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ATLANTIC CITY -- Kurt Wehner has qualified for the NJSIAA Individual Wrestling Championships all four years of his decorated high school career, secured three state medals, and rewritten the Donovan Catholic wrestling record book.

With each state tournament he has climbed the ladder, from going 0-2 as a freshman during the Covid year to finishing seventh as a sophomore and then fifth as a junior. The last two years he has left Boardwalk Hall with a medal around his neck and feelings of pride and confidence, but there was always something missing.

Until now.

After avoiding a reversal attempt with a scintillating scramble during the third period, Wehner locked in a T-bar tilt and turned Hunterdon Central's Anthony Rossi for two nearfall points with 27 seconds left, sealing a 3-0 victory Friday night and sending him to the NJSIAA 120-pound state final. As the final seconds ticked off, Wehner's stoic look gave way to a wide grin right before he jumped into the arms of assistant coach Mark Grey.

Bob Badders |
Bob Badders |

"It was probably the most special moment I've ever had in my entire life," Wehner said. "Just from always coming down here and never getting what I wanted. I've always wanted to make it to the state final and be a state champ but it never worked out for me. I finally made my dreams come true, but I have one more to go."

Seeded No. 2 in the bracket, Whener buzz-sawed his way through the first three rounds with pins of 18 seconds, 1:15, and 4:34 to set up the semifinal bout with Rossi, who entered with a 41-0 record on the season. After a scoreless first period, Wehner chose defense to start the second, escaped nine seconds in, and took that 1-0 lead to the third period. Rossi chose defense, an expected move given he needed only one point to tie the bout. But that also played right into Wehner's strength.

"I know on top I can pin anyone in the state," Wehner said.

Rossi nearly got free at one point during a scramble that would have ended with a reversal and potentially put Wehner to his back, but he stayed with Rossi the entire way and remained in control entering the final minute. As Rossi was trying to get free, he opened the door for Wehner to hit one of his go-to moves.

"He grabbed the inside of his thigh and then I caught his hand and rolled through," Wehner said. "That's one of my moves that got me through this tournament last year and the year before that. It's one of my signatures."

Bob Badders |
Bob Badders |

Wehner is now a three-time state medalist and the first state finalist in Donovan Catholic program history. To reach the top of the medal stand, however, he'll have to get through one of the top pound-for-pound wrestlers in the entire country, Saint John Vianney junior two-time state champion Anthony Knox.

Knox has been untouchable once again at Boardwalk Hall with three technical falls and one 15-second pin to reach his third straight state final. He obliterated returning state finalist Logan Brzozowski from Seton Hall Prep with a 20-5 technical fall in 5:46 in the other semifinal. Wehner will try to derail Knox's pursuit of history to become an eventual four-time state champion, and to do so he'll have to find a way to reverse a result from the regular season when Knox won by 18-6 major decision.

"I'm very excited for the rematch and excited to prove people wrong and make this place's roof blow off," Wehner said. "I have nothing to lose. I'm going to go out there and let it fly and whatever happens, happens. I'm already super proud of myself but I'm not satisfied. I want more."

"Ever since I was a little kid I wanted to be in this position. I had everybody telling me I could do it, but it was a matter of me telling myself I could do it, that I belong here. I know I'm supposed to be here."

Wehner was one of eight Shore Conference wrestlers to reach the state finals during Friday night's semifinal round. The eight wrestlers will compete in six different championship bouts with the Shore guaranteed at least two state champions from the head-to-head finals at 120 and 144 pounds.

In addition to Knox vs. Wehner, the 144-pound final will be a marquee matchup between Shore Conference hammers when Christian Brothers Academy senior Alex Nini takes on Rumson-Fair Haven freshman Sonny Amato. Nini, the No. 1 seed, won 5-3 over Southern's Wyatt Stout in the top bracket semifinal while Amato eked out a 2-1 win over Leonia/Palisades Park senior August Hibler in the bottom half. Nini had also defeated Stout in the Region 7 final. It was Nini's 100th career win and secured the best state tournament finish of his now four state medals.

Amato's semifinal match with Hibler was low-scoring but high-octane. Hibler escaped late in the second period for the bout's first points and took a 1-0 lead into the third period. Amato started on bottom and came out on the winning end of a scramble to score a reversal with 1:16 left. He survived more scrambles in the final minute and held on to reach the state final. He is the third RFH wrestler to ever reach a state final joining defending state champ and two-time state finalist Hudson Skove.

"This is awesome," Amato said. "I'm almost at a loss for words."

