Region VI Wrestling: A Rival and a Friend
TOMS RIVER - The NJSIAA Region VI Tournament is already a cutthroat affair, so things can get complicated when the wrestler standing across from you is a good friend.
That was the case on Saturday afternoon in front of a capacity crowd at Pine Belt Arena when Brick Memorial senior Alec Donovan and Pinelands senior Tom Poklikuha took the mat in the 145-pound championship bout. The two are close friends who work out regularly together at Shore Thing Wrestling Club in Lakewood, but only one of them was going home with his first Region title.
After an exciting third period in which Donovan answered a go-ahead reversal by Poklikuha (34-2) with one of his own and then fought off another reversal attempt by Poklikuha, it was Donovan (32-1) who reached the top of the podium with a 3-2 decision.
Rather than cause any tension between friends, it instead caused a bet to be paid out. This being wrestling, the bet of course involved food.
"We had a bet going to see who was going to win it,'' Poklikuha said. "I owe him a trip to a buffet and a whole bunch of food after the season."
"He also owes me a box of ice pops and ice cream, so it was a good bet,'' Donovan said. "My trail mix is legendary, and if I lost, I had to give it to him. Now I get to keep it and eat it myself."
Poklikuha nearly caught Donovan, who finished seventh in the state at 145 last season, by throwing him to his back in the first period. However, Donovan quickly spun out of trouble without surrendering a takedown or any points.
"He's real good at scrambling, just like I am,'' Poklikuha said. "He's real squirrelly, so you've got to get it perfect or it's not going to work. It was close."
The two know each other so well that the element of surprise is the biggest weapon.
"It's a guessing game,'' Donovan said. "You don't know when he's going to use your weaknesses against you. Obviously, he caught me off guard a couple times and I caught him off guard, and we were just battling."
The mad scramble that the two got into in the third period with the two reversals was just a taste of what goes on in their practices on a regular basis.
"When we get into scrambles like that, it goes on for at least 10 minutes,'' Donovan said. "I made my body so flexible and he made his body so flexible that we can easily regain balance."
Poklikuha had the crowd yelling for a reversal call that would've given him the win in the final seconds, but Donovan had a hold of his leg and didn't let go to seal the win.
"I have to go back and see,'' Poklikuha said. "You can't blame the refs. They're only trying to do their jobs. We'll see each other again in AC.
"I thought I would get out. It just happened the way it did. I'm not mad at it or anything. We'll live to fight another day."
"I took a couple elbows to the face,'' Donovan said. "That was a pain. He was nonstop moving."
There is a flip side to the camaraderie that Donovan and Poklikuha showed, as evidenced by the showdown between Brick Memorial senior Cliff Ruggiero and Brick senior Will Scott in the final at 160. In the District 23 final last week, Scott defeated Ruggiero by disqualification when Scott declared that he couldn't continue after what the officials deemed was an illegal slam by Ruggiero, who was up 5-2 at the time. An angry Ruggiero stormed out of the gym at Brick Memorial immediately afterward, thinking Scott exaggerated the injury so that he would win, and the friendship between the two wrestlers from the same town clearly showed some signs of strain.
"After the final I was mad because I thought he was faking, but it seemed like he was seriously hurt and I was seriously concerned,'' Ruggiero said. "No one likes losing. My emotions got to me. We didn't talk. I just asked if he was OK."
Ruggiero said the two didn't speak to one another this week leading up to the Region tournament. On Saturday, Ruggiero took it to Scott, building a 9-3 lead by the second period before pinning him at 3:28 to win his first Region VI title. Ruggiero's performance earned him Most Outstanding Wrestler honors for the tournament.
"Things happen, but you can't really change how it's going to affect the match,'' Ruggiero said. "You've just got to do what you're gonna do. You don't hold grudges. The match is the match."
Ruggiero feels he's peaking at the perfect time heading into the biggest part of the season. When asked about where things stand with Scott, who was lying on his back on a mat nearby with his eyes closed for about 20 minutes after the podium pictures, Ruggiero paused.
"I would say we're still friends,'' he said.
Easing the sting of any friendly showdowns in Region finals is that both wrestlers automatically advance to Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City for the NJSIAA Individual Championships, which are coming up next weekend, because the top three finishers from each weight class move on to the big show. Neither Donovan or Poklikuha was going to have his season end with a loss on Saturday, so they just went all out and let the chips fall where they may.
"We're friends and everything, but on the mat, it's six minutes,'' Poklikuha said. "We'll be friends before and we'll be friends after, but during that time you just have to battle. I'm just glad this was a final and not a 3-4 match."
"Being good friends, there was no meaning behind this match except to have fun and get each other ready for the state finals in Atlantic City,'' Donovan said.
Wait, state finals?
"I would hope so,'' Donovan said before smiling. "That would make a good story for you."
Bet on it.