Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Wrestling: Ten best shots (HWS) at medals in AC

Here is a look at the 10 wrestlers (actually 11) from the Open Mike area who have the best chances at capturing a medal this weekend in the 84th New Jersey State Wrestling Championships at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City.

In all, there are 47 qualifiers (up 16 from last year and 20 more than 2015) among Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex schools.

JoJo Aragona (30-2), Pope John -- The sophomore reached the semifinals last year at 106 pounds, where he ran into eventual state champ Joe Manchio of Seneca, dropping a 3-0 decision, before he bounced back to take third place. Aragona, now at 120 pounds, is among seven qualifiers for the Lions, who are looking for their first state champ since Brian Unkert won at 145 pounds in 1990. Aragona is very skilled on his feet and that will bode well, as the neutral position has been a weakness in our area. As the No. 3 seed, Aragona, a two-time region champion, will face Butler's Brandon Wyble in an opening-round matchup. Another returning placewinner, Lucas Revano of Camden Catholic, is a potential opponent in the quarterfinals. Aragona would love a rematch with No. 2 seed Michael Kelly of St. Peter's Prep -- who won a 1-0 decision when they met on Feb. 6.

Career mark: 70-3.
Previous state appearances: Third place at 106 in 2016.

Hunter Graf (37-2), Hunterdon Central -- Making his third trip to Atlantic City, the skilled junior is looking to better his eighth-place finish last year at 113 pounds. One of his two losses was a 2-0 decision to Aragona in the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex finals on Jan. 14. Graf, a three-time district champ, went six weeks before getting his second -- 7-4 to East Brunswick's Mark Schleifer in the Region 5 finals on Saturday -- after reeling off 24 straight wins. In the bottom bracket as the No. 7 seed, Graf will first face Bishop Ahr's David Loniewski, who finished fourth in Region 5. A rematch with Lenape Valley senior Jacob Falleni -- who lost 6-0 to Graf in the HWS semifinals -- could be on tap in the second round.

Career mark: 103-21.
Previous state appearances: 0-2 at 106 pounds in 2015; eighth place at 113 in '16.

Jake Rotunda (33-3), Pope John -- A three-time district champ and region finalist, the third time might be the charm for the talented junior to come back with some hardware after coming so close last season -- a one-point loss to Bound Brook's Joe Casey in the blood round. Rotunda steamrolled through the 126-pound class in winning his first Region 1 title and seems to be peaking at the right time. The No. 8 seed's first-round opponent will be Highland sophomore Justin Cariss. Rotunda, whose only loss to a New Jersey opponent was a 6-4 decision in overtime against Bergen Catholic state placewinner Carmen Ferrante on Feb. 8, seems to be on a collision course with top seed Nick Raimo of Hanover Park in the quarterfinals.

Career mark: 90-16.
Previous appearances: 1-2 at 113 pounds in 2015; 2-2, fourth round of wrestlebacks at 120 in '16.

Robert Garcia (31-6), Pope John -- After going 0-2 as a freshman, Garcia should be plenty hungry to atone for last year's disappointment in AC. He avenged one of his losses this season with an 11-5 decision over New Milford state placewinner John Burger in the Region 1 final. Burger beat Garcia, 5-1, in the District 2 finals and 6-5 in last year's opening round of states. Garcia drew the No. 3 seed and will face Gateway-Woodbury junior Tim Sparks (35-5), who was fourth in Region 8, in the opening round. The bottom bracket is brutal with No. 2 seed Quinn Kinner of Kingsway, as well as locals Matt Valli of Warren Hills and No. 7 seed Andrew Gapas of North Hunterdon. Gapas (34-4), who finished fourth in Region 4, pinned Garcia in the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex finals.

Career mark: 63-13.
Previous appearances: 0-2 at 126 pounds in 2016.

