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ATLANTIC CITY -- One would assume a returning state champion would feel invincible every time he steps foot on the mat, but Brick Memorial senior Evan Tallmadge admitted that this season he has not been the same wrestler as the one that stood atop the podium last spring.

The old Evan Tallmadge returned on Friday night, however, and the timing couldn't have been better.

In the 120-pound NJSIAA state semifinals at Boardwalk Hall, Tallmadge won the rubber match with Christian Brothers Academy sophomore Alex Nini by a 7-2 decision to return to the state final and put himself one step closer to becoming a two-time NJ state champion. Tallmadge had defeated Nini in tiebreaker during the regular season and last week Nini beat him in tiebreaker in the Region 6 final.

"That was the real Evan Tallmadge," he said. "I was in a weird funk, wasn't there mentally. Even at the beginning of the tournament I wasn't quite there yet. I was a little scared and nervous. Last year I knew I was going to win the state tournament. This year I knew I could win, that I was capable, but my mindset had to be different."

Whatever had shaken Tallmadge's confidence was brushed aside in the state semifinals as he got to his offense in the second half of the bout. Scoreless after the first period, Tallmadge went down and escaped to take a 1-0 lead. He then went for a throw that didn't quite hit the mark, but he stayed with it and eventually brought Nini to the mat for a takedown that was awarded at the buzzer after the officials talked it over.

Nini escaped 16 seconds into the third period to make it 3-1 but Tallmadge kept pressing forward and was able to secure another takedown to extend his lead to 5-1. Nini escaped again to get within 5-2 and went for a desperation throw as time winded down. Tallmadge didn't get caught, however, and instead scored one final takedown for the 7-2 victory.

"My match is pushing the pace, my offense, hand fighting good, keep moving forward," Tallmadge said. "I knew I was better than Nini. He's a great opponent but I wrestled his match last week. Even the first time when I beat him, I wrestled his match."

Nick Angen is the only two-time state champion in Brick Memorial history, winning titles in 1994 and 1996. Tallmadge can become the second tomorrow afternoon. He will face Roxbury senior Luke Stanich in the state final after Stanich beat Southern's Conor Collins, 1-0, to remain undefeated. Collins, who was the No. 1 seed, was hit with two stalling calls in the first period, and that one point proved to be the difference.

Tallmadge has not wrestled Stanich before, and while Stanich is of course an excellent wrestler, Tallmadge is less concerned about him than making sure his own mindset is where it needs to be. Do that, and state gold will be his once more.

"I know I'm better than everybody in this bracket," Tallmadge said. "I don't just want to be a two-time state champ, I need it. I needed to get myself together and get my mind right. I had to. I had no other options. Luckily, I did when it mattered."

Brick Memorial will have three state finalists on Saturday afternoon, tied with Bergen Catholic and Delbarton for the most in the state.

One of the other finalists comes as no surprise. Junior Anthony Santaniello made it three trips to the championship mat in as many seasons with a 12-0 major decision over Cinnaminson's Samuel Kotch in the 132-pound semifinals. As expected, Santaniello has been a steamroller in the tournament, outscoring his opponents 63-2 in his four bouts with three technical falls and a major decision. Now, it's the rematch he's been thinking about for the past three months.

Santaniello will face Delbarton junior Tyler Vazquez in the state final, finally getting a chance to exact revenge after losing to Vazquez, 6-5, in the Beast of the East championship bout. Vazquez pinned St. John Vianney's Nico Diaz in 45 seconds in the other semifinal. Santaniello has been stewing on that defeat, one of just two in his career, since that December 19 setback and has played out a rematch over and over and over his head. They just might put on the best state final of them all.

Santaniello is Brick Memorial's first three-time state finalist in program history and, like Tallmadge, can become the first two-time state champion in program history - if his friend doesn't beat him to the punch two bouts before.

The Mustangs' third state finalist is freshman Harvey Ludington, who has officially arrived as one of New Jersey's very best pound-for-pound wrestlers. Ludington was seeded seventh at 175 pounds for the tournament and reached the final with a 2-0 win over Red Bank Catholic returning state runner-up Sabino Portella and then an 8-5 victory over St. Joseph-Montvale returning state third-place finisher Michael Dellagatta.

