The Thrill of Third: Regrouping to Reach the State Tournament is a Grind at Region 6
TOMS RIVER -- Winning a region title is the ultimate goal for all the tournament's participants, but there's a reason the contrast between exhilaration and agony is so great in the third-place bouts.
It is in those make-or-break matchups that a wrestler's season is either extended or extinguished. Securing that final qualifying spot for the state tournament can feel as good or better than winning it all. Lose there, and it's complete anguish. The two happiest faces on the medal stand are usually the first and third-place finishers.
None of the 2016 Region 6 third-place finishers had been in that position before, but plenty had experienced heartbreak at some point during prior region tournaments.
Jackson Memorial senior Mike Spino thought he would reach the state tournament as a junior, but was bounced from regions in the second round of wrestlebacks. He fell from this year's winner's bracket when he lost to Wall's Jack Kelly in the quarterfinals on Friday night at Pine Belt Arena. When he went home and checked his weight, revealing he was six pounds over the limit for the 120-pound weight class, he was floored.
"I was six over before my run, and I honestly broke down," Spino said. "I was doubting my abilities."
Spino worked the weight off and went to bed. When he woke up Saturday morning he was ready to punch his ticket to Atlantic City.
"I woke up with a great mindset and I came here on a mission," Spino said.
Spino defeated Shore's Tim Klemser 2-0 to start his run to a third-place finish during Saturday morning's wrestleback round. In the next consolation round, Spino blanked Howell senior Nick Ciaccia 6-0 to set up a rematch with Kelly for third place. It was there Spino locked in a cradle and pinned him in 2:30. He smacked the mat with both hands, his goal finally realized. Mission: accomplished.
"There's no other match I wanted," Spino said. "I've beat him many times before and that was the first time he beat me. I knew if I stuck to my good stuff it would happen."
Christian Brothers Academy senior Garrett Fitzgerald made a great run to the semifinals as the No. 12 seed at 160 pounds, but his streak was halted in the semifinals by Wall's Josh Glantzman, the eventual region champion. After a tumultuous start to the season that left his future on the mat in doubt, Fitzgerald can now call himself a state qualifier.
Fitzgerald edged Southern's Seon Bowker, 3-2, in the wrestleback semifinals before beating Long Branch's Lamont Reid for the second time in the tournament, this time by a score of 3-1, to place third.
"I feel like the King Kong of Hong Kong right now," Fitzgerald said. I was a bit discouraged with my loss, but I wasn't going to let all my training go to waste. That's the mentality I had. I had to make it to AC."
Fitzgerald was a region qualifier last season as the District 22 third-place finisher at 152 pounds, but was eliminated in the preliminary round. With his injury keeping him out until late January, Fitzgerald didn't have time to improve his seeding criteria. He again finished third at districts and was given a double-digit seed once more.
"I looked at the bracket and knew my seed wasn't reflective of how I can wrestle," Fitzgerald said. "I knew I could get top three."
"This was do-or-die for my career. I love wrestling under pressure and it was a great feeling getting the 'W' today."
Brick junior Dean Helstowski entered the tournament as the No. 1 seed at 182 pounds with an undefeated record. He was stunned in the semifinals by Pinelands Chris Nielsen, 6-5, however. He had to figure out how to get past suffering his first lost and re-focus his energy for a run at the bronze medal. And he had just an hour to do it.
"It being the first loss of the season and it coming at a crucial time was difficult," Helstowski said. "I took a walk around the whole school to think about it. I wanted to get back down to AC and had to do everything I could to regroup."
Helstowski had to defeat a pair of wrestlers he already beat during his run to the District 23 title, besting Neptune's Nick Faber, 5-3, in the wrestleback semifinals before downing Point Beach's Jack Baker, 11-4, to claim third.
Helstowski last qualified for the state tournament as a freshman wrestling for St. Peter's Prep.
"I knew I belonged, I just had to re-focus and wrestle hard," Helstowski said. "I was mentally strong and came back and did everything I could."
Manchester senior Will Farparan has always dreamed of being able to wrestle under the bright lights of Boardwalk Hall. His fantasy is now reality after finishing third at 195 pounds in thrilling fashion.
Farparan scored a takedown in overtime to rally from a 3-0 deficit and defeat St. John Vianney's Calvin Beaty 5-3, becoming Manchester's first state qualifier since Jesse Meaney in 2012.
"It's crazy. Ever since I was a little kid I just wanted to go to states," Farparan said. "I never thought it would actually become true. It's crazy I'm actually here. I'm about to tear up just talking about it."
Farparan entered the tournament with only one loss, but was defeated by eventual region champion Jack LaCorte, 4-3, in the semifinals. In the wrestlebacks he defeated Jackson Memorial's Adante Davis and then Beaty to clinch his spot in the state tournament.
"Practice, you really can't get enough of it," Farparan said. "All summer I was working out. After last year I just wanted to get a little bigger. I didn't think I'd be up with the big boys, but this year turned out to be great."
The future for Brick Memorial senior Chris Hayes is on the football field, but he's looking to go out with a bang as his wrestling career comes to a close. Hayes finished third at 220 pounds, defeating Manalapan's Joe Marano 12-5. Hayes was defeated by eventual champion Eric Keosseian 4-1 in the semifinals, but bounced back with a 4-3 win over Toms River East's Kelly Conklin before taking down Marano.
Hayes didn't start wrestling until eighth grade, and never had any expectations for the sport. Reaching the state tournament was never on his radar.
"I didn't think so at all," Hayes said. "Going through the regular season I started to get better and better, and I realized how good I was. The coaches encouraged me to keep pushing. I never thought I would do this."
Hayes was forthright enough to admit he's looking forward to the end and to getting back on the football field next season at Sacred Heart University, where he has a scholarship and recently signed his National Letter of Intent.
"Honestly, I can't wait for it to be over," Hayes said. "But I'm not giving up. I'm definitely looking to place in states."
Wrestling editor Bob Badders can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.