Jackson Memorial turns the tables on Brick Memorial, claims Central Jersey Group 4 title
BRICK TOWNSHIP -- Doug Withstandley doesn't claim to possess any clairvoyant abilities, nor is he the type of person to make bombastic proclamations. But what Jackson Memorial accomplished on Wednesday night, its head coach saw coming 11 months ago.
"Last March I was in school with the members of my Phys Ed department and I put a quote up on the wall that said 'we will win this section next year'," Withstandley said. "They were kind of in disbelief, but I knew what we had coming back. I knew the culture and the positivity of the room, and I knew these guys would work to get better in the summer. And they did."
A match-turning pin by junior 126-pounder Jonathan Espinosa and key victories by junior 106-pounder Joseph Weikel and senior Lucas Lipari were part of a dominant performance by the Jaguars, who won 10 of 14 bouts in a 40-19 victory over Brick Memorial to win the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group 4 title. After being eliminated by Brick Memorial in the 2020 section final, the 2022 sectional semifinals, and losing this year's regular-season meeting, Jackson turned the tables on its longtime rival to win the program's 11th sectional title and first since 2019.
The Jaguars won nearly all the toss-up bouts, pulled off a mild upset, and sent themselves back to the state semifinals. Jackson will travel to Mount Olive on Friday to face the reigning Group 4 champions, who captured the North 1 title with a 40-34 victory over Morris Knolls.
"I couldn't be more proud of this team," Withstandley said. "This was in the making. We've dealt with injuries, lineups changes, illness; everything you can imagine. To these guys' credit, they showed great resiliency. They wrestled really hard and we doubled up the score on Brick Memorial, defending sectional champs and Group 4 finalists."
"We have that fire in us and we carried it with us," Lipari said. "When we picked it up early we started running through them. We had many goals in mind this season and we just earned one of them tonight. I'm proud of my guys."
Brick Memorial won the first three bouts to open a 13-0 lead but it was all Jackson from there. The Jaguars won 10 of the final 11 bouts with the only Brick Memorial win coming from state champion Anthony Santaniello. Along with Jonathan Espinosa, seniors Ryan Fischer (285) and Luke Hamann (165) won by fall, Luis Espinosa (120) won by major decision, and Weikel (106), Jason Seda (113), Lipari (138), Ryan Wolf (144), Cael Huxford (150), and John Calamia (157) each won by decision.
In addition to Santaniello's win by fall at 132 pounds, Brick Memorial received a major decision from freshman Trey Tallmadge at 175, a pin by sophomore state champion Harvey Ludington at 190, and a decision by sophomore Ben Szuba at 215. The Mustangs were the two-time defending Central Jersey Group 4 champions and were going for their 18th sectional title.
"One thing we've preached all year is, 'Team'," Withstandley said. "When we lost to Lacey early on because we had guys out, guys thought it was okay to roll to back and get pinned or get majored or get teched. I sat them down and that was the only time this year I've gotten a little negative and ripped the team a little bit."
"I told them, it's not always the guy who wins who's the hero. It's how you lose sometimes. You can be the hero, and our guys bought into that, like Kovacs (175) and at 215 (Justin Krosnicki). Ludington and Santaniello pinned us and, honestly, they're going to pin me. Those kids are phenomenal, two of the best in the state at any weight. They're going to get theirs, but it's about the other 12 weights. We limited bonus and got it when we needed it and won all the toss-ups."
Getting healthy was a major part of the equation for Jackson Memorial. Various wrestlers were out of the lineup throughout the season due to injury and illness. Jackson certainly wasn't the only team experiencing such adversity, but to compete for sectional and group titles, you need to be at full strength. It wasn't until junior Cael Huxford, a returning state qualifier, rejoined the lineup last week after being out since Dec. 17 that the Jaguars had their optimal lineup in place.
"It was a matter of getting healthy and getting kids at the right weights and hoping they perform, and they did. I told them, keep the ball in our court. I know they're favored and the defending champions, but in my head, we were favored, we were supposed to win this dual. I know that sounds crazy and that's not typical from me to be that confident, but I have so much faith in this team and these kids."
"We all came in here ready to wrestle, and we kept our foot on the gas pedal," Jonathan Espinosa said.
