Southern’s Conor Collins, St. John Vianney’s Nico Diaz, CBA’s Tyler Barrett and Zander Silva Battle Back For Third at NJSIAA Wrestling Championships
ATLANTIC CITY -- The story of the NJSIAA Wrestling Championships is, of course, the state champions. New Jersey is loaded with talent and has a single-class state tournament. Winning a New Jersey state title is one of the most difficult feats to accomplish in high school wrestling.
But while most of the eyes inside Boardwalk Hall have shifted their attention to the championship brackets, many of the best stories of grit and determination, of heartbreak and redemption, are found on the outside mats.
The wrestleback rounds produce some unbelievable drama every year as wrestlers scrap and claw to reach the blood round where they hope to power through one more opponent to clinch a state medal. Then there are those with championship aspirations who fall short a round or two before the finals and then have to find a way to regroup and finish third. Many a wrestler over the years has learned a great deal about themselves after dropping into the wrestlebacks.
The Shore Conference had a total of 22 medalists at the 2022 NJSIAA Wrestling Championships and their stories run the gamut from ecstasy to agony and everything in between. State champions Anthony Knox, Evan Tallmadge, Hunter Mays, and Harvey Ludington claimed the ultimate prize while Patrick O'Keefe, Garrett Totten, Anthony Santaniello, and Julian George finished second.
The medalists between third and eighth place are our focus here, and we'll begin with an Ocean County hammer who had to find a way to get the next best thing after a crushing defeat.
Southern Regional junior Conor Collins did everything he could during the regular season to set himself up for postseason championships. He was undefeated heading into the state tournament, which included a win over Tallmadge, who defeated Collins in last season's 113-pound state final and then ended up winning this year's 120-pound championship. That win vaulted Collins to the No. 1 seed in the bracket, giving him the supposed easier path to the final opposite Tallmadge and Christian Brothers Academy's Alex Nini in the bottom bracket.
No path is easy to a state final in New Jersey, however, and that was the case for Collins. He was defeated in the semifinals by Roxbury senior Luke Stanich, 1-0, and the loss came in bizarre fashion. The only points of the bout came in the first period when Collins was called for stalling twice at neutral. After finishing second in the state as a sophomore, Collins' clear goal was to return to the state finals and emerge with a victory. That dream had ended.
"I was upset after the match but my coaches came to me and really changed my mindset on the wrestlebacks," Collins said. "They told me it's not over yet and third in the state is still really good. I thought to myself, 'I can't stay down about the loss, I have to come back and wrestle my best'."
Collins did exactly that, rebounding with two winning performances to finish third in the state at 120 pounds on Saturday afternoon. The wrestlers who lose in the championship seminals drop directly into the consolation semifinals. The worst they can finish there is sixth, but every wrestler wants to avoid the dreaded "Semis Slide".
In the wrestleback semifinals, Collins battled back for a 4-2 win in sudden victory over Camden Catholic's Jackson Young, tying the bout 2-2 with a reversal early in the second period and then winning in overtime on a takedown with three seconds left. That victory gave us a fantastic third-place matchup between Collins and Nini, which was the one bout in the Tallmadge-Collins-Nini triangle we had not yet seen. Not only was it a matchup of two of the state's very best 120-pounders, but it was also a fascinating stylistic clash between the offensive-minded Nini and the counter-wrestling wizardry of Collins.
The third-place bout was all Collins. After a scoreless first period, Collins chose bottom and Nini granted him an immediate release, taking the sensible approach of not rolling around on the mat with Collins where he is most dangerous. Nini had choice in the third and, despite trailing 1-0, chose the neutral position. Nini was banking on winning the bout on his feet and it was the right strategy for him, but it also played right into Collins' hands.
"That's exactly what I was thinking as he was shooting," Collins said. "I felt comfortable. I feel great in all those scrambles and I did a great job countering him. That's where I wrestle best."
Collins counted a shot by Nini and did his thing, turning it into two points of his own with 1:19 left in the period. He then turned Nini for two near-fall points to take a commanding 5-0 lead before adding another turn to finish off an impressive 7-0 victory.
"The next best thing was third and that's what I wanted, so I'm really happy I accomplished that," Collins said. "I feel like it's definitely a testament to who I am. I don't like to give up and I showed that out there."