Ludington will wrestle Delsea's Jared Schoppe in the final. The No. 5 seed won 8-3 over Rumson-Fair Haven's Shay Addison in the other semifinal.

In beating the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in the bracket, Ludington has put himself in rarified air as a freshman reaching a state final at one of the upper weights. But he isn't here just to make the final

"I'm here for a reason. I came to win it, not just to be in the final," Ludington said.

Tall and powerful with a nasty top game, Ludington is a former Super 32 champion with plenty of Greco-Roman accolades also under his belt. Brick Memorial knew they had something special when Ludington moved in from Nevada last year. Now the rest of the state sees it, too.

Dellagatta scored first to take a 2-0 lead before Ludington escaped and scored a takedown for a 3-2 lead. Dellagatta then came through with a reversal at the buzzer to end the first period with a 4-3 edge.

The bout changed in the second period when Ludington got a leg in and worked over Dellagatta for the full two minutes, riding him out to stay within 4-3. He took bottom in the third, got out to tie the bout 4-4, and immediately took Dellagatta down to take a 6-4 lead. An escape by Dellagatta closed the gap to 6-5 but Ludington clinched his trip to the state final with a late takedown for the 8-5 victory.

"I feel like he wanted it but I needed it," Ludington said. "I needed that win and I got it."

The Shore Conference had a very good Friday at Boardwalk Hall, placing 15 wrestlers into the semifinals and leaving with eight who will wrestle on the center mat Saturday in the state finals. An additional seven made their way through the wrestleback rounds to clinch state medals, giving the Shore Conference a total of 22 state place-winners.

CBA's Garrett Totten and Julian George Reach State Finals

For CBA, senior Garrett Totten avenged a loss to St. Peter's Prep's Caedyn Ricciardi to reach the 126-pound state final. Ricciardi, a standout freshman for the Marauders, beat Totten 3-1 during the regular season. This time Totten got the best of him on the big stage, using a 5-point move late in the second period on his way to a 6-1 victory.

"I lost to that kid and I wanted the revenge," Totten said. "He's a tough kid, a freshman, big for the weight. I knew I had to get one takedown on him to seal the match. He kind of shot a little bit of a lazy double and I shucked his right arm and put him right to his back. Once I had him on his back I knew I won the match."

A two-time state seventh-place finisher, Totten has taken his wrestling to a new level in the last month. He wrestled great down the stretch as CBA reached the Non-Public A final. Then he won his first district and first region titles. Now his final high school bout will be in the state final.

Totten will wrestle the top seed, Kinnelon senior Evan Mougalian, in the 126-pound state final. Mougalian won the 2020 106-pound state title with a win over Brick Memorial's Anthony Santaniello and then finished second to Stantaniello last season at 120 pounds. Mougalian pinned Middletown South's Jack Zaleski in the other semifinal.

"My coaches have been pushing me hard in the room, my workout partners have been pushing me," Totten said. "They kept telling me I'm going to be a state champ and that's all that's been going through my mind."

"Being a senior, being in the state finals; it's been my goal since I was a little kid. I have one more match left in my high school career and I'm going to make it count."

At 138 pounds, top-seeded CBA junior Julian George survived a scare in the quarterfinals and then wrestled a more familiar-looking bout in the semifinals to advance to the state final. He needed rideouts to defeat St. Peter's Prep's Felix Lettini, 4-3, in the quarterfinals before a 5-1 victory over West Essex's Mike Pescatore in the semifinals.

George finished eighth in the state at 132 pounds last season but has elevated his wrestling to the point where he finished third at the Beast of the East, third at the Escape the Rock Tournament, and is now one win away from being a state champion.

"At the state tournament it's so competitive that a win is a win, you just have to keep winning and advancing all the way to the top," George said. "Lettini is a really good wrestler and I knew it was going to be a fight."

