Brick Memorial turned in one of its best seasons in history in 2014-2015, no small feat for a program of the Mustangs’ stature. A major reason was the guidance of second-year coach Mike Denver, the 2015 Shore Sports Network Wrestling Coach of the Year.

Brick Memorial head coach Mike Denver lets out a roar as senior Alec Donovan wins the NJSIAA 145-pound state title. (Photo by Larry Murphy/Sports Pix NJ)
Brick Memorial head coach Mike Denver lets out a roar as senior Alec Donovan wins the NJSIAA 145-pound state title. (Photo by Larry Murphy/Sports Pix NJ)

Brick Memorial was a dominant force this season in finishing 21-1 and winning every title in its path. The Mustangs then put a Shore-Conference record four wrestlers in the state finals in Atlantic City and had their seventh state champion crowned when senior Alec Donovan won the 145-pound title.

The Mustangs’ only loss this season came to Bergen Catholic, which finished ranked No. 1 in the state for the second straight season and No. 11 in the nation. Brick Memorial finished ranked No. 2 in the state by the New Jersey Wrestling Coaches Association.

To get there, Brick Memorial had to navigate one of the state’s toughest schedules, which included competing in one of the country’s toughest divisions: Class A South. The Mustangs swept a divisional slate that included four top 25 teams in Jackson Memorial, Toms River South, Southern Regional and Brick. They also defeated Group II champion Hanover Park during the regular season.

A 27-26 regular-season win over Jackson Memorial was one of the best wrestling matches in years, coming down to the last bout when sophomore Nick Rivera used a Peterson to beat Brody Graham 6-2 and clinch the match.

Brick Memorial won its conference-best 15th Shore Conference Tournament title by beating both Toms River South and Jackson Memorial for a second time each.

In the South Jersey Group V tournament, the Mustangs got revenge on Howell with a 28-25 victory one year after the Rebels defeated them in the Central Jersey Group IV final. At the Group Championships in Trenton, Brick Memorial dominated North Bergen 40-15 in the Group V semifinals before crushing Hunterdon Central 53-15 to win the inaugural NJSIAA Group V championship. It was the eighth state championship in Brick Memorial history, which is the most in Shore Conference history and tied for fourth-most in state history.

In the individual postseason the Mustangs won their conference-best 29th district team title and sixth in a row by claiming the District 23 title by nearly 100 points. They had six champions crowned, including four-time champ Donovan, and advanced 13 of 14 wrestlers to the Region VI Tournament.

At the Region VI Tournament, the Mustangs had four wrestlers reach the finals and came away with three champions as Donovan, senior Cliff Ruggiero and sophomore Nick Rivera won championships and Ruggiero was selected as Most Outstanding Wrestler.

The state tournament became the Mustangs’ playground as all four wrestlers combined to go 13-0 in advancing all the way to the state finals. Sophomore Gianni Ghione beat top-seeded Alec Kelly with an impressive 16-5 major decision in the quarterfinals, while Ruggiero pinned Clearview’s Ed Lenkowski in the quarterfinals before beating Phillipsburg’s Max Elling in the semifinals. Rivera made his way to the heavyweight state final as just a sophomore, a feat that had not been accomplished since Manchester’s Jimmy Lawson in 2008.

Donovan pinned the No. 1 seed, Delbarton’s Travis Vasquez, in the quarterfinals before using a reversal with seven seconds to beat High Point’s Jason Gaccione 3-2 in the semifinals. A third-period escape was all Donovan needed to beat Bound Brook’s Stephan Glasgow 1-0 and claim the 145-pound state title.

Along with Bergen Catholic, the Mustangs had a state-best four state finalists.

“I just have to say I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support I have from coaches, parents and administrators,” Denver said. “It’s no wonder why we are as good as we are. It’s because of the people around us. We’re one big family and we always do what’s best for each other.”

Denver wrestled at Central, where he was a two-time District 24 runner-up at 171 pounds and the third-place finisher in the Region VI Tournament at 171 as a senior, finishing 34-7. He blossomed at the next level at The College of New Jersey, winning the 2012 Division III national championship at 184 pounds.

He started his coaching career right out of college at St. Rose before taking over last season for Dan O’Cone, who stepped down after seven seasons and two NJSIAA Group IV titles. Denver came in as just the fourth coach in Brick Memorial history, and obviously had some lofty standards to live up to. And after falling short of a state title in his first season, he had to rebound after graduating three state medalists.

The Mustangs responded with an all-time season, and had eight wrestlers win 20 or more matches. The biggest testament to a coach’s impact is the improvement of its athletes. All 14 of Brick Memorial’s starters either matched or surpassed their win totals from the previous year.

“It’s awesome to be able to step into the shoes of someone like O’Cone and step into a program like this and be accepted,” Denver said. “Sometimes you may come into a new place and people want to do their own thing, but I’ll tell you, it was amazing. I had people that I’ve only known for a month and a half asking me what I need and always trying to help. That belief and faith really helped me out and made it easy.”

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