Monday, March 6, 2017

Wrestling: Home is where it's at for HWS champs

ATLANTIC CITY -- Homegrown champs are a special thing these days.

Delaware Valley junior Kyle Lightner, who dominated his way to the 195-pound state title and one of eight underclassmen to win titles, will look to join Jamie Wicks (1987-88) and Brent Conly (1992-93) as the only wrestlers at his school to win back-to-back championships next season. Jeff Segreaves (148 in 1975), John Pasterkiewicz (103 in '88), Ricky Krieger (189 in '93) and Dan Kelly (112 in 2007) are the other state champs for the Terriers.

Hunterdon County produced five medal winners for the third time in six years and the first since 2014, as Lightner, along with teammate Matt Kolonia (seventh at 138), North Hunterdon junior Andrew Gapas (eighth at 132), and Hunterdon Central seniors Michael Iodice (sixth at 182) and Victor Lacombe (third at 220), were all first-time placewinners.

"It's great," Del Val coach Andy Fitz said of the county's showing in AC. "Every kid who places, that's another article written, and maybe a family can connect with it."
Nick Palumbo (far bottom right) and Kyle Lightner with the rest of the champs.

Lightner and Lenape Valley senior Nick Palumbo, the 145-pound winner, were among the 11 public school champions, which means quite a bit nowadays. Both coaches agreed that it's a major deal for their programs.

"It was wonderful to show that our area can still get the job done," Fitz said. "There's nothing better than a kid like Kyle coming up through the program and winning. Everybody feels great about it."

For Lenape Valley, Palumbo being the school's first champ makes it sweeter. Heck, they even threw him a party back at the school on Sunday night, with a police escort into town.

"He stayed with us and believed in us," said Patriots coach Doug Vetter, who has coached three of the school's four finalists after becoming its first with a runner-up finish at 189 pounds in 1990.  "He didn't get sucked into a parochial school. He had faith in the program and it worked out. Switching schools so you can be on the more popular team is not how I am. For him to be 46-0 and show that kind of composure ... to be a state champ ... that's a dream come true."

Palumbo was happy to stay home and make history, especially since Vetter is stepping down after 16 seasons. The coach and wrestler shared a unique bond.

"I wouldn't have been able to do it without him," Palumbo said.

"It's something that doesn't need words," Vetter said. "You just feel a connection with a person."

The public vs. non-public debate rages on, and one of the issues for realignment was a projected 30 percent of this year's medals going to wrestlers from private schools. The final numbers show that private schools accounted for 33 of the 112 placewinners, or roughly 29 percent, so the projections were pretty accurate. Only five of the 14 finals did not involve a private school wrestler, while 106, which had five private school wrestlers in the Top 8, and 120, were matchups between non-public wrestlers.

Next in 'Liner

Seems like after every season, the torch gets passed on to the next star.

For Phillipsburg, junior Brian Meyer will assume that role for 2017-18 after his third-place finish at 145 pounds in the 84th State Wrestling Championships on Sunday at Boardwalk Hall.

"Nobody has worked harder. We have to drag him out of the practice room," said Stateliners coach Dave Post, whose program had three medal winners -- including sophomore Cody Harrison (eighth at 126) and senior Robert Melise (fifth at 220) -- for the first time since 1998.

Brian Meyer on the podium to the right of champ Nick Palumbo.
"He was a Fargo All-American [in freestyle], and after he lost last year and finished a round short [of a medal in Atlantic City], he's been relentless. We told him [in the offseason] that we were going to put him anywhere [in the lineup] that we needed to win, and against the best guys, because we believe you can beat anybody. He responded by saying, 'I'm looking forward to it.'"

Meyer (39-8), one of 12 state placewinners from the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex area, believes P'burg would have had a another medal winner if not for an unfortunate injury.

"[Drew Horun] would have been the fourth," Meyer said of his friend and teammate, whose senior season ended a week before the postseason due to a knee injury. "He just had surgery a couple of weeks ago. First time in 20 years that we had three or more, that's a tribute to the kind of team we had."

How serious is Meyer about his wrestling? Consider this. When he lost a tough 3-2 decision to Nicholas Santos of St. Peter's Prep in Saturday afternoon's quarterfinals, Meyer, who avenged that loss by pinning Santos in the third-place bout, didn't look at his phone until later that evening -- roughly a span of nine hours.

"I needed to refocus. You have to find what works for you," said Meyer, who will enter his senior season with a career mark of 92-32.

Post said he would like to see Meyer bulk up and come back around 170 pounds for the 2017-18 season. The 'Liners will graduate four of their five upper weights, including Melise, but they return every starter from 106 through 160. Post would have some flexibility up top with junior Shamyr Brodders (160 this season) and sophomore Austin Roth (170-182) likely to be coming back in the 182 or 195 range.

Honorary Brave

Andy Iliff with his award. (Theresa Iliff)
Newton wrestling legend Andy Iliff was honored prior to Sunday's championship round when he was presented with the NJSIAA State Assistant Coach of the Year Award.

Iliff is part of an excellent staff at his alma mater that includes assistant coaches Ted Sibblies, a state runner-up for the Braves in 1989, and Dave Young, a state runner-up for Morris Hills in '90, under head coach Eric Bollette, a former Kittatinny placewinner.

