Wrestling – Cliff Ruggiero Wins Most Outstanding Wrestler to Lead Region VI Champions
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TOMS RIVER — Since the start of the NJSIAA Team Tournament, Brick Memorial’s Cliff Ruggiero has been wrestling on a different level.
The Mustangs senior is known for his high-flying and aggressive style, and that has been on full display for the past month. One week after a disappointing end to his District 23 finals match, Ruggiero found redemption in a momentous way.
During Saturday’s NJSIAA Region VI Tournament finals, Ruggiero avenged his loss to Will Scott by pinning the Brick senior in 3:29 to capture the 160-pound region title at Pine Belt Arena. It is the first region title for Ruggiero.
During last week’s District 23 final, Ruggiero lost by disqualification for an illegal slam on Scott. He was leading 5-2 at the time and had also defeated Scott earlier in the season. The two are also friends, so it was a frustrating situation all around for Ruggiero.
“I was obviously upset last week because things didn’t go as planned,” Ruggiero said. “I thought I was the better wrestler, but things don’t always go your way.”
This time he was unquestionably the best. Ruggiero ran through the 160-pound bracket like he was literally on fire. He won by technical fall in the opening round, then shook the roof of Pine Belt Arena with a first-period pin over Toms River South’s Antrez Clagon in the semifinals, which also was his 100th career victory. Ruggiero was selected by the coaches as the tournament’s Most Outstanding Wrestler.
In the final he built a 7-3 lead on Scott after one period, then went up 9-3 with a takedown early in the second. Scott tried to roll through and out as a riding Ruggiero pushed forward, but Ruggiero caught him to start the pinning sequence, which he finished off at the 3:29 mark.
“Today I was just focused on my match and trying to score 500 points,” Ruggiero said. “You score as many points as you can and you’re not going to lose.”
There was one anxious moment, however, when Ruggiero brought Scott down to the mat hard in the second period. He gave referee Joe Knipper a look to see if he was again going to be called for an illegal slam. He was not, and the match continued.
“I didn’t think it was a slam at all,” Ruggiero said. “I didn’t really give much power to it.”
One week after storming off the mat and out of the gym in disappointment, Ruggiero was back on top.
“I completely forgot (about last week),” he said. “A region title is a lot sweeter than a district title.”
Ruggiero was one of three Brick Memorial wrestlers to win region titles on Saturday. Sophomore Nick Rivera won the heavyweight title, his first, by pinning Jackson Memorial’s Brody Graham in their third meeting of the year. Senior Alec Donovan outlasted Pinelands senior Tom Poklikuha 3-2 at 145 pounds to win his first region title and advance to the state tournament for the third time. Brick Memorial head coach Mike Denver was selected as the Region VI Coach of the Year.
Keansburg senior Tyree Sutton became the Titans’ first region champion in program history by winning the 195-pound title, while Jackson Liberty senior Mike Russo won his third region title by claiming the 126-pound title. Toms River South’s Owen McClave at 120, Rumson’s Marcus Iwama at 132, Southern’s Matt Wilhelm at 152, Wall’s Brett Donner at 170 and Brick’s Dean Sherry at 182 each repeated as region champs.
Sutton wrote his name into the history books in winning the 195-pound title with a 1-0 win over Wall sophomore Matt McKenzie. Sutton was sixth in the state at 195 pounds last season and is ranked in the top 15 in the nation, so he was the heavy favorite to win on Saturday. He dispatched of Toms River South’s Quentin DeCarlo 6-1 in the semifinals before holding McKenzie at bay in the final. McKenzie entered with a 33-0 record, while Sutton improved to 39-0. Next week he’ll try to make even bigger history as he goes for a state title, which would be the first ever for a Keansburg wrestler.
At 170, Donner won a star-studded weight class by defeating Ocean’s Zach Hertling 6-4 in the final. Donner had to defeat Brick’s Kyle Wojtaszek in the semifinals, which he did via a 5-3 decision, in a rematch of their epic District 23 final won by Donner in overtime, 13-11. The final pitted two state medalists as Donner was third last year at 160 as a sophomore, while Hertling was fourth as a freshman at 120 and third as a sophomore at 132.
Donner had a takedown in each of the first two periods and added a reversal in the third, while not allowing an offensive point to win his second region title. He did the same against Wojtaszek, limiting his opponent’s offense with a great performance on his feet.
“It just comes down to pushing the pace and getting that part of my game back,” said Donner, who missed the first month of the season with a high-ankle sprain. “The big thing was setting the pace early and having the wind to do it.”
For Donner, this is just a step on the ladder he’s climbing toward a state championship. Despite missing time and having to work his way back into top form, Donner, who is ranked No. 10 in the nation at 170, has one goal on his mind.
“A region title is cool - the first one is a lot nicer, obviously - and this one means a lot to me because I had to fight through some adversity,” Donner said. “But I know what the bigger goal is. I want to be a two-time state champion. I fell short last year and I don’t want that to happen again.”
Nick Rivera started the finals off with a bang by pinning Graham in 5:14 to win his first region title. The top two heavyweights in the Shore all season had met twice earlier with Rivera winning 6-1 during the regular season and Graham winning 1-0 during the Shore Conference Tournament. Just like the first two matches, Graham led 1-0 heading to the third period before Rivera hit a standing switch into a pinning sequence. He finished off the fall quickly with 46 seconds left in the third period.
“I was down 1-0 looking for an opportunity to get out or for a reversal, and coach yelled out for a switch,” Rivera said. “As soon as I started to complete the motion I knew I was going to get the two, but I didn’t know what was coming after. It definitely stunned me.”
Graham is a beast on top, but because of that Rivera thought that’s where he could make his move, just like he did during their first meeting when he hit a Peterson.
