Saturday, March 4, 2017

Wrestling: Palumbo, Lightner going for gold in AC

ATLANTIC CITY -- Lenape Valley senior Nick Palumbo is determined to etch a new chapter in the school history books.

If his impressive win by technical fall in the 145-pound semifinals is any indication, the Patriots will soon have that missing piece when it comes to the championship round.

Palumbo worked two-time state placewinner Joe Casey of Bound Brook for a 16-0 win in 4:35 -- using a turk for four sets of back points -- to become just the fourth Lenape Valley wrestler to reach the finals on Saturday night at Boardwalk Hall.

"It was a great confidence boost," said Palumbo, who placed third at this weight last season after finishing third in the region. "Winning by technical fall in the semifinals doesn't happen very often."

Palumbo (45-0) will face DePaul sophomore Ricky Cabanillas -- a rematch of the Region 2 final -- in Sunday's championship round that is slated to begin at 3 p.m.

"I had no preference [for my finals opponent]," said Palumbo, who earned a 1-0 win over Cabanillas last weekend. "I'm on the next level. I've beaten most kids here. I approach every match the same -- wrestle hard to win."

In all, there will be three wrestlers from the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex area going for state gold as Pope John sophomore JoJo Aragona (120) and Delaware Valley junior Kyle Lightner (195) also reached the finals for the first time.

Hunterdon Central senior Victor Lacombe (220) came up short in his bid to become the Red Devils’ 41st finalist and first since Gary Dinmore made three straight appearances (2012-14). Lacombe (39-3) dropped a 3-1 decision to Don Bosco Prep's Peter Acciardi in the semifinals. The last of the Hunterdon County school’s 12 champs was Alex Shaffer (119 in 2010).

Palumbo joined head coach Doug Vetter (1990), Chris Ressa (2001) and D.J. Russo ('06) as the only wrestlers at the Sussex County school to reach the finals. Interestingly, Vetter has been involved in all four, three times as a coach.

"I feel fortunate and blessed," said Vetter, who dropped an 8-5 decision to current High Point coach John Gardner in the 189-pound final in '90. "I lost by a couple of points, Ressa lost by one point [5-4 to Ryan Cunningham of Cherry Hill West at 152] and Russo lost [6-4 to Jack Corcoran of St. Joseph-Hammonton at 215] in one of the most controversial finals that I can remember.

"It's Nick't turn.You can tell he's dialed in and he's in a good spot mentally. He has that look in his eye. I refer to it as being in the zone."

Palumbo, now 134-27 overall and the school's all-time wins leaders, sure was in the zone from the top position against Casey. After taking a 2-0 lead into the second period with an early takedown, Palumbo attacked on top, using the turk three times in the second for three points each turn to build a 13-0 lead. There was little doubt as to his choice to take top in the third period, where he turned Casey a fourth time to end the bout.

I used [the turk] in the regular season, but he gave it up way too easy, so I kept going back to it," Palumbo said. "I think I broke him [from the top position]."

Palumbo wasn't lacking for confidence coming in as the No. 1 seed and this performance only boosted his mental state heading into the biggest bout of his career.

"I'm going to be the first champ," he said.

Lightner strikes again

Who knew that Delaware Valley junior Kyle Lightner was a child prodigy?

Terriers coach Andy Fitz said he was first introduced to his 195-pound wrestler, who was the tender age of just 7, and was told that he had state gold in his future. Well, Lightner has certainly blossomed into one of the best in the state, as evidenced by his pin of Woodstown senior Chad Watt in 2:50.

“Growing up, I never would have comprehended being in the state finals,” said Lightner (41-2), now the Hunterdon County school’s 15th finalist overall and first since Bobby Stevely (125 pounds in 2010).

Lightner, the lone Trentonian area finalist, will attempt to become Del Val’s ninth state champion and first since Dan Kelly won at 112 in 2007, when he takes on Collingswood senior Michael Taulane in the championship round slated for 3 p.m. Taulane (38-1), a Region 7 champion, pinned Lightner in 3:00 last season when their teams in the Group 2 semifinals in Toms River.