With Brick Memorial winning the opening flip and the match starting at 175 pounds, Brick Memorial was able to control the matchup there. When Jackson sent out William Kovacs, Brick Memorial bumped up their lineup with Tallmadge moving up to 175. The Mustangs freshman scored a takedown 23 seconds into the bout and was overpowering in the top position, riding Kovacs for the remaining 5:37. He added two back points in the first period, two more in the second, and two more with 15 seconds left in the third period to secure an 8-0 major decision and a 4-0 Brick Memorial lead.
The bonus points had Brick Memorial set up to build an early advantage with Ludington now at 190 and sophomore Ben Szuba strengthening the 215 weight class. Ludington, last season's 175-pound state champion, needed just 22 seconds to pin Paul Novello and push the Mustangs' lead to 10-0.
Brick Memorial won at 215 to take a 13-0 lead, but this is where the match started to turn in Jackson's favor. Szuba (18-8) was favored over Krosnicki (5-4) and Brick Memorial was likely hoping for bonus points, but the Jaguars senior came out attacking and took Szuba down first. Szuba countered with a reversal and it was a back-and-forth bout from there. Krosnicki landed another takedown in the second period and one more in the third, but Szuba was able to match that offensive output, and his four escapes were the difference in a 10-6 decision.
Now, it was Jackson's turn.
Fischer, the newly-crowned Shore Conference Tournament heavyweight champion, took down Jordan Lizardi about a minute into the first period and cranked him over for a fall at 1:53. Brick Memorial 13, Jackson 6 through four bouts.
The 106-pound bout was one of the aforementioned toss-ups that each team viewed as vital. When the teams met in the regular season (a 38-32 Brick Memorial victory). Weikel edged Brick Memorial freshman Mike Napolitano, 4-3.
Napolitano scored first early in the opening period and took that 2-0 advantage into the second period. Weikel deferred his choice and Napolitano selected neutral. Weikel evened the bout on a takedown with 35 seconds left in the period, then turned Napolitano for two near-fall points with five seconds on the clock to open a 4-2 lead. Weikel chose defense in the third and Napolitano granted him a free release for a 5-2 lead. A takedown by Napolitano followed by an intentional release with 48 seconds left made it 6-4. Napolitano now had a chance to tie the bout with another takedown, but during a scramble, it was Weikel who came out with points thanks to a slick roll-through tilt. The five-point move put him up 11-4 and allowed him to absorb a late reversal by Napolitano to win by an 11-6 decision.
"Weikel is scrappy and tough and he listens to what we're telling him," Withstandley said. "Napolitano is a freshman but he's a hammer. It was a big win."
At 113, Seda defeated Gavin Martin, 7-2, in a bout where all the offensive points were scored in the first two periods. Seda had two takedowns in the first period and a reversal with 10 seconds left in the second period to build a 6-1 advantage. His victory cut Brick Memorial's lead to 13-12 through six bouts.
Luis Espinosa was able to secure an 11-3 major decision over Ryan Henderson at 120 pounds to give Jackson a lead that it would not relinquish. Espinosa was clutch late in each period, scoring a takedown with 42 seconds left in the first, a takedown with 30 seconds left in the second, and a takedown with six seconds left in the third to lock up the extra team point. He had won by decision over Henderson in their last meeting.
Even with Jackson winning some key toss-up bouts, it was still anybody's match heading into 126 where Jonathan Espinosa met Brick Memorial junior Jack Torre. The Mustangs' primary lineup change was getting Torre down to 126 and into the lineup as Santaniello had dropped from 138 to 132 and senior Brody Elk had come down from 144 to 138. Torre was 9-0 on the season and Espinosa was 16-11 and a returning state qualifier.
Espinosa struck the first blow and led 2-1 heading to the second period. He increased his advantage to 4-1 on a takedown with 48 seconds left in the second. Torre's best position is top and he elected to start there to begin the third period. Espinosa was able to escape in under 10 seconds and then went to work on turning a decision victory into something much more. Torre lunged for an outside single and Espinosa latched on a headlock, secured an underhook on Torre's right arm, and powered him to his back for a takedown and three near-fall points. Torre fought for 28 seconds but Espinosa eventually finished off the fall at the 5:42 mark. His pin put Jackson up 22-13 through eight bouts.
"I had all the confidence in the world in Johnny - and Luis," Withstandley said. "They're tough kids, they work hard, they're on time every day. Johnny is the kind of kid who is a slow starter and gets better as the year goes on."
Everyone knew what was coming at 132 and that was six points from Santaniello. Nikko Rucci did a great job to get the bout into the second period, but Santaniello, leading 12-5 after the first period, went up 14-5 with a reversal before pinning Rucci in 2:34. Brick Memorial was now back within two points with Jackson leading, 22-19, with five bouts left.
