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In New Jersey history, there have been 14 individuals to make four state finals appearances in a career. In 2020, history could be rewritten as two wrestlers — Anthony Clark of Delbarton and Bergen Catholic’s Robert Howard — look to join that exclusive list. If both reach the finals this year, Clark and Howard would be the third four-time finalists for their respective schools in the last 20 years.
Yeah, in case it wasn’t obvious, BC and Delbarton are really good.
Recognize these names?
- Mike Grey (2003-2006) - four-time champ
- Pat Glory (2014-2017) - two-time champ
- Nick Suriano, (2013-2016) - Four-time undefeated champ
- Shane Griffith, (2015-2018) - Three-time champ
That’s good company.
Despite the recent surge of four-time finalists, this is a ridiculous accomplishment — especially in single-class New Jersey. To have two guys aiming to do it in the same season is incredible. Throughout the past decade Delbarton and Bergen Catholic have established themselves as the programs in New Jersey, so it’s no real surprise a majority of the top guys have come from these schools. The crown was passed onto Clark and Howard from their Green Wave and Crusader predecessors and they both would soon feel the weight of it.
When you look at their credentials from a 1,000-foot view, Clark and Howard look like two guys trying to constantly one-up each other. They compete for the #1 and #2 teams in the state. In their previous three finals appearances each, Clark has taken home two titles to Howard’s one. Howard is currently ranked #1 in the nation to Clark’s #15 ranking. Clark has placed at Super 32 three times. Howard has made three world teams. The duo has collected nearly all of the hardware possible for a career.
Despite the comparative on-mat success, the differences in their personalities are striking. Where Clark is reserved and technical, Howard wrestles like a man with his hair on fire. Clark commands the mat with a cool confidence, while Howard is pure flamboyant swagger. No matter the style or the singlet, these two are certainly some of the best to ever do it in New Jersey, and their stories are still being written.
Let’s look back on the decorated careers.
“We walk the same path, but got on different shoes.”
Right Above it – Lil Wayne, Drake
Both Clark and Howard were highly anticipated freshmen when they hit the high school scene, and unsurprisingly, they joined two of the best private school programs in the state in Delbarton and Bergen Catholic. Expectations were immediately high, but as lightweights competing for perennial programs, it was known they would run into some studs along the way. And immediately they did.
Anthony Clark began his career at 106, a weight that tends to be a preview of the state’s future talent. Anyone who finishes at the top of the heap at 106 — especially as a freshman — is always someone to keep your eye on. In fact, of the previous four-time finalists from BC and Delbarton I noted above, three of them began their careers at 106.
To further my point, the bracket Clark won in 2017 featured a whopping 10 wrestlers who currently find themselves ranked in our 2019-20 New Jersey rankings, and two are currently ranked in the country. This weight was loaded. His path to the title?
- Beat Will Grater in the quarters 7-3 (#5 in NJ at 138, two-time placer)
- Beat Nick Kayal in the semis 3-2 (#5 in NJ at 120, three-time placer)
- Beat Sammy Alvarez in finals 4-2 (2019 state champ, three-time state finalist)
By burning through a bracket like this in his first state tournament, Clark proved to everyone he was here to stay. Kayal and Grater are now teammates at Bergen Catholic, and most of us have high hopes for Sammy Alvarez who is currently starting at 133 for Rutgers. Clark took him out in his first trip to Boardwalk Hall.
But they would meet again.
Meanwhile up at 113, Howard’s road to the title was no easier. Actually, it might’ve been more difficult.
- Beat Joe Manchio in the quarters 5-4 (state champ in prior year)
- Beat Eddie Ventresca in the semis 3-1 (ranked #2 at 126, 2019 state champ, three-time placer)
- Lost to Antonio Mininno in final 4-3 UTB (2017 state champ, two-time placer)
As a freshman at 113 with no state placement credentials, Howard got the 10 seed in the bracket and had to take on state champ Joe Manchio early on. He showed he was the real deal by beating him in what was probably the best quarterfinal of the tournament. Next, he had to beat Eddie Ventresca for the third time that season — another name we will get familiar with as we continue. Mininno may not have had a great season for Drexel last year, but he was two years older and Howard had already done most of the heavy lifting in the bracket. Despite falling in the finals, the run he went on confirmed all expectations.
After Year 1, these guys made a statement to the rest of the state.
“If you ain’t running with it, run from it.” (Right Above It, cont’d)
“Even better than I was the last time, baby.”
Good A** Intro – Chance the Rapper
When they returned as sophomores, Clark and Howard came primed to dominate in 2018. And that’s exactly what they did. Clark’s only losses in 2018 came twice to Trevor Mastrogiovanni. One of those was at Beast where he went on to take third. Who else took third at Beast that year?
You guessed it.
In 2018, Howard’s only loss of the season came to, wait for it . . . Sammy Alvarez — at Beast.
In the state tournament, Clark entered the 113lb bracket as the top seed and cruised to the finals where, once again, he faced Sammy Alvarez. And once again, he beat him. Just like that, Clark was two for two with two impressive finals wins, and you could already begin to hear the murmurs.