Lacombe was unable to give the county back-to-back finalists, dropping a 3-1 decision to top seed Peter Acciardi in the 220-pound semifinals. Lacombe, who finished fifth last year at this weight class, was looking to become the Red Devils’ 41st finalist and first since Gary Dinmore made three straight appearances in 2012-14.

Fitz, who now has his second finalist in 10 seasons at the helm of his alma mater, shared the conversation he had with his father many years ago regarding a young, 98-pound Lightner.

“My dad [legendary Del Val coach Vince Fitz] introduced us and told me that [Lightner] would be our next state champ,” Andy said.

Lightner, a Region 5 champion and 67-10 overall, is one win away from fulfilling that promise. He certainly made it look easy in the semis -- getting a takedown nine seconds into the bout and turning Watt twice with the legs in, while nearly getting the first-period pin with a power half. Leading 8-0 in the second period, Lightner got a reversal before stacking Watt for the fall.

“He was a wet noodle on bottom,” said Lightner, who breezed to a 10-2 major decision over Tommy Maxwell of Delsea in the quarterfinals. “I got the arm bar pretty easily. There was no panic ... no stress. Everything was just great. I had a lot of energy. To make the state finals as a junior at 195, I don’t think it has set in yet.”

No quarter

In one of the more stunning results on Saturday, Phillipsburg senior Robert Melise lost his bid to reach back-to-back finals with a 1-0 loss to South Plainfield sophomore Zach DelVecchio -- 2-1 in the ultimate tiebreaker -- with the difference being a penalty point for locked hands with eight seconds left on the clock.

Melise (36-3), a runner-up at 220 last year and fifth as a sophomore, rebounded with two wins in the wrestlebacks to reach the consolation semifinals. In a neat twist, Melise will face Lacombe with the winner moving on to the third-place bout, while the loser can finish no higher than fifth. Lacombe, who has been pinned in two career meetings with Melise, including this season's Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex Tournament finals, was fifth at 220 as a junior.

Phillipsburg sophomore Cody Harrison (126) and junior Brian Meyer (145) joined Melise in the consolation semifinals -- giving the Stateliners at least two medal winners for the fourth straight year and three for the first time since collecting five in 1998 -- Aaron Freer (second at 171), Steve Kempinski (fourth at 215), John McRoberts (sixth at 152), Russ Trauger (seventh at 145) and Zach Miers (seventh at 215). 

Harrison (28-8) will face West Morris ace Shane Metzler in the seventh-place bout, while Meyer (36-8) will get a rematch with Bound Brook's Joe Casey, a three-time placewinner who lost 3-1 when they met in a dual meet earlier this season, for the right to wrestle for third.

Back points

Aragona (34-2), who finished third at 106 last season, has the unenviable task of taking on two-time runner-up Patrick Glory of Delbarton -- one of the biggest favorites in the tournament -- in the 120-pound final. Aragona ended the Cinderella run by Lodi senior Chris Caban, the No. 15 seed, with a 5-2 decision in the semifinals.

Rounding out the medal winners for the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex area are two from Pope John -- freshman Eddie Ventresca (113) and sophomore Robert Garcia (132), along with North Hunterdon junior Andrew Gapas (132), Delaware Valley senior Matt Kolonia (138) and Hunterdon Central senior Michael Iodice (182) giving Hunterdon County an overall total of five placewinners.

Finishing one round shy of a medal were Hunterdon Central junior Hunter Graf (120), who was eighth at 113 last year, and Voorhees sophomore Lewis Fernandes (195).

Voorhees has the longest state title drought in the county with John Brienza (130 in 1998) being its fourth and last winner.

Melise scored a 2-1 win over Hopewell Valley senior Will Ortman in the fifth round of wrestlebacks, dropping Ortman to the seventh-place match on Sunday at 11 a.m. Ortman is just the third wrestler at his school to medal -- joining George Saliba (fourth in 2008) and Mike Markulec (fifth in 2014).

Region 2 led the way with 11 in the semifinals and matched Region 1 with the most finalists at six, followed by Region 5 (9 in the semis) with four and Regions 3, 6 and 8 with three apiece. Region 4 is next with 2 and Region 7, which had only two semifinalists, has just one in the finals.

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