Heart of a Champion: Wall’s Brett Donner Battles Back for Third in the State at 170 Pounds
ATLANTIC CITY — Brett Donner was crushed after suffering a stunning loss on Friday night in the NJSIAA state tournament pre-quarterfinals. His state title dreams were dashed, and there were two ways he could have went following the defeat.
It was a long Friday night and Saturday morning for Donner, but there was no way the Wall senior was going to pack it in and end his career without a fight. He was going to come back with a vengeance.
Donner won six straight bouts in the 170-pound consolation bracket, ultimately defeating Bound Brook junior George Walton, 5-3, to finish third and conclude his sterling career on a high note during the NJSIAA Individual Tournament on Sunday at Boardwalk Hall.
“I’m pretty happy I finished that way, and more happy I left it all on the mat and finished my high school career with a win,” Donner said.
A Rutgers signee, Donner was picked by many to reach the state final and take home the title. He entered the tournament with a 35-0 record, but was shocked in his first bout by Carteret’s Elias Vega, 12-8. Up 4-1 in the first period, Donner admitted he got a bit overconfident on his feet, and Vega made him pay by throwing him to his back for four-point move. Donner was shook mentally, and Vega, who ultimately finished eighth, ended up earning the biggest win in his program’s history.
There’s nothing you can do about it now, but I believe I’m twice the wrestler that kid is,” Donner said. “I got frustrated when I got put to my back and couldn’t get my mind straight after that. I could have controlled the match more. It’s not a dual meet, so I shouldn’t be taking guys down like that. I took him down twice in the first period and was grinding him on top with a bar and almost had a turn. I let him up and got a little too cocky there on my feet. I have no excuses. One bad mistake and that’s what this tournament does. It will eat you up.”
New Jersey’s state tournament, considered among the very best in the country, has chewed up and spit out countless great wrestlers over the years, and will do it again in the years to come. Wrestlers that are upset early often never recover. Donner was determined not to let that happen to him.
“It took me all night and halfway through the morning, but when I started warming up (Saturday morning) I was able to get my mind off it a little bit,” Donner said.
He received some text messages from his future college coaches offering words of support, and those really helped him get back his mental edge.
“Coach (Scott) Goodale said, ‘you have to battle back, it’s that simple’,” Donner said. “(Assistant coach Donny) Pritzlaff said I have all year to be disappointed, but I have to go to work tomorrow. That was a big one for me. To know they were behind me was pretty awesome.”
Donner started his run to his second career state third-place medal with a 13-5 win over Ocean’s T.J. Saldutti. He then topped Collingswood’s Michael Taulane, 10-4, before defeating Delsea’s Brad Dobzanski, 5-2, to clinch a top-eight finish.
In the wrestleback quarterfinals he beat DePaul’s Spencer Carey, 10-3, before getting a rematch he had waited a year for. During Donner’s injury-plagued junior season he returned to win a second Region 6 title and reach the state quarterfinals, but it was there he was pinned by Wayne Hills’ Dan Kilroy. He was hoping to see Kilroy in the state semifinals since both were seeded in the bottom bracket, but it didn’t work out for either. Instead they squared off in the wrestleback quarterfinals with a spot in the third-place bout on the line.
Tied 1-1 in the third period, Kilroy scored a takedown for a 3-1 lead with under a minute remaining. Donner responded with a reversal to tie the bout at three and force overtime, and in sudden victory he secured the winning takedown for a triumphant 5-3 win.
“That one was eating at me for a year, so it was huge for me,” Donner said. “That was the one marked on my calendar all year.”
The championship bracket showcases a wrestler’s skill, but the consolation bracket is where much is learned about their mental toughness. It’s a war of attrition where only the strong survive.
“He really showed some amazing character to come back from that,” said Wall head coach Brian Fischer. “He obviously didn’t reach his ultimate goal, but he let people know what he was made of by reacting the way he did. Champions we judge by how they deal with losses and things like that. It’s huge, especially in this sport.”
“I knew I had it in me,” Donner said. “I just had to prove it to myself.”
Donner’s future Rutgers teammate, Bergen Catholic senior Joe Grello, ended up winning the 170-pound state title for the second straight season. While all parties, including Goodale and his staff, would have loved to see Donner reach the state final, they are no doubt happy with the way he responded to adversity.
“From day one that we had Brett we saw a Division 1 brawling college wrestler,” Fischer said. “Whether we got a state title or not I know his best stuff is yet to come. He’s going to shine in college.”