Cats as they start to get their lineup in order. Coach John Gardner's team went 4-0 on Saturday in winning the Zephyr Duals at Whitehall (Pa.) after rolling to a 66-9 victory over Lenape Valley in an NJAC Freedom Division tilt earlier in the week. Sophomores Brandon LaRue (10-1 at 106) and Devin Flannery (10-1 at 113), a Region 1 qualifier last season, are a nice 1-2 punch atop the lineup, while freshman Billy Talmadge (6-4 at 126) will be one to keep an eye on in the county tournament.
Up next: Vernon at home on Tuesday; at Sparta on Thursday; Hunterdon-Warren Sussex on Saturday.
6. Warren Hills (7-4) -- Blue Streaks went 0-2 in Skyland Conference Raritan Division matchups -- losing 34-25 to Hunterdon Central on Wednesday and 37-21 to Delaware Valley on Friday. Senior Matt Valli (14-0 at 132) will look to become a two-time county champion this weekend after earning the Outstanding Wrestler Award last season. Senior Zach Nauta (13-1 at 145) scored a big 6-4 win over state qualifier Alex Carida as Warren Hills rolled to a 55-9 win over Hackettstown on Saturday in a quad that included wins over Middle Township and host North Warren.
Up next: Bound Brook at home on Monday; North Hunterdon at home on Wednesday; Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex on Saturday.
7. Kittatinny (5-2) -- Cougars started last week with a 43-23 victory over Randolph before going 1-2 on Saturday in a quad at Hunterdon Central. The Sussex County lost 49-23 to the Red Devils and 40-25 to Howell, while scoring a 43-18 win over West Deptford. Senior Mark DiGeronimo (9-4), a two-time district champion, dropped to 120, while sophomore Zach Mafaro (11-1) will be part of a very tough 195-pound class in the county tournament.
Up next: at Wallkill Valley on Monday; at Phillipsburg on Thursday; Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex on Saturday.
8. North Hunterdon (7-2) -- Lions made history on Saturday by recording the program's 700th win in a quad, beating Holmdel (51-19), Wayne Hills (53-16) and host Ramapo (55-15). The Hunterdon County school stands at 701-280-4 overall now in its 60th season. Coach Tim Flynn's team nearly pulled off a huge upset in a 29-21 loss to Raritan on Wednesday. Seniors Cole Marra (10-2 at 152) and Charlie Tordik (11-0 at 285) and junior Andrew Gapas (12-1 at 132) are ones to watch this weekend in the county tournament. Could be a real interesting match with the Blue Streaks on Wednesday as the visitors will be favored in at least six weights.
Up next: at Warren Hills on Wednesday; Lenape Valley at home on Thursday; Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex on Saturday.
9. Voorhees (6-3) -- Vikings are in a rebuilding mode, but coach Eric Hall's team went 3-1 last week, including a 33-31 win over Sparta in a tri-meet on Saturday. The Hunterdon County school won three of the last four bouts, including a 7-0 win by freshman Joe Delusant at 126 that sealed the victory. Sophomore Lewis Fernandes (9-2) opened some eyes by decking region qualifier Robert Gennat at 195. Senior Michael Fernandes (10-0 at 160) and junior Scott Fernandes (10-0 at 182) are aiming for titles in the county tournament.
Up next: at Bound Brook on Wednesday; Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex on Saturday.
10. Sparta (4-4) -- Spartans closed last week with a tough 33-31 loss at Voorhees, while scoring a 36-21 win over Haddonfield. Freshman Cooper Stewart (6-0 at 106) is off to a nice start, while junior Robert Gennat (8-3 at 195), and seniors William Loewen (8-2 at 220) and Zach Herbert (10-1 at 285) will be factors at their weights in the county tournament. Herbert may get the chance to avenge his only loss -- 5-4 to North Hunterdon's Charlie Tordik in the John Goles Invitational finals on Dec. 28. They should be the top two seeds at heavyweight.
Up next: Morris Hills at home on Tuesday; High Point at home on Thursday; Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex on Saturday.
On the bubble -- Newton (3-3). Braves coach Eric Bollette picked up his 200th coaching win on Saturday with his team's 58-16 victory in the fifth-place match at the Henry Boresch Duals. The milestone came against his younger brother, Brian Bollette, who is the head coach at Morris Hills.