Running the Gauntlet: Pinelands’ Poklikuha, Brick’s Wojtaszek Battle Back for Third at NJSIAA Wrestling Championships
ATLANTIC CITY — When the dream of winning a state title is over and a wrestler falls into the consolation bracket one of two things can happen.
A lot of times the loss crushes a wrestlers' confidence and the wrestleback rounds eat them alive. Other times you get to see just how much heart and determination a wrestler has. On Sunday at Boardwalk Hall, Pinelands senior Tom Poklikuha and Brick senior Kyle Wojtaszek shook off early losses to plow through the consolation brackets and conclude their careers on a high note.
Poklikuha won six consecutive bouts in the 145-pound consolations, ultimately beating Edison’s Billy Povalac 5-4 to finish third. Wojtaszek did the same at 170 pounds, winning six straight and pinning Holy Cross’s Kenny Long in the third-place match.
“I kept thinking that I worked so hard that I’m not going to let it go to waste,” said Poklikuha, who became Pinelands’ first state medalist since Mike Molosky in 2002. “Mentally (the consolation bracket) can fry you. You’ve got to take it one at a time. You just have to grind and grind and grind.”
“The first one is always the hardest because you’re seeing where you’re at mentally,” Wojtaszek said. “You don’t know if your head’s going to be on straight or if you’re going to sit back and say I lost and now I don’t care.”
Poklikuha lost 9-7 to Hanover Park’s Christian Bassolino in the preliminary round on Friday night to fall into the consolation bracket. He began his run to third with a 5-4 win over Buena’s Mason Brestle before a 7-1 win over Rutherford’s Mohamed Abdelhamid put him one win away from a state medal.
The problem there was he had to go through St. Peter’s Prep senior Ryan Burkert, a Hofstra recruit who was second in the state at 145 last season. That’s where Poklikuha pulled off the biggest win of his career by pinning Burkert in the first period to secure a top-eight finish.
“That was one of the top-three greatest moments I’v ever felt in my life,” he said.
He then edged Paramus’s Kyle Cochran 6-5 to reach the wrestleback semifinals and push his finish to at least sixth. In the wrestleback semifinals, he defeated High Point’s Jason Gaccione, 2-0, in a rematch of this season’s Colt Classic final won by Gaccione 4-2.
He didn’t know it at the time, but spending over a week at a wrestling camp in Iowa the last two summers prepared Poklikuha for the gauntlet he had to run this weekend.
“I went out to Iowa the last two summers in a row and that definitely helped me with my mental toughness,” Poklikuha said. “The camp was brutal. It was an 11-day intensive camp at the University of Iowa and it was crazy.”
Poklikuha finishes his career as Pinelands’ all-time wins leader (125) and one of six wrestlers in program history to finish among the top three in the state.
“It means a lot to me to get my name on that wall,” he said. “I’ve done a lot, but this really solidifies what I’ve done. They’ll remember me.”
Wojtaszek’s championship run came to an end in the pre-quarterfinal round on Friday night when he lost 1-0 to eventual state finalist Josh Ugalde of Bound Brook. That also put him in the first round of wrestlebacks and six wins away from third. He pinned Cherokee’s Jesse Streb before winning 8-3 over DePaul’s Spencer Carey to move within one win of his securing his second state medal. He was seventh at 152 last season.
That next bout was against Wall’s Brett Donner, however, who had defeated Wojtaszek in the District 23 final and the Region VI semifinals. Wojtaszek won by injury default in the first period when both wrestlers went to shoot and bumped heads, knocking Donner unconscious. It wasn’t the way Wojtaszek wanted to advance, but he was now three wins away from fishing third.
He then outlasted Bridgewater-Raritan’s Kyle Murphy 2-1 in double overtime before beating Passaic Valley’s Jala’a Darwish 9-6 to reach the consolation final. In the third-place match against Long, Wojtaszek countered a takedown attempt by hitting an elevator and planting Long to his back. He finished off the fall in 4:36, blew some kisses to the Brick fans in attendance and ended his career in style.
“I think it’s pretty awesome I lost so early but was able to come back," Wojtaszek said. “My parents always told me I was a top contender int he state tournament, but I was starting to get down on myself even though I lost to a super opponent and gave him a fight. Wrestling six matches to come back for third proves my abilities.”
Southern’s Matt Wilhelm was also able to shake off a loss to wrestle back for third at 152 pounds. Wilhelm fell 10-5 to eventual state champion Joe Tavoso of Delbarton in the quarterfinals, meaning he needed four wins to finish third. He beat Holy Cross’s Avery DiNardi 7-1 to secure a top-eight medal, then beat Manalapan’s Jake Kaminsky 5-3.
The wrestleback semifinals saw Wilhelm beat Cranford’s Gavin Murray, last season’s 138-pound runner-up, 10-6.
“That consolation semifinal match is the best I’ve wrestled in my entire career,” he said.
In the third-place match he defeated Paramus senior Joe Trovato, a four-time state medalist, 3-1.
“Saturday morning I was real bummed out,” Wilhelm said. “The ultimate goal is to be a state champ, but sometimes stuff doesn’t go your way. “Saturday Tabb (assistant coach Jerry Tabbachino) brought me back to the room and said it’s just as good to comeback and win as many as you can to take third. I made a goal for myself to come back and win the bracket.”
Wilhelm is Southern’s highest finisher since Brian Broderick finished third at 160 in 2011.
Brick senior Dean Sherry finished third at 182 pounds, winning two bouts after losing in the semifinals the eventual state champion, Bergen Catholic’s Kevin Mulligan. Sherry won by 15-6 major decision over West Orange’s Christopher Morgan and then beat DePaul’s Nick DePalma 12-3 to finish third and with a 38-1 record.
Jackson Memorial senior Brody Graham was third at heavyweight, defeating St. Peter’s Prep’s Jose Palomino 3-1 in double overtime. After losing 10-0 in the semifinals to Don Bosco Prep’s Zack Chakonis, the No. 1 heavyweight in the nation and the eventual state champion, he beat Paulsboro’s Davontae Randall 2-0 before beating Palomino for the second time in the tournament and third time this season.
Graham’s only losses this season were to both state finalists, Chakonis and Brick Memorial’s Nick Rivera.
The Shore had a total of 20 medalists, which was second only to the 24 medalists in Region II, which houses powerhouses Bergen Catholic and Don Bosco Prep and had just six public school medalists.
Finishing fifth were CBA junior Sebastian Rivera at 113 and Toms River South’s Owen McClave at 120. Rivera lost to eventual state champion Brandon Cray of Steinert 3-1 in double overtime in the semifinals. He pinned Kingsway’s Trace Kinner in the fifth-place bout.
McClave lost 7-1 to Bergen Catholic junior Nick Suriano in the semifinals. Suriano is undefeated for his career at 121-0. In the fifth-place bout, McClave beat Roxbury’s Troy Stanich 7-4.
Placing sixth were CBA freshman Rich Koehler at 106, Jackson Liberty senior Mike Russo at 126, Brick senior Will Scott at 160 and Wall’s Matt McKenzie at 195.
Kaminsky defeated DePaul’s Brandon Kui to place seventh at 152 pounds and Toms River North senior Mike Siwiec beat Paulsboro’s Niko Savaiinaea 5-1 to finish seventh at 220.
Rumson-Fair Haven senior Marcus Iwama became the Bulldogs first state medalist since 2003 and just the third wrestler in program history to medal by finishing eighth at 132 pounds. Toms River South senior Joe Salvato finished eighth at 182 pounds.