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ATLANTIC CITY — For a program as storied as Brick Memorial, it’s not every day the Mustangs do something unprecedented.

Yet on Saturday at Boardwalk Hall, four Brick Memorial wrestlers combined to turn in a day for the ages and move within one victory of being crowned a state champion.

Seniors Alec Donovan and Cliff Ruggiero, along with sophomores Gianni Ghione and Nick Rivera, were victorious in both the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds on Saturday to reach their respective championship bouts in the NJSIAA Individual Championships. It is believed to be the first time a Shore Conference team has had four finalists in the same season.

On Sunday at 3 p.m., Ghione at 113 pounds, Donovan at 145, Ruggiero at 160 and Rivera at heavyweight will try to take the final step to achieving high school wrestling immortality.

“They way they came out and performed, this is probably one of the best feelings of my life,” said Brick Memorial head coach Mike Denver. “All of us coaches were saying these guys could definitely place, and place high. But to see them put in the work in the room and then come out here and do it on the mat, it’s fantastic.”

Brick Memorial and Bergen Catholic each have a state-high four finalists. The Shore Conference has five total finalists, including Keansburg senior Tyree Sutton at 195 pounds. Sutton defeated Brearley’s Jeff Velez 4-2 in sudden victory overtime to reach the final. He will face Holy Cross junior Matt Correnti in the final, where he will try to become the first Keansburg wrestler to win a state championship.

Brick Memorial, which is a perfect 13-0 in the tournament, started its run with Ghione at 113 pounds. In the quarterfinals, Ghione overpowered St. Peter’s Prep junior Alec Kelly en route to a 16-5 major decision that secured a spot in the semifinals. Kelly was the top bracket No. 1 seed. In the semifinals, Ghione controlled Morris Knolls junior Garrett O’Shea with a takedown in the first period, and a reversal and takedown in the second period to win 6-4 and reach the state final.

Brick Memorial sophomore Gianni Ghione defeated Morris Knolls junior Garrett O'Shea 6-4 to reach the NJSIAA 113-pound state final. (Photo by Bob Badders).
Brick Memorial sophomore Gianni Ghione defeated Morris Knolls junior Garrett O'Shea 6-4 to reach the NJSIAA 113-pound state final. (Photo by Bob Badders).

“It’s insane, just surreal,” Ghione said. “I remember watching close family friend (Howell’s) Joey Langel win a state championship here (in 2008) and I couldn’t imagine myself being in that same position. It’s really insane.”

Ghione has been on a tear all season, but particularly during the second half. He was a bonus-point machine down the stretch to help the Mustangs capture the NJSIAA Group V title, then captured his second District 23 title. A 3-1 overtime loss to CBA’s Sebastian Rivera in the Region VI final did little to derail his confidence. He started his tournament Friday night with wins over Cherokee’s Connor Cosgrove and Don Bosco Prep’s Evan DeLuise. His win over Kelly, a returning state medalist, opened eyes around Boardwalk Hall, and he beat another state medalist in O’Shea to reach the final.

“We’ve been telling Gianni from day one that he can be a state champ if he really wants it, and I think his matches prove how much he wants it,” Denver said. “He’s not satisfied with winning 2-1. He wants more.”

Ghione will wrestle Steinert’s Brandon Cray in the final. Cray became Steinert’s first state finalist in program history by defeating CBA’s Rivera 3-1 in double overtime to prevent an all-Shore Conference final.

“I just hope I can keep wrestling the way I am,” Ghione said. “The prize is a state championship, and I’m excited for that tomorrow.”

Few wrestlers are as relentless as Donovan, and that trait was on full display in both the quarterfinals and semifinals. In the 145-pound quarterfinals, Donovan squared off with Delbarton senior Travis Vasquez, the top bracket No. 1 seed who was third in the state at 138 last season and this season’s Beast of the East champion. After a scoreless first period, Donovan rode out Vasquez in the second. In the third period, Donovan scored a reversal before locking in a cradle and pinning Vasquez in 5:30.

It was a vintage performance by Donovan in the semifinals against High Point’s Jason Gaccione. An escape by Donovan in the second period gave him a 1-0 lead heading into the third period, and he was holding Gaccione down until the Wildcats senior hit a reversal with just over a minute left. The two then scrambled for a good 45 seconds until Donovan came out the back for a reversal with seven seconds left to get the win.