Of the five remaining bouts, Jackson was going to be favored in at least two of them with Huxford and Hamann. Brick Memorial needed a win at 138 where It was a matchup of returning district champs with Lipari and Brick Memorial's Brody Elk, who could have been considered the slight favorite due to the weight difference. Lipari is usually a 132-pounder while Elk was at 144 for most of the season.
Lipari wrestled a perfect match by taking advantage of his opportunities and dictating the pace. He took Elk down with 27 seconds left in the first period and then put him to his back for two near-fall points. After a scoreless second period, Lipari took Elk down 30 seconds into the third period to build a 6-0 lead. He held on to win 6-2 and put Jackson ahead, 25-19, with four bouts left.
"We had the talk, and I told Lipari it's okay to lose, but keep it close, let him come to you, downblock, and score in your positions," Withstandley said. "He stuck to the game plan. At that point (up 4-0) they were getting desperate and going upper body but (Lipari) has a judo background and doesn't get thrown. That was a huge win, up six pounds when he only weights in at around 131 and Elk comes down from 144. Absolutely huge."
Jackson continued to win the toss-up bouts to turn an expectedly close match into a convincing victory. Wolf, a sophomore, pulled away from Brick Memorial's Tommy Prince to win by 12-5 decision at 144 pounds. The bout was tied 3-3 after the first period before Wolf had an escape, a takedown with 48 seconds left, and three back points to open a 9-3 advantage. Wolf added a reversal and an escape in the third period.
At 150, Huxford used a reversal in the third period to win 6-4 over Brick Memorial's Mason Pirnik. Huxford led 2-1 after one but Pirnik took a 4-2 lead in the second period with an escape and a takedown. Huxford evened the bout with a reversal and then went ahead in the third to put Jackson up 31-19 with three bouts left. The victory clinched the title for the Jaguars as his win provided Jackson with its eighth bout won. Even if Brick Memorial won by fall in the last two bouts to tie the score, Jackson would have won on criteria.
It didn't come down to that. Calamia earned a revenge victory at 157 pounds with a 9-2 win over Max Wright. When the teams met during the regular season, Wright delivered the match-changing pin in a bout that Calamia was leading by nine points. Calamia had all the offense this time with four total takedowns, including two in the third period.
The finishing touch was applied by Hamman, a district champ and region medalist, as he closed out Jackson's sectional championship with a win by fall in 3:48 at 165 pounds.
This Jackson team serves as another example that what happens in December and January is just part of the process when it comes to winning in February. The Jaguars were out of sorts early in the season and it was questionable whether they could arrive at this moment. Not to Withstandley, however. This Jaguars team isn't loaded with highly-ranked individuals and state championship contenders like many of Jackson's previous state champion squads, but he has seen them exhibit the same qualities as those celebrated teams.
"They're not as talented as the Group 4 championship teams I've coached, but they have the guts and they have the bravado," Withstandley said. "Resiliency is the key word. Anything I've challenged them with, they've responded. The teams we've had in the past compared to these kids is night and day, but they match them in guts, they match them in work ethic, and they match them in heart."
Do the Jaguars have two more matches like this in them?
"I know they do," Withstandley said. "It's wrestling, everybody has a shot, and if we come in and wrestle like this you have to consider us in the mix."
2-Jackson Memorial 40, 1-Brick Memorial 19
175: Trey Tallmadge (BM) md William Kovacs, 8-0
190: Harvey Ludington (BM) p. Paul Novello, 0:22
215: Ben Szuba (BM) d. Justin Krosnicki, 10-6
285: Ryan Fischer (JM) p. Jordan Lizardi (BM), 1:53
106: Joseph Weikel (JM) d. Mike Napolitano, 11-6
113: Jason Seda (JM) d. Gavin Martin, 7-1
120: Luis Espinosa (JM) md. Ryan Henderson, 11-3
126: Jonathan Espinosa (JM) p. Jack Torre, 5:42
132: Anthony Santaniello (BM) p. Nikko Rucci, 2:34
138: Lucas Lipari (JM) d. Brody Elk, 6-2
144: Ryan Wolf (JM) d. Tommy Prince, 12-5
150: Cael Huxford (JM) d. Mason Pirnik, 6-4
157: John Calamia (JM) d. Max Wright, 9-2
165: Luke Hamann (JM) p. Christian Valanzola, 3:48