Diaz Completes His Career With First State Medal
Two weight classes later, St. John Vianney senior Nico Diaz put the exclamation point on a great career when he pinned St. Peter's Prep's Jonathan Fuller in 1:05 to place third in the state at 132 pounds. Diaz's only loss of the tournament came in the semifinals to Delbarton's Tyler, the eventual state champion.
It was a fantastic ending for Diaz, who has dealt with great loss both on and off the mat. Diaz's father passed away when he was a freshman and he responded with an incredible individual postseason that saw him unexpectedly finish third in Region 5 and then come within one victory of a medal at 106 pounds. But the next two years, despite winning a region title and reaching the final of another, he was eliminated in the second round of wrestlebacks at the state tournament.
"I'm speechless, this means the world to me," Diaz said. "It takes me back all the way to freshman year when I lost my father. It was a very hard time for me but I had a great support team who kept me going: my mom and my coaches. It's a great feeling. I know he's looking down on me smiling and very proud."
As Diaz whipped Fuller to the mat and heard the slap of the referee's hand it brought him back to all those moments when he and his father trained together to accomplish such a goal.
"I kind of got flashbacks of us training and his smile and everything he did for me," Diaz said. "Not a day goes by when I don't think about him. I use him as motivation and that's why today I came out successful."
Diaz finished his career as a four-time state qualifier, a two-time district champion and three-time finalist, a two-time region champion and three-time finalist, and reached 100 career victories.
Silva's Perseverance Pays Off; Barrett Wins Shore Conference No. 1 vs. No. 2 Battle En Route to Third Place
CBA junior Zander Silva has been a very good wrestler for a while but has never been regarded as one of the elite wrestlers in his weight class. That all changed this weekend at Boardwalk Hall.
After losing in the semifinals to eventual state champion Simon Ruiz of Delbarton, Silva rebounded with a pair of dramatic victories to finish third in the state at 157 pounds, giving him the first state medal of his career. In the consolation semifinals, he defeated Ocean's Shane Cartagena-Walsh, 4-3, for his third win in as many weeks over the Spartans' senior. Silva also beat Cartagena-Walsh in the District 21 and Region 6 finals. In the third-place bout, Silva won 2-1 over Hunterdon Central's Tanner Peake on a takedown with 23 seconds left in regulation.
"I never placed in youth states, never did anything like that, but I knew if I continued to work and wrestle every day with my teammates and with the best coaching staff in the state I would get to where I am today."
Silva was a district champion and a region third-place finisher as a freshman at 132 pounds but didn't win a match at the state tournament. Last year he was fourth at 160 in the Central Super Region and went 1-2 at the state tournament. He took his wrestling to a new level this season with district and region titles before finally breaking through to earn a spot high on the podium.
"When I came to Atlantic City two years ago I went 0-2 and my heart was broken," Silva said. "I lost a lot of faith in myself but I knew the only want to get better was to come back stronger."
One bout earlier, Silva's teammate, fellow junior Tyler Barrett, also finished third in the state. For the third time this season, Barrett won a nail-biter over St. Joseph Regionals's Frank DiBella, 2-1 in tiebreaker No. 1, to finish third at 150 pounds. It was Barrett's third win over DiBella this season and his second of the tournament after defeating him, 3-2, in the quarterfinals.
Barrett was the No. 3 seed and reached the semifinals where he was defeated by Passaic Tech's Laith Hamdeh, 4-3. That dropped him down into the consolation semifinals where his opponent was a very familiar face: Southern Regional junior Cole Velardi. Barrett and Velardi have been the No. 1 and No. 2 150-pounders in the Shore all season, and they were also youth teammates as Barrett hails from the Southern Regional sending district. Barrett controlled the entire bout with a reversal and two back points in the second period and a takedown in the third on his way to a 6-4 victory.
With Totten and George as state runners-up, Silva and Barrett placing third, and Nini finishing fourth, CBA had a program-record five state medalists. Totten is the only senior so those four along with state qualifiers Tyler Venet (So., 106), Nick Stump (Jr., 165), Anthony Lawrence (Jr., 175). and Robert Canterino (Jr., 215) all return next season. Team scores are not officially kept but CBA has the fourth-most points behind Delbarton, Bergen Catholic, and St. Joseph (Montvale).
