Wrestling: Nico Messina, Francis Marshall, Ean Mueller Shine at Region 6 Tournament
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BRICK TOWNSHIP – Records were broken and history was made at the 2018 NJSIAA Region 6 Tournament. For Freehold and sophomore Nico Messina, it was a long, long time coming.
Messina won by 8-2 decision over Long Branch’s Ryan Zimmerman to capture the 113-pound Region 6 championship on Saturday afternoon at Brick Memorial High School, giving Freehold its first region champion since Carlos Fontanez in 1964 and putting an end to the Shore Conference’s longest drought between region champions.
“I was coming into this match saying to myself ‘I can make history’, so it feels awesome,” Messina said. “It shows I grew from last year when I was in the final and I lost. I came back here and won it.”
Harry Dunn and the legendary Fontanez won region titles for the Colonials in 1963 and Fontanez repeated the following season. And then, nothing. Freehold had 19 district champions from 1968 to 2017, but none of them could come away with the elusive region title. Jamie Giovinazzo reached the 215-pound final in 2004 but was thwarted by Toms River South’s Kyle Bilquist. Messina made the 106-pound final last season but was defeated by CBA’s Nick Schutzenhofer.
Messina vowed this season would be different. He beat Brick Memorial’s Joe Rotondo, 8-2, in the quarterfinals and topped Howell’s Jerry Lleshi, 8-4, in the semifinals. That set up a meeting with a familiar opponent in Zimmerman. But despite a 3-0 record against Zimmerman over the past two seasons, including a 6-3 win in last week’s District 23 final, plus countless scraps together at Triumph Wrestling Club, Messina knew beating him again would be anything but easy.
“I beat him and you would think I’d have more confidence but it was a little nerve-racking at first because he knows my style, but I just made sure I wrestled my match,” Messina said.
Where Zimmerman is most dangerous is on the mat. Opponents often shoot and think they’re about to finish for two points only to have Zimmerman somehow use his lanky frame to come out the other side and score.
“I cleared my legs when I took shots and I was looking around for his funk rolls,” Messina said. “I was just prepared. I did a blast double, and I usually don’t do that, and put him right to his back.”
After a scoreless first period, Messina did all his damage in period No. 2 with three takedowns and a set of two near-fall points. After his first two takedowns, he cut Zimmerman lose and only rode him for a brief period after he took him down to his back near the edge of the circle late in the period. Zimmerman chose the top position to start the third period but couldn’t turn Messina. Finally, Freehold had another region champion.
“Every year my goal is to win it,” Messina said. “I want to be at the top.”
Messina’s road to a region title is a common case in that he has devoted years to the sport with eyes on someday becoming a region champion.
And then there’s Point Boro’s Francis Marshall, whose path to a region title could not have been more different.
The way Marshall has picked up the sport and its nuances is rare. He’s wrestled for just two years, qualifying for the state tournament last season and now claiming a region title as a senior. He was overly impressive in a 13-5 major decision over Ewing’s Lavinsky Collins that gave him the Region 6 152-pound title, the first for Point Boro since Ryan Budzek in 2014.
“It’s a great feeling,” Marshall said. “All the offseason hard work and all the hard work in the room with my training partners is paying off.”
Collins scored the first takedown to lead 2-1 after the first period, but Marshall continued his frenetic pace that he has become known for and began to pile up the points. He took Collins down and to his back for a four-point move that gave him a 5-3 lead, then took Collins down again to go up 7-5 entering the third period. After escaping to take an 8-5 lead he stayed on Collins, eventually tossing him to his back near the edge of the circle for five more points.
“I just stayed on him from the first period,” Marshall said. “He came out with an early takedown but I just worked from there and after that, I feel like he gassed out. I just kept the pressure on him, got a few takedowns and racked up some back points.”
“Francis is like a sponge,” said Point Boro head coach Pat Brady. “And he’s one of the hardest working guys in the room. The work ethic and pace you see in a match are the same as in the practice room.”
Marshall never expected to reach the state tournament last season, so when he arrived it was just an experience to soak in. Now he’s trying to end his career as a state medalist.
“Last year coming into the season I thought I was just going to make it through districts and my season would end at regions,” Marshall said. “But then after I went to states I really focused a lot on just trying to get better and win districts and regions this year. Now, I’m looking to get on the podium next week.”
“He’s strong and athletic and he’s getting better every time,” Brady said. “He’s learning every time he gets out there, too, so he’s going to be really dangerous in Atlantic City.”
The individual postseason tends to bring out the best in certain wrestlers. It’s routine for a wrestler who began the postseason under the radar to make a run that takes him all the way to glory in Atlantic City. Brick Memorial junior Ean Mueller may very well be that wrestler this season.
Mueller’s run to the Region 6 170-pound title was tremendous as he took out the No. 2 and No. 1 seeds to win his first region title and become Brick Memorial’s 61st region champion. An escape with one second left in regulation snapped an 11-11 tie and gave Mueller a heart-stopping 12-11 victory over Howell’s Shane Reitsma, who was the defending champion.