“I honestly thought I would just get one and go to overtime,” Donovan said. “He had his hips on the ground and mine were up so I figured just spike the leg and come under the arm, and I had the two (points).”

Donovan showed phenomenal riding ability throughout the bout, but none better than when he stayed on Gaccione as he lunged to break free before going out of bounds with three seconds left. Off the ensuing whistle, Donovan remained in control to win 3-2 and advance to the 145-pound state final.

“It was hold on for dear life or you’re going to overtime,” he said.

After finishing seventh last year and losing a few brutally close bouts during his last two state tournament appearances, Donovan found a way to close the gap by imposing his hard-nosed and free-wheeling style. Now he’s one win away from a state title that would perfectly wrap up a tremendous career. He will go for the NJSIAA 145-pound state championship against Bound Brook sophomore Stephan Glasgow.

“I won a second team state title and got my 100th win this year, so being in the individual state finals puts the cherry on top,” Donovan said.

“He’s one of the kids that deserves it the most,” Denver said. “He puts in hours and hours and to see him come out and wrestle like that, my hat’s off to him. We’re definitely looking forward to tomorrow.”

Whereas Donovan was making his third trip to the state tournament and Ghione and Rivera were state qualifiers for the second time, Ruggiero was stepping onto the floor of Boardwalk Hall for the first time this weekend. His original goal was to just find a way to earn a medal.

“I never thought I’d make it this far, ever,” Ruggiero said. “I had never made it to states before, but my coaches always told me that if I made it I was going to place because people don’t know your style.”

The Mustangs’ coaches were dead on.

After winning by fall in the Region VI semifinals and final, Ruggiero started his one and only state tournament with a pin over Lenape’s Kyle McIntyre during Friday’s pre-quarterfinal round. His semifinal opponent, Clearview’s Ed Lenkowski entered at 38-1 and as the No. 2 seed in the bottom bracket, but he never knew what hit him.

Lenkowski scored a quick takedown to begin the bout, but that “style” the Mustangs’ coaches were talking about quickly turned the tables for Ruggiero. He rolled out of Lenkowski’s control and nearly got the pin before the two both got to their feet. Seconds later, Ruggiero clamped down with a headlock and tripped Lenkowski to his back. The pin came in just 44 seconds.

In the semifinals Ruggiero had to use more than judo throws against Phillipsburg’s Max Elling, who is himself adept at launching opponents to their backs. Ruggiero defeated Elling 5-3 by outwrestling him on his feet. He escaped and scored a takedown in the second period, and added another in the third to reach the state final.

“Originally I just wanted to make it on the podium, so this is an unbelievable feeling,” Ruggiero said.

A big reason for Ruggiero’s surge this season was the work of assistant coach Don Miller, who became Ruggiero’s regular workout partner.

“I attribute this to Cliff believing in himself and the coaches, and coach Miller,” Denver said. “He wrestles with him every day and he beats him up, and that’s really helped him out."

Ruggiero has a tall task in the final where he will take on DePaul senior Dave McFadden. The Virginia Tech commit is ranked in the top five in the country and was last season’s 145-pound champion.

“I’m not thinking about winning or losing, just scoring points, as many as I can,” Ruggiero said. “I know he’s nationally-ranked top five, but what do I have to lose?”

At heavyweight, Rivera polished off Brick Memorial’s incredible Saturday by edging Sayreville’s Anthony Porcaro 4-3 in double overtime. Rivera was the No. 2 seed in the bottom bracket and cruised into the semifinals where, if the seeds held up, he would face Warren Hills senior Andrew Pacheco, however Porcaro upset Pacheco 3-1 in the quarterfinals.

Rivera scored a takedown in the first period, but Porcaro hit a reversal in the second period to tie the score at two. After escapes by each, the bout headed to overtime tied 3-3. After a scoreless sudden victory period, Rivera escaped in the tiebreaker before riding out Porcaro to win 4-3 and reach the heavyweight state final as a sophomore. The last sophomore to reach the state final at heavyweight was Manchester’s Jimmy Lawson, who went on to become a three-time state champion.