The Portella Brothers Wrestle Tough With Heavy Hearts
It was a historic state tournament for Red Bank Catholic.
Junior Sabino Portella finished fourth in the state at 175-pounds to become RBC's second two-time state medalist and first since Tom Seitz in 1973 and 1974. Then, sophomore Lorenzo Portella made his way through the wrestlebacks to finish seventh in the state at 285 pounds. Together, it is the first time the Caseys have had two state medalists in the same season in program history.
"I think it's awesome for the program," Sabino Portella said. "We went from just having kids making it to AC, to having a state medalist, to a state finalist, and now having two kids on the podium at the state tournament."
But it was a bittersweet accomplishment. The Portellas suffered a devastating loss over the weekend when their aunt, who is also Sabino's Godmother, passed away. The news hit them incredibly hard and there was a chance they wouldn't even come back to wrestle on Friday, but they decided to continue wrestling with her on their minds. On top of that, Sabino was aiming for a state title after finishing as the 170-pound runner-up last season. He was defeated by eventual state champion Harvey Ludington in the quarterfinals but wrestled back for fourth. Along the way, he avenged a Region 5 finals loss to Rumson-Fair Haven's Shay Addison with a 7-1 victory in the consolation semifinals.
Lorenzo pinned Delsea's Rocco Bennett in the blood round to clinch a state medal at heavyweight and then, after a loss in the consolation quarterfinals, pinned Hightstown's Brenden Hansen in the first period to finish seventh in the state at heavyweight.
"I'm proud of me and my brother," Sabino said. "He came here and wrestled really tough in the hardest high school tournament in the country. I didn't finish where I wish I did but with everything going on, the adversity, I'm proud of what we did."
Wehner Ends Long Medal Drought for Donovan Catholic
The new era of Donovan Catholic wrestling produced the program's first state medalist in 26 years as sophomore Kurt Wehner finished seventh in the state at 106 pounds. Wehner is just the second state medalist in Griffins' history and the first since Jeremy DeNardo placed fifth at 215 pounds in 1996.
"Last year I went 0-2 and it felt horrible," Wehner said of his state tournament performance last season. "This year I went 2-0 (on Thursday) and even though I lost in the quarters I wrestled back to take seventh."
Wehner nearly reached the semifinals, losing 6-4 in sudden victory to Livingston's Aidan Carmody.
"It really broke my heart but I knew I had to wrestle back," Wehner said. "I learned that I can keep going no matter what happens. If anything gets in my way I can push through."
Donovan's first-year head coach is Lex Knapp, a former standout at Lacey who finished second in the state at 220 pounds in 2012. One of Donovan's assistant coaches is Mark Grey, the former standout at Blair Academy and Cornell University. The Griffins also had freshman Dezmond Lenaghan reach the third round of wrestlebacks at 113 pounds, so the future certainly looks bright for a program that has little wrestling tradition.
"It feels great to start a new era," Wehner said. "Our next four years are going to be really good and I'm excited to start us off. We have great coaches and they're going to take us far."
The Conundrum of Finishing Second
Finishing second at the New Jersey state tournament is a tremendous accomplishment. It's also the loneliest feeling in all of high school sports.
St. John Vianney freshman Patrick O'Keefe, CBA senior Garrett Totten, Brick Memorial junior Anthony Santaniello, and CBA junior Julian George certainly understand that. Save for the wrestler here or there who makes a stunning run to the finals and is thrilled to have even made it that far, standing on the podium in the second-place spot is brutal for those in that position.
O'Keefe was defeated by St. Peter's Prep's Adrian DeJesus, 3-2, in the 106-pound final. It was the second time DeJesus beat O'Keefe this season and by the exact same score. Obviously, O'Keefe figures to be among the state's best for years to come and will certainly enter his sophomore season with one goal in mind.
Totten wrestled exceptionally well in the individual postseason and made a great run to the 126-pound state final. But in the championship bout he was defeated by Kinnelon's generational senior Evan Mougalian, 7-0. Mougalian won his second state title in his third state finals appearance and is Kinnelon's only state champion in program history. Totten concluded his career as a three-time state medalist (7th at 113, 7th at 120, 2nd at 126).