Mueller jumped on Reitsma early with two takedowns to build a 4-2 lead after the first period. Reitsma scored a takedown in the second period to cut Mueller’s lead to 5-4 but Mueller countered with a reversal and led 7-5 going into the third period. Two more takedowns by Mueller pushed his lead 11-8, but Reitsma was able to battle back with an escape and a takedown to tie the bout at 11 with just 10 seconds left in regulation. After wrestling so well for the majority of the bout, Mueller was not about to let a region title slip away.
“I had to escape there. I had 10 seconds and I knew I had to do it. I had to muscle through my injuries and muscle through the pain. I had to get out,” Mueller said.
Off the restart, Mueller got to his feet and peeled away from Reitsma’s grasp as the clock ticked from 0:01 to all zeroes. Brick Memorial’s coaches, wrestlers and fans went wild.
At this point last season - or even early this season - Mueller would not have won a bout that required him to persevere in the third period. He struggled early in his career with being able to keep the necessary pace for all six minutes. Something changed for him this season and it’s made all the difference.
“It’s like, ‘you win, you live; you lose, you die’,” Mueller said. “When I need the takedown, I have to get the takedown. You just have to get it done in the third period and wrestle a full six minutes.”
He needed every bit of time on the clock to win a region title, and now he’ll head to Atlantic City knowing what he’s capable of when he wrestles to his potential.
“I started off a little rough this season but winning the district boosted my confidence level and I thought I had a good shot at winning regions here,” Mueller said. “Me and Shane always went back and forth. I grew up with him and trained with him. It feels good to be back up where I should be.”
Four wrestlers repeated as Region 6 champion, led by Christian Brothers Academy senior Richie Koehler. With a 4-3 victory over Colts Neck’s Joey King, Koehler captured his third Region 6 title to join Dave Santamaria as the only CBA wrestlers to win three region crowns.
In a rematch of last season’s 113-pound final, Koehler won in almost the exact same fashion in the fifth meeting all-time between him and King. A reversal in the second period gave King a 2-0 lead but Koehler escaped to make it 2-1 heading into the second period. In the third period, Koehler escaped to tie the bout at two and then recorded the winning takedown off a great scramble with 10 seconds left.
“I don’t think I’ll ever wrestle someone five times in my life again, it’s crazy, but that’s what wrestling is, it’s a grind,” said Koehler, who was sporting 12 stitches in his forehead after suffering a cut during the semifinals. “I’ve been in those situations with him before so I knew if he reversed me I had to stay after him.”
A four-time state qualifier who last medaled as a freshman, Koehler is looking to close his career in style.
“I know I’m one of the best kids in the state and I know I can compete with those guys,” Koehler said. “On any given day anyone can beat anyone so it’s about having a great mindset and doing the little things right.”
Ocean senior Jake Benner, the defending 138-pound state champion, won by fall in 1:23 over Manalapan’s Alex Baran to win his second region title. He is Ocean’s first multiple-time region champion since Zac Coulas won his third title in 2008.
Wall junior Rob Kanniard remained undefeated and won his second region title, but was pushed to the limit by Robbinsville’s Garrett Bilgrav in the 160-pound final. Kanniard (41-0) pinned Bilgrav in their first meeting this season, but this time Bilgrav took Kanniard down twice and reversed him in the third period. Kanniard’s four takedowns and one reversal were enough to give him a 12-10 victory.
Howell junior Darby Diedrich won by 9-5 decision over Bordentown/Florence’s Billy Moore to repeat as 120-pound champion. Diedrich had four takedowns and was up 9-3 before surrendering a late takedown.
The Outstanding Wrestler award went to Delran’s Bryan Miraglia, who stunned Howell’s Kyle Slendorn, 2-1, with a takedown in the third period to win the 132-pound title. Slendorn, who was second in the state last season at 126 pounds and ranked in the top 15 in the nation, was also looking for his second region title.
Wall senior Jack Kelly won his first region title by besting Howell freshman Paul Jakub, 8-3, in the 145-pound final.
At 182 pounds, Howell junior Christian Murphy had a takedown with seven seconds left in the second period and another in the third to defeat CBA’s Sam Houston, 5-2.
Long Branch senior Pete Wersinger, scored the only takedown of the bout in sudden victory to beat Brick Memorial’s Sam Williams, 3-1, and win the 195-pound title. Teammate Kevin Cerruti also won a region title by outlasting Asbury Park’s Jaylen Paige, 3-2 in ultimate tiebreaker, to win the heavyweight crown. Together they are Long Branch’s first region champions since Luis Filipe in 2011.
Bordentown/Florence’s Jajuan Hayes won the 220-pound title with an 11-5 win over CBA’s Cameron DiGiorgio and Allentown’s Joey Lamparelli used a third-period pancake to defeat Brick Memorial freshman Vincent Santaniello, 6-1, and win the 106-pound championship.
Despite the loss in the final, Paige became Asbury Park’s first state qualifier since the program was resurrected in 2007 and likely the Blue Bishops’ first NJSIAA state qualifier in program history.
Lakewood’s Dante Morris finished fourth at 220 pounds to reach the state tournament and become the Piners’ first state qualifier since 2005.
Howell head coach John Gagliano was selected as Region 6 Coach of the Year. The Rebels will send a Shore Conference-high nine wrestlers to Atlantic City.
Point Boro will send a program-record six wrestlers to the state tournament.
Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.