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ATLANTIC CITY -- As the minutes ticked by late Thursday night, Middletown South's Thea Rowland was restless. All she could think about was her pending NJSIAA state semifinal match set for Friday, a chance to erase the frustration of last season and move one step closer to her ultimate goal.

"I couldn't sleep, I think I fell asleep at 1 a.m. and then woke up early to watch the boys," Rowland said. "I couldn't imagine wrestling back again. That stunk last year taking fourth. I want to leave it all on the mat."

The excitement and anticipation might keep Rowland up again Friday night, because on Saturday afternoon she'll wrestle in the biggest match of her life.

An escape with 54 seconds left in the third period held up as the winning point when Rowland took out top-seeded and defending state champion Olivia Georges of DePaul Catholic, 4-3, during Friday afternoon's NJSIAA state semifinals at Boardwalk Hall. The victory thrust Rowland into the 145-pound state final versus Boonton's Julia Fongaro where she will try to become Middletown South's first state champion since 1994.

Rowland struck first with a takedown in the first period and led 2-1 heading to the second period. A reversal by Georges in the second gave her a 3-2 lead before Rowland escaped to tie the bout 3-3 heading to the third.

"When I chose bottom in the third I was thinking about how and when I wanted to get out and what she was going to do when I did," Rowland said. "I knew there would be urgency."

Georges pushed ahead aggressively in the final 30 seconds but Rowland kept her at bay and held on for the one-point win to reach the state final. She is the first state finalist for Middletown South since three-time state champion Glenn Pritzlaff won the last of his titles in 1994.

It's all about mindset," Rowland said. "Kind of like chess. You have to plan for each move and know how to counter and always have a plan in your head."

Rowland will face Boonton's Jula Fongaro in the 145-pound state championship match on Saturday. Fongaro was fourth in the state at 132 pounds last season. Rowland is 28-2 on the season, but one of those losses came to Fongaro when she scored a 10-1 major decision at the Lady Pioneer Jamboree.

"Now I know how to wrestle her," Rowland said. "I need to believe in myself and have that killer mindset. I know I can do it."

Rowland was one of three Shore Conference girls to reach the state finals.

At 114 pounds, Howell sophomore Kyle Gudeitwz defeated Colts Neck senior Alexandra Tchekounova, 4-0. At 185 pounds, Central Regional sophomore Liliana Alicea used a reversal with 48 seconds left to edge Gateway/Woodbury's Shaelie Young, 2-1.

Gudewitz placed third in the state at 107 pounds last season, losing to eventual state champion Leeana Mercado of Lodi in the quarterfinals before blitzing through the wrestlebacks to take third. It was a great start to her career but a result that still irks her.

"I was so upset with my result from last year," Gudewitz said. "It wasn't what I was hoping for so this year I'm happy to get where I wanted."

Bob Badders |
Bob Badders |

After a scoreless first period versus Tchekounova, Gudewitz chose bottom and scored a reversal at the 1:14 mark to take a 2-0 lead. Tchekounova chose neutral to begin the third period and Gudewitz delivered a takedown with 1:13 left to add to her lead.

"She has really good legs and is so good on top, so that was my biggest concern, getting out on bottom," Gudewitz said. "(The reversal) was the biggest confidence booster. Once I did that I knew I had it in the bag."

Like Rowland, Gudewitz didn't get to wrestle in Boardwalk Hall last year because the majority of the tournament was held at Phillipsburg High School with only the finals being held in Atlantic City. It has been an eye-opening opportunity that has brought out the best in her.

"I'm not going to lie, I was kind of nervous," Gudewitz said. "Normally I don't get overwhelmed by big arenas but everyone was watching and I knew I had to come through."

Gudewitz will face Ramsey senior Paige Kirk in the 114-pound state final. Kirk, the No. 8 seed, stunned Sparta's Paige Weiss, the top seed and a returning state champion, by fall in the quarterfinals. She then pinned fourth-seeded Cami Bird from Egg Harbor in the semifinals. Howell's

"I've never wrestled her before so I'm excited for that," Gudewitz said. "You wrestle the same girls over and over in these tournaments so I'm excited for new competition."

Alicea's dream postseason continued when she won the rubber match with Young to reach the state final. It all started last week at the South Region tournament where Alicea was the No. 5 seed. She bested Young, a previous state finalist who pinned her during the regular season, 7-5 in the semifinals. One match earlier she pinned Donovan Catholic returning state finalist Jade Hahn in the quarterfinals. She then pinned Pennsauken's Macenzie Hunter to win the region title. She had to go through the same wrestlers in Atlantic City, this time beating Hunter, 3-2, in the quarterfinals and Young, 2-1, in the semifinals.

"Sudden confidence," Alicea described her meteoric rise. "I started being more confident in myself. I had to wrestle up a weight a couple times and I was able to take down the bigger girls, so I knew if I could do that I could take down anyone in my own weight class."

An escape by Young gave her a 1-0 lead going into the third period. She was riding Alicea until the Golden Eagles sophomore hit a reversal to take the lead. She rode out Young the rest of the way to book a ticket for the center mat on Saturday afternoon.

"I really thought she was going to come out strong and try to pin me, and she did," Alicea said. "(Head coach Kyle) Watson told me to keep banging on the head to get her tired. She's very strong so it was definitely a challenge."

In the 185-pound state final, Alicea will square off with the No. 2 seed, North Plainfield's Naylani Delvalle. She will try to bring home Central's first state title since Mark Worthy won the 145-pound title in 1999.

"I'm on cloud 9 right now," Alicea said. "It's one of the best feelings. It's crazy."


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