Shore Sports Network Wrestling Coach of the Year: Rumson-Fair Haven’s Bryan Heller
Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School is an athletic powerhouse, but wrestling has not been among the many sports in which the Bulldogs are among the best in the Shore Conference.
That is starting to change in a noticeable way.
The 2019-2020 season was a banner campaign for Rumson’s wrestling team as the Bulldogs won their first division title in 17 years, finished No. 8 in the Shore Sports Network Top 10, reached an NJSIAA sectional final for the first time in program history and saw a record three wrestlers climb the podium as top-eight finishers at the NJSIAA Championships. Not too long ago, Rumson couldn’t fill out its lineup and struggled to win even a handful of dual meets, but those years are getting smaller in the rearview mirror.
The man at the helm of the surging program is seventh-year head coach Bryan Heller, and he is the 2019-2020 Shore Sports Network Wrestling Coach of the Year.
When Heller was hired seven years ago he had a vision of how he wanted to build the program he once called home. A 2003 RFH graduate, Heller is among the Bulldogs’ all-time greats as two-time state medalist, two-time Region 6 champion and a two-time district champion who posted 118 career wins. He then wrestled collegiately at Penn State where he was an NCAA qualifier in 2005.
Despite the program’s lack of team success and its sporadic cases of individual triumphs, Heller knew that could change with a dedication to a training system he believed would yield results. He
encouraged setting lofty yet reasonable goals, and this year those were the most ambitious yet.
“It was absolutely a successful season,” Heller said. “We have high goals and the kids have high expectations. A state sectional title; we’re still hoping to win that one and we’re still chasing it, but you can’t just focus on one outcome and base the season on it. Winning the division and getting three guys on the podium was huge for us.”
Rumson finished 15-4, including an unblemished 11-0 mark against Shore Conference teams and a perfect run through the Class A Central division. The Bulldogs won a 37-30 thriller over division king Raritan on January 15 and then effectively clinched the division crown with a 46-30 win over St. John Vianney on Jan. 20. A win over Manasquan on Feb. 5 officially locked up the program’s fifth division title and first since winning Class B Central in 2003.
Rumson earned the No. 3 seed for the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group 2 tournament and opened with a 48-24 win over Delran to set up a semifinal match at Point Boro, an annual contender that won the section in 2018. Trailing 25-20 with four bouts left, Rumson won three of the final four bouts for a 32-31 victory that propelled it to a sectional final for the first time in program history. Junior Tyler Brignola and senior Mike Ponenti delivered late heroics; Brignola with a 2-1 double-overtime win over Jack Bailey at 152 pounds and Ponenti with match-clinching 6-1 decision in the final bout.
The ultimate team goal of the season didn’t come to fruition, however, as South Plainfield defeated Rumson, 42-30, in the Central Jersey Group 2 final. The loss stung as much as any championship setback would, but it also helped set the stage for the best individual postseason in program history.
At the District 18 Tournament, Rumson finished second to Hunterdon Central in the team standings and had four district champions - sophomore Aidan Shaughnessy (113), juniors Max Brignola (145) and Jack Kelly (170) and senior Liam Horan (195) - for the second time in program history and first since 2003. Horan’s win in the final was the 100th of his career while senior Tristan Izzo (120), Tyler Brignola (152), sophomore Shay Addison (160) and Ponenti (182) each finished second to give Rumson eight qualifiers to the Region 5 Tournament.
Addison was one of the stars of the Region 5 Tournament by coming from the No. 8 seed to win the 160-pound championship. He upset the No. 1 seed, Manalapan’s Matt Benedetti, 2-1 in the quarterfinals, pinned Perth Amboy’s Gilbert Sosa in the semifinals and beat Hunterdon Central’s Norman Cella, 3-1, in the championship bout. Benedetti had defeated Addison, 5-1, in the Shore Conference Tournament final and Cella had beaten Addison, 7-2, in the District 18 final.
