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By Brendan Scannell
Starting at the top
Where else to start but the top? As one of America’s top teams for the past number of years, you can’t talk about New Jersey wrestling these days without starting with Bergen Catholic. BC has been on a run in New Jersey not unlike the one Penn State is currently on at the NCAA level. BC has unquestionably been the state’s top team for over five years straight.
But could this season be a bit different? Heading into 2019-20, BC returns no defending state champs. Robert Howard, the Crusaders super-star and three-time world team member, won in 2018 but fell in last year’s final to Sammy Alvarez who is now at Rutgers. This year, most of us would expect Howard to take home his second championship. He currently sits atop Flo’s 120lb rankings. But which other Crusader stars are poised to breakthrough?
I should point out that in 2017, Bergen also entered the season with no returning champs before Howard and former Crusader-greats Shane Griffith and Jacob Cardenas all took home titles. Does the 2020 version of Bergen have the same level of firepower to accompany Howard this time?
Maybe. Big Boarders Nick Kayal and Dylan Cedeno are consistently in title contention every year, but both have yet to make a state final. Joey Zargo enters the year ranked #5 in the country despite never placing in the state tournament. And Joey Cangro is certainly a guy to watch after placing an impressive third at 106 as a freshman. Bergen will be counting on these guys this year.
The chink in the Crusaders' armor, if you will, looks to be in the upper weights. With the graduation of champions Chris Foca and Cardenas, the Crusaders lose some serious heavy hitters up top. Especially if you consider the fact – at one point – AJ Ferrari was on the roster.
This year, Bergen returns no state placers above 138, where Alex Strashinsky placed sixth. This could give them some trouble when it comes to big dual meets. The team to likely pose as the biggest threat?
Delbarton has been one of the most consistently solid programs in New Jersey for the past few years. As usual, the Green Machine is never short on talented lightweights. First came Mike Grey and Frank Perrelli then Patrick Glory, and now…it’s Anthony Clark.
Clark returns as a three-time state finalist after taking home the 106lb and 113lb titles in 2017 and 2018, before falling in last year’s 120lb final to Eddie Ventresca of Pope John. With six other returning state qualifiers joining Clark, Delbarton returns more qualifiers than any other team in NJ.
Notables include Class of 2021 Big Boarder Nico Nardone, who has placed twice in two trips to Atlantic City, as well as the baby-faced big guy, #18 PJ Casale, who finished fifth in the state last year as a freshman. Delbarton expects him to be an anchor in the upper weights for the next three years.
This strength up top is where Delbarton hopes to make its move in a dual meet against Bergen Catholic -- a matchup we are sure to see in the Non-Public A playoffs. Where BC is seemingly weak, Delbarton is strong, returning four state placers above 152lbs. In recent history, it seemed inconceivable that a New Jersey team not named Blair Academy could stack up with BC’s talent, but this year’s Delbarton Green Wave looks up to the challenge.
Meanwhile, in South Jersey...
To contrast the two teams above that have seemingly dominated the New Jersey wrestling landscape for the past decade, it only seems fitting that two teams that dominated the previous decade find themselves back on top. Though the talent and depth may not be quite on the level of Bergen or Delbarton, two teams look to lead the South Jersey landscape in 2020: Paulsboro and Camden Catholic.
Below the towering, smoke billowing smokestacks of a Gloucester County powerplant sits one of America’s smallest and most historic wrestling powerhouses. For the past half-century, Paulsboro has dominated its competition at unprecedented levels and it seems that trend will continue into the 2019-2020 season.
The Red Raiders may have little nationally recognized star power, but man, is this team solid. One thing we’ve come to expect from Paulsboro wrestlers is toughness. And as usual, this is a tough team.
Paulsboro returns a deep lineup that includes a defending state runner-up and a state champ in Jacob Perez-Eli and Brandon Green, respectively. Perez-Eli went on a spectacular finals run last year in a brutal 138lb bracket resulting in a runner-up finish to JoJo Aragona. His classmate, Brandon Green, exploded on the scene when he avenged a region finals loss to Shane Reitsma, by double-legging his way to a state championship. To say I was impressed with his state tournament would be an understatement. This kid is the real deal. He’ll be returning this year, and is, in my opinion, the most intriguing unsigned recruit in the class of 2020. (Note: Reitsma returns, too. So, we could see some rematches.)
Add in multiple-time qualifiers Georgio Mazzeo and Gabe Onorato eyeing the podium, and you have another Red Raider team you can expect to roll through its regularly scheduled competition and bring another Group 1 title home to Paulsboro.
