Monday, March 6, 2017

Bronze stars: Meyer, Lacombe among area placers

ATLANTIC CITY -- Phillipsburg junior Brian Meyer is looking forward to the offseason work ahead of him. After all, he says that's where the fun is.

Meyer was rewarded for the time he's put in to make himself a better wrestler, placing third at 145 pounds on Sunday at the 84th State Wrestling Championships on Sunday at Boardwalk Hall.

"I love the offseason," said Meyer (39-8), a first-time placewinner who pinned Nicholas Santos of St. Peter's Prep in sudden-victory overtime for the bronze medal. "That's when I really enjoy wrestling. It's not as much of a grind. All that work in the offseason has translated to success in the postseason."

Robert Melise (second from left) and Victor Lacombe on the podium at 220.
Meyer, along with Phillipsburg teammates Cody Harrison (eighth at 126) and Robert Melise (fifth at 220), were among 12 wrestlers from the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex area to earn medals. Hunterdon Central senior Victor Lacombe was the area's other third-place finisher at 220.

Lenape Valley senior Nick Palumbo (145) and Delaware Valley junior Kyle Lightner (195) won their first titles, while Pope John sophomore JoJo Aragona (120) was a runner-up.

Rounding out the placewinners were North Hunterdon junior Andrew Gapas (eighth at 132), Pope John freshman Eddie Ventresca (sixth at 113) and sophomore Robert Garcia (fourth at 132) , Delaware Valley senior Matt Kolonia (seventh at 138) and Hunterdon Central senior Michael Iodice (sixth at 182).

Meyer earned some redemption by avenging a 3-2 loss to Santos in the quarterfinals on Saturday.

"He dominated me on the mat, and I think I was definitely better on my feet," said Meyer, a three-time district and two-time region champ who is 92-32 overall. "I used that to my advantage the second time around. You can't expect to go from losing a close match to pinning the same guy the next time. It was an exclamation point on the win. I'm very happy with the way I wrestled."

Hail to the Victor

There were several great stories involving area wrestlers, but one of the feel-good moments was when Lacombe converted a takedown with 16 seconds left in sudden-victory overtime for a 6-4 victory over South Plainfield sophomore Zach DelVecchio in their third-place bout at 220.

Lacombe (41-3), who lost a tough 3-1 decision to Don Bosco Prep junior Peter Acciardi in the semifinals, avenged two previous losses to Melise in the consolation semifinals by getting a late takedown in the third period en route to a 7-3 win in sudden victory.

"It was tough [to lose in the semis]. I was really upset that I lost," said Lacombe, who was pinned twice by Melise the last two seasons, including this year's Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex Tournament finals. "But my coaches told me that if I didn't push myself [in the wrestlebacks], I would regret it the rest of my life. So, I went for it. Melise beat me over the summer, too, so it was nice to beat someone who beat me three times."

After finishing fifth at 220 as a junior, Lacombe  wanted to improve on that performance. Not too shabby for a wrestler who entered the sport as a freshman and finished with an overall mark of 92-18.

"My goal was to place higher than last year," said Lacombe, who will head to Lehigh next fall where he projects to be a heavyweight in college.

Lacombe credits Central assistant coach Leigh Hall, one of the wrestler's biggest fans, for helping to get him this far.

"He's helped me a lot," Lacombe said. "He is always there for me and he believes in me."

Fine 'Liner

It was quite an emotional few days for Melise, his coaches, teammates and legion of fans as the three-time placewinner came up short of his goal to become the school's 34th state champion and first since Brandon Hull won at 220 in 2012.

Melise (38-4) closed the books on an outstanding career with his second fifth-place medal after finishing second in 2016. After a tough 2-1 loss to DelVecchio in the quarterfinals -- on a locked hands call in the ultimate tiebreaker -- Melise regrouped to reel off two wins in the wrestlebacks before the loss to Lacombe.

"Coach [Dave Post] is always saying, 'You have good ones and bad ones,'" said Melise, who scored a 6-4 win over Sean O'Malley of Hasbrouck Heights in his final match. "You can't wrestle bad matches here and it really showed [in the loss to Lacombe]."

As the thoughts of not putting on the P'burg uniform again and having practice on Tuesday after taking a much-needed day off on Monday, Melise was overcome with emotion.

"That's when it will really set it," he said, fighting back tears. "Wrestling here is one of the best experience of my life. I love every guy on the team, and most of all my coaches. I've always had high expectations. I'm sorry I couldn't have done better for them. I feel like I let them down and myself."

That last statement is really quite ludicrous, considering what Melise has meant to his program and the entire town the last four years. No one will ever forget his unexpected pin as a raw freshman to catapult the Stateliners to their Group 4 title win over Southern in 2014. And that was just one of many key victories.

"He means a lot to everybody," said Post, who also was overcome with emotion when talking about Melise's impact on the program. "He's just a likable kid. He apologized to us. When you wrestle for P'burg, you're carrying the whole town on your back. I've been there before. He could have sailed off into the sunset [after the win against Southern]. We told him not to let being a three-time placewinner at the state tournament be the apex of your life."

Junior grade

Gapas bounced back from a second-round loss in Atlantic City -- one of just four wrestlers in the field to place after finishing fourth in the region. It was Gapas' first and North Hunterdon's seventh medal in the last four years after missing in 2016.

After dropping a tough 6-5 decision in overtime to Raritan's Russell Benson in the pre-quarterfinals -- giving up the decisive points on a reversal at the buzzer in the second rideout -- Gapas had to win three in a row just to reach the medal rounds.

"I didn't have too great of a performance at regions, so I needed to step it up and try to place at states," said Gapas, a Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex champion who dominated Benson -- a 9-2 win --when they met in a dual meet earlier this season.

Gapas (38-7), the school's first placewinner since Ryan Pomrinca finished third for his third medal in 2015, will get right back to work with one more chance to get higher on the podium next season.

"I'm going to train as hard as I can every day," said Gapas, who is 72-21 overall.

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