Shaughnessy joined Addison on top of the podium by winning the 113-pound title as the No. 4 seed. A 16-12 win over Holmdel’s Nick Ammirati in the quarterfinals was followed by a 7-3 win over Hopewell Valley’s Jacob Venezia, the No. 1 seed, in the semifinals. In the championship bout, Shaughnessy defeated Manalapan’s Justin Schifter, 7-5.
Max Brignola finished second at 145, Kelly finished third at 170 and Tyler Brignola placed fourth at 152 to give Rumson five NJSIAA qualifiers.
Under the bright lights of Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, three of the five earned all-state status. Kelly pinned Piscataway’s Marcus Petite in the quarterfinals to clinch a state medal and reach the semifinals before falling to Howell’s Shane Reitsma, 6-4, in a tight battle. After a loss to Carteret’s Jacob Vega in the consolation semifinals, Kelly closed out his season by pinning Haddonfield’s Luke Benedict in the first period to place fifth in New Jersey.
Addison also placed fifth in the state, but his road at 160 pounds was a bit dicier. After losing by fall to High Point sophomore Brian Soldano, the eventual state champion, Addison prevailed in the blood round with a 5-2 win over Cherokee’s Nathan Lapinski to clinch a state medal. He lost to Southern’s Robert Woodcock, the eventual third-place finisher, 3-0, in the wrestleback semifinals but won by fall over Watchung Hills’ Blake Bahna to finish fifth.
Max Brignola also found his way into the podium with an eighth-place finish at 145 pounds. After a 4-3 loss to Collingswood’s Andrew Clark, the eventual state champion, in the quarterfinals, Brignola topped Camden Catholic’s Dante Monaco, 11-8, in the blood round.
All five of the state qualifiers return next season, as well.
“It felt great,” Heller said. “Billy (assistant coach Billy George) and I drove back together and had a good reflection on it. We were so happy for the kids who all worked so hard and felt great to have them accomplish what they wanted. And to have them all coming back next year is equally as exciting.”
Rumson’s rise has not been meteoric. It has been the product of meticulous preparation and a culture change from the youth level on up. Heller wants to build a program that sustains itself, not one that has a noteworthy season once every 20 years.
“It’s been a lot of changes in the whole community over the years,” Heller said. “From the Skoves (led by former Long Branch great Thomas Skove) doing the junior Bulldogs and coach Billy and I changing how we coach and having our system of technical training evolving over the last four years. We’ve been making little adjustments and evolving with the sport as coaches so the kids can evolve and are in the upper echelon.”
It began with Marcus Iwama, who won two Region 6 titles and then placed eighth in the state as a senior during Heller’s first two seasons. Then it was Theo Addison carrying the torch in 2016 and 2017. He handed the baton to his brother, current Stanford freshman Nick Addison, who was a two-time state fourth-place finisher, a region champion and a three-time district champion. Now Rumson has multiple state medalists; multiple region champs; multiple hammers.
“Iwama finishing eighth in the state to get the ball rolling, Nick saw that leadership in him and took it to the next level and placed twice and now it’s these guys, who watched them accomplish those goals,” Heller said. “It’s a culture change. They saw what it took to get on the podium and now they know. I forget who gave him this advice but someone said to me, ‘The best thing you can have is the young kids looking up to the high school kids. Then you’re in business’. They’re going to see that and take hold of that early on.”
With 10 starters returning, several underclassmen looking to jump levels and some promising middle-schoolers on the horizon, it’s easy for Heller to get excited about what’s next.
“When you have individuals, a kid like Aidan Shaughnessy for example, where you see what he was last year (17-14) and how he finished up this year; if we can get all the kids to level up like that…,” Heller said. “Then the kids like Jack Kelly, Shay Addison, Max and Tyler Brignola leveling up plus kids not in the limelight yet but making jumps, we expect to be in the same position next year.”
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