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MIDDLETOWN -- Ryan Smith, a state tournament qualifier in each of his first two seasons, was notably absent from Brick Memorial's lineup last year. Injuries and the piecemeal 2021 season had Smith walking away from a sport he had experienced much success in.

But when practice for the 2022 season began, there was Smith, back inside the Mustangs' wrestling room and eager to rejoin one of the most storied programs in New Jersey. He came back for a moment like Wednesday night.

With the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group 4 championship hanging in the balance, the Brick Memorial senior took the mat in the final bout at 157 pounds, and when he stepped off, the Mustangs had secured sectional title No. 17.

Smith's 7-3 decision over Middletown South's Alex Quintano delivered the deciding points as the Mustangs won a classic, 26-25, over the host Eagles to claim the Central Jersey Group 4 championship for the second straight season and the 17th time in their illustrious history. Middletown South had taken a 25-23 win when David Hussey won by fall at 150 pounds, but with Smith waiting in the wings as the closer, Brick Memorial held the hammer in the 14th and final bout.

"The nerves didn't really get to me, I just left it in God's hands," Smith said. "I have my teammates behind me and a great coaching staff behind me. They train us mentally, they train us physically, they get us ready to go. All I have to do is go out there and wrestle."

Smith scored an early takedown and led 2-1 heading to the second period. He escaped and then added a takedown to go up 5-1 after two periods. He was fully in control, even when a third caution call against him and an escape by Quintano cut his lead to 5-3 with just over 30 seconds left in the bout. Quintano pushed for the tying takedown but it was Smith who instead worked off the head and spun around for two more points, clinching the state sectional championship in dramatic fashion.

"Injuries put me out of the sport but I took it easy and as soon as I got back in the room and knew my health was in order I said I want to be a Group 4 state champion and do it with my team," Smith said. "I'm so happy I came back. I just love celebrating with my team. We work so hard and this is what it's for."

"This kid is a freak athlete," said Brick Memorial head coach Mike Kiley. "To be able to take a year off and come back and wrestle the way he has, that's not normal. We're so lucky to have him back in the room."

Brick Memorial will next wrestle at North Hunterdon on Friday in the Group 4 semifinals. The four state sectional champions were seeded based on power points. Mount Olive is the No. 1 seed and will host Shawnee in the other semifinal while North Hunterdon earned the No. 2 seed to host the Mustangs.

Brick Memorial and Middletown South, which was attempting to win the first sectional title in program history, split the bouts 7-7. The difference was one bonus point. And obviously in a match decided by only one point, every single point mattered. Unique to a wrestling dual meet, those who won bouts and even those who lost played an integral part simply by doing their jobs.

"I didn't win any better than anybody else," Smith said. "Anybody who got a win tonight, they could have had the same match as me. I don't take any praise for that. It was all my team, all my coaches, all thanks to them."

Indeed, Smith's victory was one of seven for the Mustangs, each carrying different yet critical importance. Senior Lucas Torre won a must-have bout at 120 pounds, senior state champion Evan Tallmadge won a thriller over two-time state medalist Jack Zaleski at 126, junior state champion Anthony Santaniello produced a technical fall against Middletown South standout Robert Generelli, sophomore Harvey Ludington won by technical fall at 175, sophomore Gavin Martin scored a major decision at 106, and senior Sam Azzaretti won a top-10 battle at heavyweight for three crucial points. And then there was an underrated bonus save at 215 pounds when rarely used senior Mike Owusu held Matt Cody, ranked No. 7 in the Shore, to a 3-1 decision.

"It feels awesome, I've never done this in my life," Tallmadge said. "This is the first time in my life I've ever been on a team that has ever even made it to the playoffs. It's a different type of feeling than individuals."

"Dude, that was awesome," Santaniello said. "We work too hard in the room not to expect this. It came down to the wire but as happy as we are, we expected this."

"I watch these kids train and I see how hard they push themselves," Kiley said. "I have nothing but confidence when I send them out there."

For Middletown South, it was a disappointing ending to a great run led by a special senior class. The Eagles won a share of the Class A North division title, reached the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals, and came within a point of winning a sectional title.

