Ocean pins down Wall to repeat as Central Jersey Group 3 champion
Throughout what has been an up-and-down and often times frustrating season, Ocean kept its eyes on the prize. Getting healthy and battle-hardened for February was always the goal, regardless of what happened over the prior six weeks.
“We’ve been trying to get to this point all year and it’s not easy because it’s a long season,” said Ocean head coach Cippy Apicelli. “But we felt on Monday (the start of the NJSIAA Team Tournament) that we had our best version of ourselves.”
On Friday night inside the gym of Class B North rival Wall, the Spartans completed their quest for another sectional title with a 38-29 victory to repeat as NJSIAA Central Jersey Group 3 champion. Four straight pins from 132 to 152 pounds swung the pendulum Ocean’s way for good as the Spartans avenged a regular-season loss to Wall and claimed the program’s eighth sectional crown.
The Spartans will wrestle Montville in the Group 3 semifinals at 9 a.m. on Sunday at RWJBarnabas Health Arena at Toms River North. The other semifinal features West Essex vs. Delsea. The winners will meet in the state championship match at 5 p.m.
“Wall wrestled really tough but my guys wrestled absolutely awesome,” Apicelli said. “Nobody on either side would have thought we would have done what we did from 32 to 52.”
Wall picked up a huge result at 113 pounds when Cole Meyer pinned Demetri Poniros in the first period, tying the match 9-9. Poniros was a district champ and a state qualifier last season but recently returned from an injury that had kept him out since December. Gio Poniros picked up his cousin with an 11-7 victory over Nicholas Vetrano at 120 but Mike Bruno answered with a 13-3 major decision over Alex Taylor at 126 to give Wall a 13-12 lead.
Ocean needed a tide-turning result of its own and junior AJ Benner obliged, pinning Tyler Ferris at the 4:23 mark in a bout he was trailing, 4-2. Ocean was deducted one team point for unsportsmanlike conduct, but the Spartans were now in front, 17-13, with its two best wrestlers yet to take the mat.
“Demetri was up 2-1 and got gator-rolled and decked, and it took the life out of us,” Apicelli said. “It could have gotten bad but AJ Benner went and did what he does. He’s funky and he caught a kid and we went on a run.”
Younger brother Nick Benner followed by pinning Mike Farrell in the second period to stretch Ocean’s lead to 23-13. Ocean weighed in senior Jack Nies, the Shore Conference Tournament 132-pound champion, up at 138 and bumped him to 145 where he pinned Arturo Cortez with 10 seconds left in the first period. At 152, senior Alex Poniros, a three-time state qualifier and an all-state finisher in 2018, pinned Nicholas Zamaloff at 3:42 to give Ocean a commanding 35-13 lead.
Wall now needed to win the final four bouts with bonus points to win the match. State qualifier Nico Vargas won by 12-1 major decision over Tah-Jay Phillips at 160 and state qualifier Jake Whitworth pinned Ethan Brandimarte in 31 seconds at 170 to make it 35-23, but Jared Tracey clinched the sectional title with a 7-6 win over Brendan Newbury at 182 pounds. Ocean forfeited the final bout at 195 pounds.
The anticipated chess match between Apicelli and Wall head coach Brian Fischer saw Whitworth weigh in at 170, down from his usual spot at 182. The Crimson Knights wanted to get Whitworth on Tracey. Ocean thought Whitworth would go the other way, up to 195 and bumping up to 220 against Alejandro Villaraga, which would also have allowed them to move Kei’sun Sanders to heavyweight and try to save bonus against Joe Teresi. Wall would have gotten its way if not for Ocean winning the pre-match flip.
“Winning the toss allowed us to get Tracey away from Whitworth,” Apicelli said. “Fish is like me, we’re playing chess. We thought he’d be at 195 and bump to take out Villaraga but they went the other way. We happened to get lucky and win the toss but we still wrestled really well. Take nothing away from Wall, they made us raise our level.”
During the regular season, Wall scored a 33-32 win over Ocean when Sanders won by major decision over Villaraga in the penultimate bout to clinch the win. Since that point, the Spartans hoped to see the Knights one more time.
“I think since the day it happened they were looking for redemption,” Apicelli said. “They beat us but we didn’t do what we were supposed to do. At 220 we got majored but tonight we got decisioned. It’s the little things. We put together all the pieces and we wrestled extremely tough.”
A blowout loss to Point Boro on the opening night of the season seems like eons ago for Ocean, but the Spartans wouldn’t trade that defeat or any of the other speed bumps along the way. It prepared them for Friday night.
“That’s what we talked about all year,” Apicelli said. “All the other stuff made us better and the goal was always this week. Somebody brought up the Point Boro match to me but that stuff all made us better. That’s why we go to Phillipsburg on a Saturday before this week, to see what level we have to be at as a team.”
For the second year in a row Ocean once again reinforced that it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.
2-Ocean 38, 1-Wall 29
Ocean was deducted one team point for unsportsmanlike conduct
Kei`sun Sanders (Wall) over Alejandro Villarraga (Ocean) (Dec 5-3)
Joseph Teresi (Ocean) over Jaquari Medler (Wall) (Fall 2:53)
Blake Tarnowski (Ocean) over Jack Kinsella (Wall) (Dec 6-1)
Cole Meyer (Wall) over Demetri Poniros (Ocean) (Fall 1:37)
Gio Poniros (Ocean) over Nicholas Vetrano (Wall) (Dec 11-7)
Mike Bruno (Wall) over Alex Taylor (Ocean) (MD 13-3)
AJ Benner (Ocean) over Tyler Ferris (Wall) (Fall 4:23)
Nicholas Benner (Ocean) over Mike Farrell (Wall) (Fall 2:36)
Jack Nies (Ocean) over Arturo Cortez (Wall) (Fall 1:50)
Alex Poniros (Ocean) over Nicolas Zamaloff (Wall) (Fall 3:43)
Nicholas Vargas (Wall) over Tah-Jay Phillips (Ocean) (MD 12-1)
Jacob Whitworth (Wall) over Ethan Brandimarte (Ocean) (Fall 0:31)
Jared Tracey (Ocean) over Brendan Newbury (Wall) (Dec 7-6)
Louis Pilla (Wall) over Unknown (For.)
Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.