Wrestling: Raritan’s Pat Toal Overcomes Disappointment to Finish 5th in the State
ATLANTIC CITY - The tale of Pat Toal’s excruciating loss in the Region VI heavyweight final had already been written, but the Raritan senior still had three days in Atlantic City to determine whether it would be the epitaph on his final season or a distant memory.
“Coach ‘Nucc’ (Rob Nucci) was telling me that if people ask how I did in my high school career, I’ve just got to tell them I finished on the podium,’’ Toal said. “Nobody cares about regions if you do that. I just kept that in the back of my mind in every practice.”
On Sunday at Boardwalk Hall, Toal made sure his devastating 4-3 loss to Howell’s Kyle Cocozza in the Region VI final faded into the rearview mirror when he beat Warren Hills’ Andrew Pacheco 4-3 to finish fifth in the state at heavyweight at this year’s NJSIAA Individual Championships. When people ask how his senior season went, he will say it ended on the podium in Atlantic City.
“Finishing on the odd side of the numbers is a great feeling,’’ he said. “My ultimate goal was getting top five and getting on the podium. I achieved what I came here to do.”
Toal became the eighth wrestler in Raritan history to place in the top five or higher. His fifth-place finish was the second-highest of any heavyweight in Rockets’ history and the best since Jack Coughlin took second in 1973.
Eight days earlier, Toal was flat on his back on the mat at Pine Belt Arena in Toms River, stunned at what had just happened. He appeared to be in control against Cocozza only seconds away from his first Region VI title. Nucci had his arms raised in anticipation of celebrating Raritan’s first Region VI champion since Ryan Lynch in 2011.
In an instant, Cocozza bulled his way into Toal's midsection, catching him off balance. As the final buzzer sounded, Toal toppled backwards and Cocozza scored a takedown that gave him the 4-3 victory in eye-opening fashion. For the rest of that day and all of the next, it replayed in Toal’s mind. Nucci watched the video over and over trying to figure out how it happened.
“I couldn’t stop thinking about it,’’ Toal said. “It was heartbreaking.”
“He was pretty devastated after that region loss,’’ Nucci said. “Two or three seconds on the clock, and he ends up making a mistake.”
Toal still qualified for the Individual Championships thanks to his second-place finish in the region, so the question was whether he could mentally put it behind him or whether his trip to Atlantic City would be a short one.
“He was capable of making a run here,’’ Nucci said. “He got his head back on right away at that Monday practice, and he had a hell of a tournament. Going 6-2 at this tournament is a pretty good weekend.”
“It was tough, but I’ve got great coaches pushing me through,’’ Toal said. “The hard practices helped, without a doubt. I have all these coaches in my ear, I have my family here. It’s just awesome. Every little bit helps.”
Toal won his first match on Friday night before dropping a 5-2 decision to Bound Brook’s Stephen Johnson in the pre-quarterfinals to put him into the consolation bracket. As much as the tournament in Atlantic City is a test of physical endurance, it also is a brutal test of mental toughness and character. Many wrestlers who lose on Friday night don’t even make it out of Saturday morning before their tournament is over.
“At this stage of the game, everybody’s very good here, so it’s all mental,’’ Nucci said. “Everybody physically is pretty even, especially at heavyweight. He was able to get his head back after the Friday night loss.”
Toal had to win four matches on Saturday to guarantee himself a spot on the podium, and he delivered. He won a 3-2 decision over Lower Cape May’s Doug Flitcroft, beat New Milford’s Zach Suarez 7-3, edged Hanover Park’s Nicholas LaShell 3-2 and then capped his day by pinning St. Peter’s Prep’s Armond Cox in 44 seconds to guarantee a top-eight finish. He lost 1-0 to Kevin Wilkins, a Rutgers football recruit from St. Joseph’s-Montvale, on Sunday morning, but rebounded to cap his career by coming out on the right side of a 4-3 decision when he topped Pacheco to take fifth.
“I just came back and kept fighting,’’ Toal said.
A two-way lineman for the Rockets’ football team, Toal will now continue his career on the gridiron at Old Dominion. He can walk away from his wrestling career without regrets after taking his place among Raritan’s best with a top-five finish in Atlantic City.
“I’ve been telling him for years that physically he was as good as anybody in the state,’’ Nucci said. “Last year it was a shame he wasn’t able to make it down here, but I’ll say it, I think he checked out last year. He was the top seed in the regions last year and he checked out, whereas this year I think he was a little bit more mature. Mentally, he was able to put it together and get it done, and I’m so proud of him.”