HAZLET – A vision that veteran wrestling coach Rob Nucci has had since the beginning of his career became reality on Saturday when his Raritan team hosted the inaugural Rocket Blast-Off Tournament.

Eight teams representing each of the eight regions in New Jersey wrestling descended upon Hazlet for a competitive dual meet tournament to kick off the season, in contrast to the myriad individual wrestling tournaments held on Saturday. Wrestling coaches usually espouse one of two philosophies when it comes to the sport. Some consider it an individual sport where preparing wrestlers to make the journey to Atlantic City for the NJSIAA Individual Championships is the priority, and others view it more as a team sport that teaches unity and sacrifice for overall glory during the dual meet season.

Nucci is staunchly in the latter category, so Saturday’s event was a representation of what he believes is best about wrestling. While the majority of Shore Conference teams on Saturday were wrestling in individual tournaments like the Neptune Classic, the Robin Leff Invitational at Southern, the CBA Colt Classic and the Matawan Icebreaker, it was all about the dual meet format at Raritan. The Rocket Blast-Off Tournament featured Jefferson (Region I); Demarest (Region II); Westfield (Region III); Nutley (Region IV); Delaware Valley (Region V); Cherokee (Region VII);, Hammonton (Region VIII); and the host Rockets representing Region VI.

Raritan sophomore 106-pounder Ed Barrett had three pins on the day to help the Rockets win the inaugural Rocket Blast-Off Tournament on their home mat. (Photo by Scott Stump)


“Since I started coaching, I thought it would be awesome to run a tournament where you had one team from each region,’’ he said. “All summer, we don’t wrestle in any individual tournaments. We wrestle all dual meet tournaments. I think it’s good for the sport. As much as people think it’s an individual sport, it’s a team sport. We have to learn our role in the summertime. If you have to stay off your back against a stud (in a dual meet), you’ve got to learn that.”

The cherry on top of Saturday’s event was that longtime Raritan rival Delaware Valley, a team the Rockets have battled repeatedly in the Central Jersey Group II tournament over the last 10 years, agreed to make the trip from Hunterdon County. The Terriers’ strength of schedule usually means that every season, Raritan has to make the trip to Frenchtown in the state team tournament to face them on their home mat because Delaware Valley always has more power points.

Last season, Delaware Valley knocked off the Rockets in the sectional semifinals in its home gym. They have wrestled each other six straight times since 2007 and nine times overall in the state tournament. Delaware Valley has a 6-5 edge all time against Raritan, which includes two regular-season matches.

Raritan junior 132-pounder Dylan Seidenberg went 3-0 on the day as the Rockets took home the title. (Photo by Scott Stump)

Saturday’s tournament was a golden opportunity to get a head-to-head win that could mean a home match for the Rockets against the Terriers in February, and Raritan seized it. They pulled out a 31-27 win in the championship match to capture the title as senior Kyle Polonsky pinned Brock Houser at 220 in the penultimate bout to seal the victory.

“We have a good rivalry with them, and we love wrestling them,’’ said Raritan senior Connor Sheehan, who picked up a major decision at 160 in the final. “It was big beating them today because we hate driving out there.”

“It’s a good rivalry, where it’s not ugly, and it’s not bitter,’’ Nucci said. “We know them probably better than our own team. I’m not going to see anything here that I don’t know. Usually, Del Val out-power-points us. Their conference is good, so their power points are always through the roof. We were never able to catch them. I’ll be honest, I was a little surprised (they agreed to participate).”

Given that Delaware Valley had more to lose than to gain, the decision to participate was somewhat surprising, but head coach Andy Fitz had no hesitation.

“I was looking to juice up the schedule a little bit,’’ Fitz said. “Individual tournaments are fun, they take the pressure off, but there’s a nice team atmosphere and there’s a lot of camaraderie here. We also have a tremendous friendly rivalry with Raritan, and we get along with the coaches real well. We were talking about it over the summer, and when (Nucci) mentioned it, we were in. (Potentially losing a home state tournament match) went through my mind, but I said yes at a moment’s notice. A couple people talked to me about it. We’ve traditionally had that match in our gym, but if we end up coming here for the sectionals, it is what it is.”

Nucci specifically targeted programs that are consistent winners as well as teams that put in a lot of work during the summer to get ready. Raritan and Delaware Valley even attended the same team camp at Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pa., in July. Nucci also caught a break when Nutley and Demarest, who are coached by brothers Mike and Frank DiPiano, ended up not getting Board of Education approval to travel to the prestigious Beast of the East tournament in Newark, Del., this weekend so they were able to join the field at Raritan.