Howard’s bracket, on the other hand, was rock solid for the second straight year. Despite making the finals as a freshman, he was seeded third as a sophomore behind two previous state champs at 120. The feature match was his semifinal. This was a rematch of the prior year state final, where he eyed revenge with Gateway’s Antonio Mininno. This time, Howard wasn’t going to let it go to ultimate tiebreaker.
After a wild scramble in sudden victory, Howard got the takedown and followed it up with the most epic celebration of the tournament when he Gronk-spiked his headgear in the middle of the mat . . . that is, until the next day when Delsea’s Nick Bennet provided us with a pretty hilarious moment by holding up double peace signs, celebrating his runner-up finish.
In the final, Howard cruised over Mitch Polito to secure his first title.
It looked clear after 2018: The next couple of years would be Clark and Howard’s world and we’d all just be living in it.
“It’s easy to dream a dream, though it’s harder to live it.”
Ambition – Wale ft. Meek Mill, Rick Ross
After the pair made back-to-back finals appearances and entered the season as defending state champs, everyone around the state expected more titles to follow. Clark and Howard emerged in 2019 as heavy favorites to win it all again. Unfortunately for them, this is much easier said than done. As was the story for the first two years of their careers, Clark and Howard wrestled in weight classes “where the lions and killers be.” (Ambition, cont’d) In 2019, the trend would continue.
As the top seed for the second year in a row, Clark once again cruised to the state finals. This time, it was not Sammy Alvarez waiting for him for a third time, but Eddie Ventresca — someone both Clark and Howard had constantly gotten the better of during their high school careers. But the hungry, two-time placer Ventresca was ready to change that. Despite his heavy state finals experience, Clark couldn’t get it going this time around. Ventresca used a physical attack and high pace to score some early takedowns and knock off Clark, denying him title #3. With that, Clark’s attempt at making Delbarton the first school to have two four-time state champions was extinguished.
As for Robbie Howard . . . this is starting to feel a little bit like déjà vu.
For the third straight season he found himself in a loaded bracket, and for the third time he took out a number of studs on his way to the final. This time, he faced Sammy Alvarez, who was looking to avoid finishing his high school career as a runner-up for the third consecutive year. Earlier in the season, the pair faced off in a dual meet, a match that Howard won 4-3. As two of New Jersey’s premiere talents all season long, a showdown in the finals at Boardwalk Hall seemed inevitable, and here it was. This was the kind of matchup that was difficult to imagine either guy losing. Though Howard won in the dual, he fell in the one that mattered most. In sudden victory, Alvarez was able to secure the takedown to claim his first and only state title, and Howard was a runner-up once again.
For Clark, 2019 was his first taste of March disappointment. For Howard, it was flashbacks to an OT loss as a freshman. Lucky for both of them, that isn’t the end.
“Hold up, wait a minute. Y’all thought I was finished?”
Dreams & Nightmares – Meek Mill
As we move towards 2020, the story stays the same. The two most decorated New Jersey wrestlers entering the season, Clark and Howard come in ranked at the top of their respective weight classes in New Jersey. Howard is fresh off a Who’s #1 victory over Trevor Mastrogiovanni, while Clark just made a run to the Super 32 semis. However, as is the case every year, both guys have some dirty Jersey wrestlers standing in their way as they attempt to climb atop the podium one final time.
Clark’s biggest competition at 132lbs comes in the form of Westfield’s CJ Composto. Composto is a two-time placer who lost to Howard in the 126lb semis in last year’s tournament before taking third. He’s been one of the top guys at his weight every year of his career and even beat Clark in the past year. As the one who’s been there before, Clark is the favorite and will be chomping at the bit to reclaim his title belt.
At 126lbs, Howard has no sympathy for the challenge Clark is facing. Howard may currently be the #1 guy in the country, but the two guys right on his tail in New Jersey are both ranked Top 10 in the nation. Eddie Ventresca looks to be the biggest threat. If it wasn’t for him, the story entering this season would be Anthony Clark’s mission to become a four-time champ. As it is, Ventresca will look to play spoiler again. If Howard hopes to claim the honor of two-time champ, instead of three-time runner up, his path will likely go through Ventresca. As I mentioned in my rankings preview, this is the matchup I am most looking forward to entering 2019-20.
Not to be left out is Nico Nardone, who proved he was a top-10 guy with an impressive run to the Super 32 finals only a month ago. The regular season will be important here. Whoever can secure the #1 seed in the state tournament will have the best path to the final, forcing the other two to duke it out in a potential semifinal. Beating the defending state champ to claim the title won’t be easy, but Robert Howard with a chip on his shoulder is a hard guy to pick against.
The consistency and mental toughness required just to make it to four straight finals is pretty remarkable. But as the careers of these two have shown, nothing is ever given. They are going to have to take it. And there will be plenty of others looking to take it from them.
Still, like twin subway trains racing down separate tracks but never colliding, Anthony Clark and Robert Howard both find themselves in the same place: eyeing the history books and hungry to add a few more pages.