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Raritan sophomore wrestler George Burdick can remember being locked in a tough bout with Ocean's T.J. Saldutti in last year's NJSIAA District 22 Tournament before everything went blank.

"I blacked out,'' Burdick said. "If I could go back in time, I would completely erase it, but then again I wouldn't because it made me into the stronger person I am today."

Burdick, then a freshman wrestling for Keansburg, lost his composure and threw a roundhouse punch at Saldutti during their 170-pound semifinal bout as the crowd at Red Bank Regional gasped. He was promptly disqualified, abruptly ending a promising season.

Raritan sophomore 170-pounder George Burdick (at left) is out to erase the memory of a disqualification in last year's NJSIAA District tournament with a deep run this season. (Photo by Steve Meyer)

He went from being the talk of the tournament the first night after a wild, 21-18 win in the quarterfinals to becoming the center of attention for all the wrong reasons a day later.

"I broke down,'' he said. "I was done. I made my parents look bad and everything, and it's going to come back on me. Of course I regret it."

This weekend's District 20 Tournament at South Brunswick, where Raritan has been realigned after state-wide changes, is Burdick's opportunity to show people that one terrible moment from last year does not define him.

"I just want to show everybody that I'm back and better than I was,'' he said.

During this past offseason, Burdick transferred to Raritan when his family moved into the sending district. He was familiar with the program from clinics he had attended as a youth wrestler and through his cousin, 2005 Raritan graduate Jim Shields.

"I've known all these kids for a while because I used to wrestle them when I was younger,'' he said. "They just brought me in as a brother."

They also immediately addressed the elephant in the room.

"What happened in districts wasn't a good thing, and when you see something like that, it makes you a little nervous,'' said Raritan head coach Rob Nucci, who witnessed the incident firsthand as his team also was part of District 22 last year.

"We sat down before he even stepped on the mat in preseason. I told him what our expectations were as a team and that that behavior is not acceptable. He
told me you have nothing to worry about, that he lost his head, and that won't happen again, and it hasn't. He's been a fantastic kid."

His new teammates also initially didn't know what to think when he first began wrestling with them in the summer.

"I thought he was going to be like a wild horse and we'd have to keep him under
control, but he came in and he's a normal kid like us,'' said junior 220-pounder Ethan Wolf, who is Burdick's workout partner in practice.

"We knew that (behavior) won't slide here,'' senior 195-pounder Ryan Dickens said. "The biggest thing we have here is that we're a team first and you're an individual wrestler second. That was the main thing that we addressed is that you have 13 other guys relying on you, so you can't mess up."

Burdick knew immediately after last year's tournament that he was going to have to show people it was one bad moment for a high school freshman, not a harbinger of things to come.

"That's how it was all offseason,'' he said. "I can't let that happen again."

 

Burdick became a key cog on a Rockets team that won its seventh straight division title and reached its first Shore Conference Tournament final as well as the Central Jersey Group II final. Raritan should also battle Monroe for the team title at District 20 on Saturday.

Burdick has found that balance of being able to still wrestle with aggression without it boiling over. He's wrestled the entire season with a broken nose and only recently began wearing a protective mask. Several opponents have taken shots at his nose to try to rile him up, but he has not taken the bait.

"There's been a couple times this season where he could've lost it,'' Nucci said. "You could actually see George in those times taking a deep breath, and he went in and finished the job. He's as rough and tough as anybody, but he's found that fine line and he's not
going to cross it."

"He's one of the nicest kids off the mat that I know, but on the mat he has a switch,'' Dickens said. "He's a different person when he wrestles."

Burdick enters the individual tournament at 28-3 as the No. 2 seed at 170 behind Matawan's Derrick Wiley, whom he did not face in the Rockets' 67-9 win over the Huskies during the regular season. Burdick wrestled much of the season at 182 but feels 170 is his best shot to make a deep run in the tournament.

Burdick (on bottom) has worked hard on adding more to his arsenal beyond the throws he relied on early in his career. (Photo by Steve Meyer)

Not only is he improved mentally, but he is a different wrestler than in his first go-round in the individual tournament. Last year he constantly went for throws, but his work from bottom with the 220-pound Wolf draped on him during practice has helped his all-around style. Dickens, who is headed to Lafayette to play football, has helped him refine his throws and his counter-moves for when opponents go for them.

When he faced another one of the Shore's best 170-pounders, Middletown North's Nicko Cofone (24-4), in the SCT semifinals, he didn't attempt a single throw. He wrestled six hard minutes for a 5-3 win in what Nucci called his best performance of the season.

"Watching videos with my dad on YouTube, I started working actual moves," Burdick said. "I wasn't just wrestling with my aggression, but more in my head. My whole wrestling style changed. I used to be all upper body, but now I work everything."

"He's so funky, and he flows well,'' Wolf said. "He wrestles like someone much lighter."

His goal is like every other wrestler in New Jersey at this time of year - make it to Atlantic City for the NJSIAA Individual Championships. He has never attended the event, even as a fan, so he is eager to get his shot under the bright lights at Boardwalk Hall.

"I just couldn't go last year,'' he said. "After districts, I just had a bad taste in my mouth and I needed to get my mind right about wrestling again. I just want to be under those lights this year."

That was what made Burdick doubly disappointed in his behavior last year. Not only was it an unfortunate incident, but he also felt he had a good shot to place in the top three and reach the Region VI Tournament as a freshman.

One thing that is for sure is that he is not fazed by the pressure after a season of wrestling in high-profile matches in front of big crowds for one of the top 15 teams in the state.

"He's got the bleach blonde hair and the mask, and it's almost like a scene out of WWE when he wrestles,'' Nucci said. "He's a crowd pleaser, but deep down he's a great kid."

This is Burdick's chance to turn last year's ending into a footnote instead of a defining moment.

"I thought, 'What if that cost me my 100th win one day,' so I strive to get as far as I can, as fast as I can,'' he said. "I just want to show everybody that I'm not the kid with the temper. I want to wrestle to my full ability and show everyone what I can do."

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