Unfortunately, because these teams never dual one another (for some reason) we won’t get to see how Pboro stacks up against South Jersey’s other top team.
For years, Camden Catholic was South Jersey’s own all-star team. They were like the New York Yankees, but instead of pinstripes they wore robes. After a few slightly down years and multiple coaching changes, the Irish have returned and they continue to trend upward.
Since the addition of former Irish great, Billy Heverly, to the coaching staff a few years ago, the Camden Catholic supporting cast continues to improve and should hold up well behind its stars. If it were a stock, I’d buy.
Last season, CC won its first state group title since 2013, and Lucas Revano became only the second two-time state champion in the school’s storied history. Despite the loss of Revano, and seventh-place finisher Anthony Croce, the Irish program looks to be in good shape. They return 2019 state placers Brandon Mooney and Martin Cosgrove, as well as a very game Cody Walsh, brother of All-Americans Taylor (Indiana) and Chad (Rider). Cosgrove will certainly be a guy to watch after he seemingly came out of nowhere last season to place third in the state as a freshman at 160lbs. He finished behind the previously mentioned Brandon Green and Shane Reitsma – completing a top three all hailing from Region 7.
Just something to watch: With Revano gone and at Penn this year, leading a stout recruiting class for the Quakers, it should be interesting to see how he competes at the next level. As fantastic as Camden Catholic’s program has been through the years, no one has seemed to be able to make a splash in the NCAA besides the Walsh brothers. Hopefully, Revano and the rest of this young Irish team can begin to turn that tide.
Don’t forget about us…
Right on the heels of the aforementioned Red Raiders and Fighting Irish will be another South Jersey program, the Kingsway Regional Dragons. Kingsway has been trending upward. Though this team is young but talented.
Last season, the Dragons went on a remarkable playoff run knocking off the likes of Jackson Memorial and Phillipsburg en route to a Group 4 state title. Kingsway returns a plethora of lightweights including two-time state placer McKenzie Bell, region champion Finnegan McFadden, as well as past state qualifiers Cheney Kinner and Dakota Morris.
Two other teams who I would consider newcomers to the Jersey wrestling landscape but have been pumping out studs as of late include St. Joseph Montvale and Pope John
During last year’s state tournament, it seemed that every time I looked up, a St. Joe’s kid was getting his hand raised. I was aware this team is good; I just didn’t know how good. Of course, St. Joe’s loses its best wrestler in Sammy Alvarez to graduation, but they return five other qualifiers. Returning lightweights Joe Manno and Justin Bierdumpfel both impressed in last year’s state tournament. Manno owns two wins over Flo’s #6 Kelly Dunnigan of Don Bosco, including a pin in the quarters of last year’s tournament where he placed fifth. Bierdumpfel also made a run to the state semi’s where he lost to Clark of Delbarton, but went on to take out BC’s Cedeno to also place fifth.
Like St. Joes, Pope John lost some serious star power to graduation after an exceptional 2019 state tournament where they had three champs. Only one of the three returns. Virginia Tech commit and #2 in the country Eddie Ventresca is Pope John’s leader after knocking off two-time defending state champ Anthony Clark in last year’s final. Eddie Ventresca has all of the goods to be a future star for the Hokies. He is a heavy attacker who compliments a filthy lefty high-C with clean finishes and athletic scrambling ability.
Also, as Willie Saylor says, to excel at the next level you got to have “a little bit of dog” in you. In the third period of last year’s final, Ventresca delivered a hard club to the head of Clark that could be felt from the nosebleed seats of Boardwalk Hall. After the match, to reporters, Ventresca acknowledged it as a message to Clark that he was being dominated. So, yeah, I’m really high on this kid. He currently sits at #23 on the 2020 Big Board.
Other top guys include Penn-commit, Kaya Sement who placed 5th at arguably the deepest weight class in the state, and seventh-place finisher at 106, Shane Parcelay. The Lions will be competing with Camden Catholic again for the Non-Public B state title – an ultra-competitive matchup that was won by Catholic last season.
The teams mentioned above make up nearly 30 percent of all returning state placers entering this season. Other returning state champs include #5 Dean Peterson of St. John Vianney, and Joey Olivieri of Hanover Park who took home the 106lb title in 2018.
Can you smell that? I already smell the Dunkin’ coffee, Pork Roll sandwiches (certainly not Taylor Ham) and musty gymnasium air….
It’s almost wrestling season.