Matt Kolonia (39-2), Delaware Valley -- Finishing a round shy of a medal in his first trip last year, Kolonia showed he's right there with the top contenders at this rugged 138-pound class in Saturday's 4-3 loss to Bound Brook placewinner Robert Cleary in the Region 5 final. Kolonia may get the chance to avenge his other loss -- 5-3 to Hackettstown junior Alex Carida, who is the No. 7 seed, in the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex finals. The upper quarter of the draw, where Kolonia, the No. 8 seed resides, is no cakewalk. He will take on South Plainfield's Joe Sacco (37-6) in the first round and a win could pit Kolonia against Hanover Park's Sean Conley, a Region 3 runner-up, in the pre-quarterfinals. Top seed Gerard Angelo of Bergen Catholic looms in the quarters.

Career mark: 126-30.
Previous appearances: 2-2, fourth round of wrestlebacks at 132 pounds in 2016.

Alex Carida (37-2), Hackettstown -- The junior is on red-hot entering the state tournament after impressive performances in winning the District 9 and Region 3 titles. Carida, who is looking to become the Tigers' first state medalist since Corey Kozimor placed seventh at 119 pounds in 2009, first turned heads this season with a 5-3 win over Kolonia in the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex finals. Interestingly, neither of the wrestlers to beat Carida this season are in the draw -- Middlesex's Jeff Johnson (who is at 145) and Warren Hills' Zach Nauta (fifth in Region 3). Carida, who has won 28 straight bouts, will first face Roxbury's Richard Reimers (32-6) in the opening round, where a win would likely set up a second-round match with Cranford's Tom DiGiovanni, who beat Nauta twice this season.

Career mark: 95-24.
Previous appearances: 0-2 at 132 pounds in 2016.

Nick Palumbo (41-0), Lenape Valley -- Looking to become his school's fourth state finalist and first champion, Palumbo is the No. 1 seed at 145 pounds after finishing third at this weight class last season, when he finished third in Region 1. A powerful wrestler who can wear you down with relentless pressure, the senior may have caught a big break on Tuesday when original first-round opponent Nicholas O'Connell of Southern was moved from the 32nd slot to the 25th. O'Connell finished fourth in Region 8, but he owns a win over Phillipsburg's Brian Meyer -- 7-5 in sudden-victory overtime on Jan. 28. Palumbo, who has waged two intense battles with Meyer in the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex finals -- pinning the Stateliner in both meetings in 2016 and '17 -- will instead take on Northern Burlington sophomore Ryan Feig in the opening round. No. 4 seed Joe Casey of Bound Brook, who lost 3-1 to Meyer on Jan. 4, also looms in the upper bracket.

Career mark: 130-27.
Previous appearances: 6-1, third-place finish at 145 pounds in 2016.

Brian Meyer (33-7), Phillipsburg -- The No. 6 seed at 145 pounds is battle tested, having faced the Nos. 1, 2, 4 and 7 seeds in the draw -- going 2-2. Meyer, a three-time district and two-time region champion, was pinned by Lenape Valley's Nick Palumbo in the HWS finals and dropped a 6-3 decision to DePaul's Ricky Cabanillas at the Beast of the East in December. Meyer beat Joe Casey, a two-time seventh-place finisher, 3-1 in January and eighth-place finisher Garrett Beam of Queen of Peace by the same score in the Region 3 finals. Another medalist, Nicholas Santos of St. Peter's Prep may await Meyer in the quarterfinals, provided he gets past his first two opponents, starting with Haddon Township senior and Region 7 fourth Vincent Delligatti (32-5).

Career mark: 86-31.
Previous appearances: 1-2, third round of wrestlebacks, at 145 pounds in 2016.