“I feel like he’s so good on top he can get caught because he’s used to dominating and it surprises him,” Rivera said. “It’s definitely hard to get out from under him, but I was trying to figure out where he was going and from there had to adjust accordingly. I was looking for all different things, but didn’t want to take a chance. I stuck to the roots of Brick Memorial.”
Toms River South’s McClave held off Wall senior Denzel Tovar, 2-1 in double overtime at 120 pounds, in a battle of undefeated wrestlers to win his second region title. McClave rode out Tovar in the first tiebreaker overtime, then escaped early in the second tiebreaker before holding on for the win.
“I knew Denzel was going to know what I was going for,” McClave said. “He knows I have a dump - everybody knows I have a dump. The fact I almost hit it on him in the first period caught me by surprise.”
“I figured we would go no takedowns and both get out on each other,” McClave continued. “I was hoping to get a takedown in overtime and didn’t want to take it to rideouts, but sometimes things don’t go as planned and you have to improvise and find a way to win.”
At 113, Christian Brothers Academy junior Sebastian Rivera remained unbeaten and exacted a bit of revenge by defeating Brick Memorial sophomore Gianni Ghione, 3-1 in sudden victory overtime, to win his first region title. Ghione defeated Rivera 5-3 in last season’s 106-pound region final, but Rivera got him this time by using an ankle pick to a double-leg takedown in overtime for the victory.
“The guys I was working with, (former Toms River East star and four-time region champ) Vinnie DelleFave and my dad (Elite Wrestling founder and 1987 state champion at 102 pounds for Manalapan Steve Rivera) really helped me,” Rivera said. “And last time I warmed up really hard and didn’t feel too good on the mat. This time I took it easy.”
Mike Russo defeated Toms River South freshman Cole Corrigan 5-0 to win his third region title and run his career record to 155-9. His twin brother Matt won his first region title by defeating Lacey’s Connor Garrity 4-1 at 138 pounds. Matt Russo remains undefeated on the season with a 39-0 record.
Donovan and Poklikuha put on a show in the 145-pound final with crazy scrambles throughout the match. Down 1-0 in the third period, Poklikuha scored a reversal to go up 2-1. Donovan, however, came right back with a reversal of his own to go up 3-2, and held on through a wild ending sequence to capture his first region title.
Wilhelm handed Manalapan’s Jake Kaminsky his first loss of the season with a 5-2 victory in the 152-pound final. Wilhelm was last season’s 138-pound champion.
Brick senior Dean Sherry won his second region title and remained undefeated (34-0) by pinning Toms River South senior Joe Salvato in 5:50. Salvato also entered undefeated. Sherry was leading 5-4 in the third period when he secured a takedown with under 20 seconds left to go up 7-4. Off the restart, Sherry caught Salvato trying to hit a big move and pinned him with 10 seconds left.
Iwama became Rumson's second two-time region champion, joining current head coach Bryan Heller, by defeating Howell junior Anthony Gagliano 9-7 at 132 pounds. Iwama built a 6-3 lead after the first period and added another takedown in the second period. He kept Gagliano without any offensive points until a takedown in the closing seconds.
Middletown North junior Chad Freshnock became the 13th Lions wrestler to win a region title and first since Shore Conference legend Frank Molinaro won in 2004 during his only season at Middletown North before transferring to Southern. Freshnock beat CBA junior Will Oxley for the third time this season, taking an 8-1 decision at 220 pounds. Freshnock used a first-period takedown to lead 3-1 lead into the third period before using an outside trip to put Oxley to his back late in the bout for a five-point move.
CBA freshman Rich Koehler completed an incredible tournament run by beating Colts Neck freshman Joey King, 9-2, in the 106-pound final. Koehler had stunned the crowd at Pine Belt Arena earlier in the day when he won by 12-0 major decision over top-seeded and previously undefeated Howell freshman Kyle Slendorn, who had defeated him 7-4 during the regular season.
Hwt: 2-Nick Rivera (Brick Memorial, So.) p. 1-Brody Graham (Jackson Memorial, Sr.), 5:14
106: 5-Rich Koehler (CBA, Fr.) d. 2-Joey King (Colts Neck, Fr.), 9-2
113: 1-Sebastian Rivera (CBA, Jr.) d. 2-Gianni Ghione (Brick Memorial, So.), 3-1 OT
120: 1-Owen McClave (Toms River South, Jr.) vs. 2-Denzel Tovar (Wall, Sr.), 2-1 3 OT
126: 1-Mike Russo (Jackson Liberty, Sr.) d. 7-Cole Corrigan (Toms River South, Fr.), 5-0
132: 2-Marcus Iwama (Rumson, Sr.) d. 4-Anthony Gagliano (Howell, Jr.), 9-7
138: 1-Matt Russo (Jackson Liberty, Sr.) d. 3-Connor Garrity (Lacey, Sr.), 4-1
145: 1-Alec Donovan (Brick Memorial, Sr.) vs. 2-Tom Poklikuha (Pinelands, Sr.) 3-2
152: 1-Matt Wilhelm (Southern Sr.) d. 2-Jake Kaminsky (Manalapan, Sr) 5-2
160: 2-Cliff Ruggiero (Brick Memorial, Sr.) p. 1-Will Scott (Brick, Sr.) 3:29
170: 2-Brett Donner (Wall, Jr.) d. 1-Zach Hertling (Ocean, Sr.) 6-4
182: 1-Dean Sherry (Brick, Sr.) p. 3-Joe Salvato (Toms River South, Sr.) 5:50
195: 1-Tyree Sutton (Keansburg, Sr.) d. 2-Matt McKenzie (Wall, So.) 1-0
220: 1-Chad Freshnock (Middletown North, Jr.) vs. 3-Will Oxley (CBA, Jr.) 8-1