"It feels good," said the humble and classy Iliff, who is the school's last state champion, winning back-to-back titles -- Nos. 81 and 82, the most in state history, in 1986-87. "But I wish this could be a group award. I feel it should be. I'm just a sliver of the whole thing."

This staff really enjoys working together and it shows on and off the mat. But you always have to keep your head on a swivel as Bollette and Sibblies are the pranksters and instigators of the group -- all in good fun of course -- with Iliff as their primary target.

"When they're not making fun of me it's great," Iliff, a West Point product whose son Thatcher and daughter Ashley wrestled for Braves, said with a big smile.

As for being Newton's last champion, there is nothing Iliff -- pronounced Eye-liff, not E-liff, as it was by the clueless tournament announcer who kept saying Pope John the 22nd instead of the 23rd all weekend, would love more than to be rid of that distinction.

"I would like to be a distant memory," he said. "They can't pronounce my name now."

Could sophomore Wyatt McCarthy be No. 83? Time will tell, but McCarthy gave runner-up Ricky Cabanillas of DePaul all he could he handle in the second round before getting pinned in the first overtime tiebreaker. McCarthy won his first wrestleback bout before dropping a 7-2 decision to red-hot Nicholas Lombard of Monroe -- who won five in a row after a first-round loss in finishing fifth.

Back points

Region 2 led the way with 20 state medals, followed by Region 8 with 18 and Region 5 with 17. Region 4 was next with 15 and Region 3 had 14, including three from Phillipsburg. Regions 1, including three from Pope John in runner-up JoJo Aragona (120), Robert Garcia (fourth at 132) and Eddie Ventresca (sixth at 113), and 7 each had 10, while Region 6 was last with eight.

Region 5 had the most champs going 4-for-4 in the finals, including Bound Brook's trio, while Regions 3 and 8 had three apiece. Regions 4 and 7 had no gold medals.

Just looking over some of the numbers, the Shore Conference, which has 44 schools, produced 13 medals, up one from last year, while the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex area, which has just 18 schools, took home 11. So, the Shore area, which pushed for this insane realignment of districts and regions, had a grand total of 32 more wrestlers in Atlantic City only to collect one more medal. It just shows you that you can shuffle the deck anyway you want it, but the cream always rises.

Not to be lost in the shuffle from a long three days of wrestling was the fact that Iodice earned his 100th career win in the wrestlebacks -- pinning Chris Nielsen of Pinelands to reach the consolation semifinals. Iodice, who lost his next two bouts, finishes 100-25, and is the 20th Red Devils wrestler to reach the century mark.

The 220-pound medal winners, including Melise and Lacombe.
Speaking of Central, what a finish for Lacombe, a Lehigh recruit, who defeated two state champions this season -- Lightner (8-7 on Feb. 1) and Howell senior Eric Keosseian (5-1 on Jan. 7), who won the 220-pound title on Sunday. The Rebels had three medal winners in all, including runner-up Kyle Slendorn (126) and seventh-place finisher Darby Diedrich, who knocked out Central junior Hunter Graf in the wrestlebacks. Howell, which returns the bulk of its team next season including two state medalists, has been on a major roll since a 28-27 win over the Red Devils in the Group 5 final on Feb. 12 -- thanks in large part to Keosseian's huge 4-3 win over Lacombe -- on a last-second takedown -- in that one.

The sport and our area will really miss Melise and Vetter. The Phillipsburg star, an extremely humble and nice young man, didn't have the finish he wanted or expected to have in Atlantic City, but he showed tremendous heart in rallying back to take fifth. P'burg fans love their wrestlers and their wrestling, but other than Brandon Paetzell, few come to mind who were as popular with the faithful than Melise, who is still considering his college choices for wrestling, not football. And he appreciated them just as much.

"I love every single one of these people," he said after the consolation finals. "I will always have love for that gym and that environment. It's one of the best places to wrestle in the country, if not the best."

Morris Hills snapped a long drought as senior Joey Schiele finished seventh at 170 pounds. Schiele is the school's first placewinner since Dave Young reached the finals in '90. Morris Hills is coached by former Kittatinny standout Brian Bollette, a brother of Newton coach Eric Bollette.

There are mixed reviews coming in from the new tournament, which included fourth-place finishers in each region this year, expanded the brackets to 32. Gapas was among four wrestlers to earn a trip after placing fourth in the region. But it added extra rounds and made for a very long Saturday with two wrestleback sessions to start before the quarterfinals, which got underway about an hour after the scheduled time of noon.

This will need to be addressed in the offseason, and according to one NJSIAA official, one possibility is starting earlier on Friday, possibly at noon instead of 2:30 p.m. We also don't need an endless parade of awards -- essentially a back-patting session for the state -- that pushes the championship round from 3 to 4 p.m. on a Sunday. And speaking of that, this tournament needs to start on Thursday and end on Saturday night, when the stands would have been a lot fuller for the finals. Anyone who thinks attendance was not down for the finals this year could not have been in the arena to see it for themselves. Longer days do not hold the fans' interest. Haven't we seen that enough with quads and tri-meets?

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