Kyle Lightner (37-2), Delaware Valley -- The Hunterdon-Warren Sussex champion made some believers with a dominating 5-1 win over Phillipsburg's Drew Horun in the finals on Jan. 14. Since then, the Terriers ace has gone 19-2, bumping up to 220 where he suffered his only losses -- 7-5 to Sean O'Malley of Hasbrouck Heights and 8-7 to Victor Lacombe of Hunterdon Central. Unbeaten at 195, Lightner, the No. 3 seed, has the talent to make a run at the state title. He will open up against Pompton Lakes sophomore Frankie Negrini (34-7), a Region 1 fourth, and is in the same quarter of the draw with Voorhees sophomore Lewis Fernandes (32-9). Lightner ran into DePaul state champ Brandon Kui in last year's second round, losing by fall, and came up a round shy of a medal when he was pinned by Josh McKenzie of Bergen Catholic, whose brother, Joseph, a senior at Wall, is the No. 1 seed.

Career mark: 63-10.
Previous appearances: 3-2, fourth round of wrestlebacks, at 182 pounds in 2016.

Robert Melise (33-2), Phillipsburg -- Quite possibly the area's best hope for a gold medal, Melise looks to improve on last year-runner-up finish at 220 -- seeing his 36-match winning streak snapped with a 12-3 loss to Holy Cross stud Matt Correnti, now at Rutgers. It's hard to believe that anyone is on a bigger roll right now than Melise, who has pinned in 22 of his last 26 bouts, with the other four being forfeits. He was simply awesome in winning the District 9 and Region 3 titles -- pinning Sam Mellow of Montclair in both finals. Melise combines power with athleticism, and is simply vicious on top with arm bars. The No. 2 seed -- by virtue of an early-season loss to Don Bosco Prep junior and top seed Peter Acciardi (29-2) -- Melise will square off against Shawnee's Cadrick Augustin (28-8) in the opening round. The bottom half of the draw is brutal with three other placewinners -- Howell senior Eric Keosseian (No. 3 seed), DePaul senior Joe Soreco (No. 6) and South Plainfield sophomore Zach DelVecchio (No. 7).

Career mark: 116-20.
Previous appearances: 5-2, fifth place, at 220 pounds in 2015; 3-1, second place, at 220 in '16.

Victor Lacombe (36-2), Hunterdon Central -- One of the Cinderella stories last season, Lacombe isn't going to sneak up on opponents in his second trip to the dance after placing fifth at 220 pounds as a junior. Drawing the No. 4 seed may work out very well for Lacombe, whose two losses this season are to Robert Melise -- by pin in the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex Tournament finals -- and Eric Keosseian -- 4-3 on a controversial last-second takedown in the Group 5 final. Lacombe previously beat Keosseian, 5-1, earlier this season. One of the strongest wrestlers in the field, Lacombe, who worked tirelessly in the offseason and did not start wrestling until his freshman year, will take on Penns Grove sophomore Tyreke Brown (24-5) in the opening round and could cross paths with Sean O'Malley in the quarterfinals.

Career mark: 87-17.
Previous appearances: 4-2, fifth place, at 220 pounds in 2016.

Other area qualifiers (37):

Belvidere -- Quinn Melofchik (106)
Delaware Valley -- Connor Mills (132)
Hunterdon Central -- Jack Bauer (113), Peter Nace (126), Bryce Hall (138), Michael Iodice (182)
Phillipsburg -- Cullen Day (106), Travis Jones (113), Cody Harrison (126)
Pope John -- Eddie Ventresca (113), Ryan Luchs (138), Reece Mulduun (160), Jake Brown (220)
Hackettstown -- Joe Andes (285)
High Point -- Brandon LaRue (106), Devin Flannery (113), Shane Kobis (138)
Hopatcong -- Jake Wilkerson (170)
Kittatinny -- Kasey Hotz (152), Josh Klimek (182), Zach Mafaro (195)
Lenape Valley -- Jacob Falleni (120), Ray Smaha (138)
Newton -- Wyatt McCarthy (145)
North Hunterdon -- Andrew Gapas (132), Cole Marra (152), Charlie Tordik (285)
Sparta -- Robert Gennat (195), Zach Herbert (285)
Voorhees -- Aidan Taylor (106), Michael Fernandes (160), Scott Fernandes (182), Lewis Fernandes (195)
Warren Hills -- Matt Valli (132), Rashon Wade Taylor (152), Jarod Ostir (170)

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