"I'm extremely proud of our guys, especially that every one of them is from Middletown and was developed in our program," said Middletown South head coach Anton Atterbury. "We didn't assemble a team, we developed a team, and I'm unbelievably proud of the Middletown kids. They're super special, loyal to their town. They didn't transfer out and guys that did leave came back home. They all wrestled together in middle school and they are proud of the way they stuck together. We talk about that a lot. Tonight, it just didn't go our way."

Brick Memorial won the flip and, with the match starting at 165 pounds, chose even. With senior starter Nick Holland out of the lineup, Middletown South turned to Harrison King and the senior came through with a wild 11-10 victory over Mike Angrosina to give the Eagles a 3-0 lead. King had two takedowns in the first period and led 5-3 heading to the second period. He added two more takedowns in the second but Angrosina escaped to start the period, received a penalty point for a locking hands call, and escaped two more times after takedowns to keep the bout close. Angrosina then scored a takedown in the third to tie the bout at 10 but King escaped and held on in the final seconds.

Ludington then came out at 175 and cruised to a 15-0 technical fall in four minutes over Jack Reiter. Ludington, 22-1 on the season, took Reiter down in the first and turned him for two back points. In the second, he scored a reversal and piled up nine back points to secure the technical fall and give the Mustangs a 5-3 advantage.

Middletown South won a toss-up bout at 190 when senior Jack Willi won 3-2 over Brick Memorial senior Cory Martin. Willi's takedown with 30 seconds left in the second period was the difference and reversed a 4-3 loss to Martin suffered on opening day.

The Eagles won again at 215 pounds when Cody used a takedown with six seconds left in the second period to win 3-1 over Owusu, but Brick Memorial saving bonus with one of its backups against a top-10 wrestler in the Shore at 215 was a net win for the Mustangs. Middletown South was now ahead, 9-5, through four bouts.

Brick Memorial started to build the foundation of its victory at heavyweight when Azzaretti scored two takedowns in the first period on his way to a 5-1 decision over Dante Miranda. Both are ranked in the top 10 at 285 pounds. Then, at 106, Gavin Martin had five takedowns and two nearfall points en route to a 15-3 major decision over Zach Veniskey, giving Brick Memorial a 9-8 lead heading into the deciding stretch of the match.

Senior Ryan Madden put Middletown South back on top, 13-12, with a 13-0 major decision over Ken Melillo at 113. Then came the moves. Brick Memorial went with Torre at 120 and elected to bump Tallmadge to 126. With Santaniello at 132, Middletown South wasn't going to bump Zaleski away. Brick Memorial had the matchup it wanted, but Torre had to win against Middletown South's Kaden King for it to take shape.

A state qualifier as a sophomore at 106 pounds. Torre scored first with a takedown to lead 2-1 into the second period. King rode him hard in the second but Torre got free for a reversal with 20 seconds left in the period to take a 4-1 lead into the final two minutes. King escaped in the third and pressed forward for the tying takedown, but Torre added another score late in the bout to win 6-2 and give Brick Memorial a 15-13 lead.

"If we didn't have that we would have lost," Tallmadge said. "We grind every day; I go with him, Ant goes with him, we all go either each other and make each other better. Lucas has gotten really good."

"Lucas Torre, I've been saying it for a while, he's such a good wrestler," Santaniello said. "He's an emotional wrestle but I think he's starting to get over that hump. He trains hard."

Even though Brick Memorial was sending out one of its two state champions next at 126 in a matchup it wanted, it was no sure thing. Zaleski is a two-time state medalist who was fourth in the state at 120 pounds last season. The two wrestled during the 2020 state tournament at 106 pounds with Tallmadge winning 4-3.

After a scoreless first period, Tallmadge stuck to Zaleski like glue on a great ride until Zaleski worked for a reversal in the final 10 seconds. He nearly turned the tables on Tallmadge for two points but Tallmadge held on just enough to avoid the reversal. Zaleski was awarded a point for an escape, however, giving him a vital short-time score.

It was Tallmadge's turn to go on defense in the third and early in the period as he tried to work to his feet, Zaleski was called for an illegal hold and Tallmadge was awarded a point. But after officials Anthony Zullo and Ed Tonneson talked it over they waved off the penalty, leaving the score 1-0 in favor of Zaleski. Shortly after, Zaleski locked in a cradle and turned Tallmadge for a split second. It wasn't long enough for any nearfall points and Tallmadge quickly escaped to tie the bout at one. Less than 30 seconds later, Tallmadge took Zaleski down for the bout's only offensive points and held on for a 3-1 victory and an 18-13 Brick Memorial lead.