It's hard to imagine a wrestler more disappointed than Santaniello after his 2-1 loss to Delbarton's Tyler Vazquez in the 132-pound state final. Santaniello entered the state tournament with just two career losses, to Mougalian in the 106-pound state final as a freshman and to Vazquez, 6-5, in this season's Beast of the East final. They had been on a collision course since then and the rematch was all that Santaniello could think about.
Santaniello was back in the workout room as soon as his family arrived home from Atlantic City, and you know his burning desire to win another state title is raging at the moment. He won the 120-pound state title as a sophomore and is a three-time state finalist. It's state title or bust for the Oklahoma commit and has been since he arrived in high school. He operates at that level where championships are all that matter. To those in that stratosphere, second place must feel like hell.
If we've learned anything about Santaniello it's that he knows how to respond to adversity. He avenged his state finals loss to Mougalian by beating him in last year's state final. What will his senior year hold? Will he get another shot at Vazquez? Time will tell, but it certainly will be fun to watch one of the Shore's all-time greats seek redemption.
The 138-pound state final between George and Bergen Catholic's Joe Cango was a true toss-up. They were 1-1- against each other this year with Cangro winning 5-3 in sudden victory and then George winning 5-4 in the second meeting. The rubber match went to Cangro when he found a cradle off a scramble and pinned George with two seconds left in the third period.
From a neutral perspective, it was a fitting victory for Cangro, who was third in the state as both a freshman and a sophomore and a state runner-up last season. The state championship completed a fantastic career. For George, it was a tough ending, clearly. In some ways, he foreshadowed the state final when on Friday night he told reporters about Cangro, "You can feel like you have two on that kid and then all of the sudden you're on your back."
George went from a state eighth-place finisher as a sophomore to an elite wrestler this season, and there's no doubt that he will enter his senior year as a bonafide state title contender.
- Middletown South junior Jack Zaleski finished fourth in the state at 126 pounds. He joins the legendary Glenn Pritzlaff and the great Blair Tugman as the only three-time state medalists in program history. Zaleski was fifth in the state at 106 pounds as a freshman and fourth in the state at 120 pounds last year.
- Southern Regional sophomore Matt Henrich wrestled back to finish seventh at 138 pounds. He won 3-1 over Paul VI's Brandon Palcko in the seventh-place bout.
- Southern Regional junior Cole Velardi pinned Paramus Catholic's Daniel Rella in 2:13 to finish fifth at 150 pounds. Velardi ran a nasty armbar in the blood round to pin Lyndhurst's Damian Weaver and clinch a state medal, and he did it again to Rella to close out a great tournament.
- St. John Vianney junior Jasiah Queen placed fifth at 157 pounds with a 6-3 decision over Ocean senior Shane Cartagena-Walsh. It is the first state medal for each.
- Rumson-Fair Haven senior Shay Addison, an Arizona State signee, finished fifth at 175 pounds for his second career state medal.
Shore Conference 2022 State Tournament Medal Winners
113: Anthony Knox, Fr., St. John Vianney
120: Evan Tallmadge, Sr., Brick Memorial
165: Hunter Mays, Sr., Howell
175: Harvey Ludington, Fr., Brick Memorial
106: Patrick O'Keefe, Fr., St. John Vianney
126: Garrett Totten, Sr., CBA
132: Anthony Santaniello, Jr., Brick Memorial
138: Julian George, Jr., CBA
120: Conor Collins, Jr., Southern
132: Nico Diaz, Sr., St. John Vianney
150: Tyler Barrett, Jr., CBA
157: Zander Silva, Jr., CBA
120: Alex Nini, So., CBA
126: Jack Zaleski, Jr., Middletown South
175: Sabino Portella, Jr., Red Bank Catholic
150: Cole Velardi, Jr., Southern
157: Jasiah Queen, Jr., St. John Vianney
175: Shay Addison, Sr., Rumson-Fair Haven
157: Shane Cartagena-Walsh, Sr., Ocean
106: Kurt Wehner, So., Donovan Catholic
138: Matt Henrich, So., Southern
285: Lorenzo Portella, So., Red Bank Catholic