“I was amped that our first matches of the season were going to be this big and all these great teams were coming here,’’ Sheehan said. “We were going to be able to find out how hard we worked, right out of the gate.”

“You’re not going (to an individual tournament) and wasting five matches,’’ said Raritan senior Kyle Lynch, who won an 11-5 decision at 182 in the final. “You’re wrestling three matches with your team instead of having five individual matches where you could wrestle the same guy twice in wrestlebacks. When you’re here, you’re seeing different teams, and you’re all working together and learning the team unity that we’re going to need in state sectionals. You learn to lose small and win big. Get pins, and don’t get pinned.”

Raritan picked up a 49-14 win over Hammonton in the quarterfinals and a 41-18 victory over Westfield in the semifinals before knocking off Delaware Valley. The early competition also helps the Rockets because they have dominated Class A Central, winning eight of the last nine division titles, so it provides a good test outside the division.

“It helps better the team,’’ Sheehan said. “We usually win the division every year, so it’s nice to have some tough competition here.”

Even though it was a tough finish for Delaware Valley, which was missing two of its top upperweights in Kody Eichlin (182) and Brian Baehr (220), Fitz shared Nucci’s opinion of a great day of wrestling.

“It’s going to help the kids and the team,’’ Fitz said. “There’s nothing better than a good dual meet in this sport.”

Box scores

Raritan  31, Delaware Valley  27
106: Ed Barrett (R) p. Kyle Refalvy
113: Matthew Kolonia (DV) p. Eric Drake
120: Ryan Broderick (R) d. Rhys Zigich  9-6
126: Kevin Courtney (R) d. Tyler Smith  2-1
132: Dylan Seidenberg (R) d. Ryan Erwin  6-3
138: Alex Nugent (DV) d. Mike Chadwick  5-2
145: Codey Leh (DV) d. Nick Bohal  6-0
152: Cory Lightner (DV) p. Jared Lonnay
160: Connor Sheehan (R) md. Kyle Schlittler  16-7
170: Nour Mays (DV) d. Tyler Jones  6-3
182: Kyle Lynch (R) d. Luke Zehnbauer  11-5
195: Alex Bryant (R) d. Sam Chandoha-Lee  3-1 (OT)
220: Kyle Polonsky (R) p. Brock Houser
285: Marek Tomanek (DV) p. Malcolm Daniels

Raritan  41, Westfield  18
285: Patrick Toal (R) p. Tom Anderson
106: Ed Barrett (R) p. Chris Hoerle
113: John Fuller (W) d. Eric Drake  5-0
120: Nick Kalimtzis (W) d. Ryan Broderick  3-1
126: Kevin Courtney (R) d. Jack Miller  14-8
132: Dylan Seidenberg (R) md. Kevin Miller  13-2
138: Anthony Gigantino (R) won by forfeit
145: Matt Barber (W) d. Nick Bohal  5-1
152: Nick Velez (W) p. Jared Lonnay
160: Connor Sheehan (R) md. Vin DiFilippo  16-6
170: Tyler Jones (R) d. Jarek Gozdieski  8-4
182: Kyle Lynch (R) p. Devin Anderson
195: Kevin Frega (W) d. Alex Bryant
220: Kyle Polonsky (R) d. Cotter Spurlock  6-2

Raritan  49, Hammonton  14
220: Kyle Polonsky (R) p. Abner Aguilera
285: Patrick Toal (R) d. Unknown  5-3
106: Ed Barrett (R) p. Anthony Roman
113: Eric Drake (R) p. Austin Figueroa
120: Ryan Broderick (R) d. David Diaz  10-4
126: Kevin Courtney (R) md. Unknown  12-4
132: Dylan Seidenberg (R) d. Matt Bumbera  7-1
138: Mike Chadwick (R) d. Paul Lasassa  3-2
145: Nick Bohal (R) p. Rob Angelli
152: Kellen Whitney (H) d. Jared Lonnay  3-1
160: Connor Sheehan (R) p. Jordan Andrescavage
170: Brandon Beebe (H) tf. Tyler Jones  16-0
182: Kyle Lynch (R) d. Ricardo Arvizu  9-5
195: Tom Donio (H) p. Alex Bryant