Bob Badders |
Bob Badders |

Amato immediately made a name for himself this season when he placed fourth at the prestigious Beast of the East Tournament and then finished second at the Sam Cali Invitational. Two of his three losses this season are to Blair Academy standout Logan Rozynski. Since his last defeat on December 28, Amato has won the Shore Conference Tournament, the District 20 Tournament, and the Region 5 Tournament.

"I have to say that my coach, Eleazer DeLuca, I have to dedicate everything to him," Amato said. "He's trained me my whole life and he told me no one I go out against is going to be tougher to wrestle than him. He's a perfect drill partner and role model. It's the people around me. I surround myself with a great crowd."

To win a state title in his first appearance at Boardwalk Hall he'll have to get through Nini, a four-time state medalist who is committed to Rutgers.

"I'm not done," Amato said. "One more."

Southern Regional sophomore Anthony Mason didn't have the showing he was hoping for at the Region 7 Tournament, but falling short of repeating as a region champion allowed him to reset his mind and work on areas of need. He'll gladly trade a region title for a trip to the state finals.

Mason jumped out to a quick 5-0 lead with a takedown and three nearfall points in the opening minute and used that cushion to secure a 7-1 decision over West Essex's Alex Esposito in the 106-pound semifinals. After reaching the third round of wrestlebacks at last year's state tournament, Mason made the jump to state finalist in his second attempt.

Bob Badders |
Bob Badders |

"At regions I didn't wrestle my best, I wrestled cautious," Mason said.  "I had a week in the room to work on my attacks and everything and it definitely helped a lot."

"It's unreal. I've wanted this ever since I was a little kid watching it here, to be in the state finals. It's a dream come true."

As the No. 5 seed, Mason found himself in an advantageous position on the opposite side of the bracket from Delbarton's Cameron Sontz and CBA's Killian Coluccio, who both defeated him during the regular season. His position improved even more when No. 1 seed Tyler Hildebrandt of Williamstown did not make weight to start the tournament.

"I was in a very good spot in the bracket as everybody saw and I needed to capitalize on it," Mason said. "To be a state champ you have to beat everyone so it's a matter of having to wrestle them early in the tournament or later."

That time has come. Mason will clash with Sontz in the state final after the Delbarton freshman defeated Coluccio, 10-3 in the other semifinal, to avenge a loss when the teams met during the Non-Public A semifinals. Mason will have to reverse a previous result, as well. He lost to Sontz, 4-0, when Southern and Delbarton wrestled in a dual meet on Jan. 24.

Joining the first-time finalists Wehner, Amato, Mason, and Nini will be four returning state champions. The aforementioned Knox needs no introduction. He enters the state finals with a 106-1 career record and is on pace to become New Jersey's fifth four-time state champion. If he wins on Saturday he will be the 32nd wrestler in state history to win three state titles and the eighth from the Shore Conference (Luke Skove, Long Branch; Glenn Pritzlaff, Middletown South; Mark Worthy, Central; Damion Hahn, Lakewood; Frank Molinaro, Southern' Scott Winston, Jackson Memorial; Jimmy Lawson, Manchester).

Southern Regional senior Matt Henrich, last season's 150-pound state champion, advanced to the 157-pound state final with a 3-0 win over St. Joseph (Montvale)'s Frank DiBello. Henrich will wrestle Camden Catholic sophomore Kage Jones in the state final. Jones won 5-4 over Bergen Catholic's Ryan Ford with a stall call and an escape late in the third period.

At 190 pounds, Brick Memorial junior Harvey Ludington reached his third straight state final with a dominant 11-3 major decision over Paramus Catholic's Daniel Rella. The undefeated Ludington (34-0) has secured bonus points in all four of his state tournament bouts. He won the 175-pound state title as a freshman and was the 175-pound state runner-up last season. Ludington will face Hanover Park junior Vincenzo LaValle, who defeated Mount Olive's Tyler Bienus, 4-2, in the other semifinal. LaValle placed third in the state at 190 in each of the last two seasons.

Bob Badders |
Bob Badders |

Rumson-Fair Haven senior Hudson Skove eked out a 2-1 win over Paramus Catholic's Xavier Williams to return to the 215-pound state final. A stalling point in the first period and an escape in the second period provided all the points Skove would need to move within one win of a second state title. In the championship bout, Skove will meet Delbarton senior Vincent Lee. It will be a rematch of the Region 5 final that Lee won, 5-3, on the strength of a five-point move in the second period.



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