"I was excited for the match," Tallmadge said. "I knew that's what I needed to do for the team to win and I knew I could do it. It was a lot closer than I wanted it to be but it got the job done."

Bumping Tallmadge up was certainly a calculated risk for the Mustangs given the closeness of the bout, but it was still a no-brainer for Kiley to make the move.

"I had to have faith in my hammer state champ senior," Kiley said. "It shows that he's a gamer. How can you not have confidence when Evan Tallmadge is on the mat."

Brick Memorial was in the driver's seat now and had a chance to put the match away with Jack Torre taking the mat at 132 pounds against Alec Holland. The Eagles' sophomore kept his team alive with a huge win, however, scoring a takedown with 0.8 seconds left in the third period for a 5-4 victory that trimmed the Brick Memorial lead to 18-15 with four bouts left. Torre had hit a reversal with 45 seconds left in the second period to take a 4-2 lead.

Bumping Santaniello to 138 pounds left Middletown South with a difficult decision to make. Atterbury could have bumped Generelli to 144 and resigned to most likely getting pinned at 138, but that would mean bumping a good wrestler out of the lineup in the next three weights. They sent out Generelli to save bonus points, and he did by not getting pinned, but Santaniello winning by technical fall over one of the Middletown South's best wrestlers was another huge boost for the Mustangs.

"I expected them to bump but once I saw him run out on the mat I was hyped," Santaniello said. "I thought. 'we're taking them out now'."

A technical fall was on Santaniello's mind from the moment the whistle blew.

"I knew he was good and he had a good win over (Howell's Giovanni) Scafidi earlier in the year," Santaniello said. "I think I can turn anybody so I just have to wrestle smart. I knew I could get the tech but it was going to be a bit of a struggle because he's long and had the leverage on me. But once I got my feel and scored a couple points I got the ball rolling."

Like Holland at 132, Jason DeSanctis kept Middletown South alive when he defeated Brick Memorial senior Braden Scott, 5-3, at 144 pounds. Scott led 3-2 entering the third period but DeSanctis escaped in the third to tie the bout with a minute left and then secured the go-ahead takedown with 40 seconds on the clock.

Brick Memorial winning the flip now came into play big time. The Mustangs led 23-19 with two bouts left. Middletown South had Hussey, a two-time state qualifier, still to take the mat. Brick Memorial had Smith. Middletown South had to send first at 150 and with the math favoring Brick Memorial, it was an easy decision to send out Brody Elk to face Hussey and bump Smith to 157. Hussey did his job when he pinned Elk in 1:37 to give Middletown South a 25-23 lead, but Brick Memorial was able to counter with Smith in a bout where a decision was all it needed.

Smith delivered, and now the Mustangs are state sectional champions once again.

"It's awesome but we still have two more matches to go before we get our main goal of a group title," Santaniello said.

"We're not done yet," Tallmadge said.

 

Box Score

Central Jersey Group 4 Championship

2-Brick Memorial 26, 1-Middletown South 25

165: Harrison King (MS) d. Mike Angrosina, 11-10

175: Harvey Ludington (BM) tf. Jack Reiter, 4:00 (15-0)

190: Jack Willi (MS) d. Cory Martin, 3-2

215: Matt Cody (MS) d. Mike Owusu, 3-1

285: Sam Azzaretti (BM) d. Dante Miranda, 5-1

106: Gavin Martin (BM) md. Zach Veniskey, 15-3

113: Ryan Madden (MS) md. Ken Melillo, 13-0

120: Lucas Torre (BM) d. Kaden King, 6-2

126: Evan Tallmadge (BM) d. Jack Zaleski, 3-1

132: Alec Holland (MS) d. Jack Torre, 5-4

138: Anthony Santaniello (BM) tf. Robert Generelli, 4:05 (15-0)

144: Jason DeSanctis (MS) d. Braden Scott, 6-3

150: David Hussey (MS) p. Brody Elk, 1:37

157: Ryan Smith (BM) d. Alex Quintano, 7-3

 

Check back for an expanded photo gallery by Richard O'Donnell

Brick Memorial 26, Middletown South 25 in the Central Jersey Group 4 Final

 

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This. Is. Wild.