“This definitely shows that I have been doing the right things and I’m improving,” Rivera said. “I’m very excited, even though I may not show it when I walk off the mat.”

“He’s so quick on his feet he moves like a 170-pounder,” Denver said. “And he definitely knows how to hand fight, so that together is why he’s so successful.”

Like Ruggiero, Rivera will be a big underdog in Sunday’s final when he opposes Don Bosco Prep senior Zack Chakonis. The Northwestern commit is ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 in the nation at heavyweight in the various rankings, and is a two-time state runner-up at 220 pounds.

“I just gotta wrestle, that’s always been my philosophy,” Rivera said.

“He’s going to get after it tomorrow,”Denver said. “We’re going to see some fireworks.”

Joining the five state finalists are 15 wrestlers who clinched medals by either reaching the semifinals or clawing their way through the wrestlebacks. CBA freshman Rich Koehler reached the 106-pound semifinals before falling 9-4 to Delbarton’s Patrick Glory. He can finish anywhere from third to sixth. He will wrestle West Morris’s Shane Metzler in the wrestleback semifinals on Sunday morning.

Sebastian Rivera is in the same boat after his loss to Cray. He wrestles St. Peter’s Prep’s Alec Kelly next. Toms River South’s Owen McClave fell 7-1 to Bergen Catholic’s Nick Suriano, but secured his first state medal by reaching the 120-pound semifinals. He will wrestle Clearview’s Zack Firestone in the wrestleback semifinals.

Jackson Liberty senior Mike Russo was denied a berth in the finals by two-time state champion Anthony Cefolo, who won 1-0 in the 126-pound semifinals. Russo wrestles DePaul’s Matt Noble in the wrestleback semifinals. If Russo wins two more bouts to take third he would break the Shore Conference career wins record currently held by Raritan’s Dan Seidenberg at 158.

Rumson-Fair Haven senior Marcus Iwama clinched the first state medal for the Bulldogs since 2003. He will wrestle for seventh at 132 pounds against DePaul’s William Kui.

Pinelands senior Tom Poklikuha is in the midst of a tremendous run in the 145-pound wrestlebacks. He pinned St. Peter’s Prep’s Ryan Burkert, the state runner-up at 145 last season, to secure a top eight finish. He then beat Paramus’s Kyle Cochran 6-5 to reach the wrestleback semifinals where he will face Gaccione. The two wrestled at the Colt Classic this season with Gaccione winning in overtime. Poklikuha is Pinelands’ first state medalist since 2002.

Southern’s Matt Wilhelm and Manalapan’s Jake Kaminsky will both medal at 152 pounds. Kaminsky will wrestle DePaul’s Brandon Kui for seventh and Wilhelm will take on Cranford’s Gavin Murray in the wrestleback semifinals.

Brick’s Will Scott was pinned by McFadden in the 160-pound semifinals and will next wrestle Eastern’s Brock Worrell in the wrestleback semifinals.

Brick’s Kyle Wojtaszek has won four straight wrestleback bouts to guarantee a top-six finish. He won by injury default over Wall’s Brett Donner to secure a medal, then beat Bridgewater-Raritan’s Kyle Murphy 2-1 in double overtime to reach the wrestleback semifinals. He takes on Passaic Valley’s Jala’a Darwish.

Brick’s Dean Sherry fell 10-2 to Bergen Catholic’s Kevin Mulligan in the 182-pound semifinals. He will wrestle West Orange’s Christopher Morgan in the wrestleback semifinals. Toms River South’s Joe Salvato will wrestle for seventh at 182 against Cranford’s Niko Cappello.

Wall sophomore Matt McKenzie has also won four straight matches to reach the wrestleback semifinals at 195 pounds and clinch a top-six finish. He will square off against Bergen Catholic’s Danny DeLorenzi, who defeated McKenzie 5-1 in the pre-quarterfinals.

At 220, Toms River North’s Mike Siwiec will wrestle Paulsboro’s Niko Savaiinaea for seventh.

Jackson Memorial’s Brody Graham lost 10-0 to Chakonis in the heavyweight semifinals. He gets Paulsboro’s Davontae Randall in the wrestleback semifinals.


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