The state final will be the rubber match with Bergen Catholic senior Joe Cangro, who is looking to close his career with the missing piece of his puzzle. Cangro was third in the state at 106 as a freshman, third again at 113 as a sophomore, and the state runner-up at 126 pounds last season. He beat Goerge 5-3 in sudden victory during a Bergen Catholic-CBA dual meet and George beat him, 5-4, during the Non-Public A state final.

"I'm really excited for it," George said. "This is the match I wanted going into the tournament. He's my only loss in New Jersey and I want to prove to everybody that I'm the better wrestler. He's a great opponent, a lot of fun to wrestle and pretty funky."

The key for George?

"Just staying relaxed in all positions and wrestling through all positions. You can feel like you have two on that kid and then all of the sudden you're on your back."

St. John Vianney's Freshmen Phenoms Surge into 106 & 113 Title Bouts

The 113 semifinal in the top bracket had the looks of a state final with St. John Vianney's Anthony Knox and Delbarton sophomore and returning state champion Daniel Jones meeting, and it was Knox who emerged with a 5-1 victory to punch his ticket to the championship bout.

Knox had a takedown in the first period, rode Jones out in the second period, and added another takedown in the third period for a dominant victory over last season's 106-pound state champion.

"I've wrestled Dan a million times in middle school and we wrestled in the youth state finals a couple times," Knox said. "I wanted to say low, get to my offense, and go win a state title."

Knox entered high school with considerable hype as a multiple-time Super 32 champion along with titles at Tulsa Nationals and Freestyle Nationals. He stated that his goal was to go undefeated throughout his high school career but that dream ended when he lost in the Escape the Rock finals as the No. 1 113-pounder in the country. But that is behind him now. In front of him is the chance to win a state title on his quest to become a four-time New Jersey champion.

"It doesn't matter anymore," Knox said. "I told myself I needed to get here and have a good mindset and just keep scoring no matter what. I let my foot off the gas but I got back on it."

Knox will wrestle Eastern senior Jared Brunner, who is a two-time state medalist. His plan? Push an unrelenting place.

"Score, score, score, score, score; just keep scoring," Knox said. "If I score 20 I don't think he's going to score 20."

Joining Knox in the final is Patrick O'Keefe at 106 pounds. Wrestling as the No. 3 seed, O'Keefe won 4-0 over Mount Olive's Tyeler Hagensen and then 4-0 over North Hunterdon's Logan Wadle in the semifinals. It was O'Keefe's second win over the returning state runner-up to go along with a 5-3 win during the regular season.

O'Keefe led 1-0 going into the third period and Wadle chose bottom. He never got out. O'Keefe cranked an arm bar in the third period for three near-fall points to seal the victory and move on to the title bout. He'll face St. Peter's Prep freshman Adrian DeJesus, who defeated O'Keefe, 3-2, during the regular season.

22 Clinch Spots on the Podium

In addition to the eight finalists, seven other wrestlers reached the semifinals and seven more won their wrestleback bouts to clinch top-eight medals.

In addition to Nini and Collins at 120 pounds, Zaleski at 126, and Diaz at 132, CBA's Tyler Barrett and Zander Silva and Rumson-Fair Haven's Shay Addison suffered defeats in the semifinals. Barrett lost 4-3 to Passaic Tech's Laith Hamdeh in the 150-pound semifinals and Silva suffered a 7-0 loss to Delbarton's Simon Ruiz in the 157-pound semifinals. Addison was defeated by Delsea's Jared Schoppe, 8-3, in the 175-pound semifinals.

Wrestling back for state medals were Donovan Catholic sophomore Kurt Wehner at 106, Southern Regional sophomore Matt Henrich at 139, Southern Regional junior Cole Velardi at 150, St. John Vianney junior Jasiah Queen and Ocean senior Shane Cartagena-Walsh at 157, Red Bank Catholic junior Sabino Portella at 175, and Red Bank Catholic sophomore Lorenzo Portella at 285.

Nini, Collins, Zaleski, Diaz, Barrett, Silva, Addison, Velardi, Queen, Cartagena-Walsh, and Sabino Portella can still finish as high as third. Wehner, Henrich, and Lorenzo Portella lost their wrestleback round 5 bouts and will wrestle for seventh place on Saturday morning.


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