We are just two days from the start of the New Jersey wrestling season. Two days until the beginning of what should once again be a tremendous three-month stretch of action, drama, accomplishment and history. Three New Jersey teams enter the 2011-2012 campaign ranked among the top 40 in the nation, and several individuals find themselves ranked in the top 20 of their respective weight classes. We'll break down the favorites and contenders in each of the six NJSIAA groups and tell you who will be chasing an individual state title this season in our first installment of this season's wrestling notebook.
Jackson Memorial – A Shore Conference team, and more specifically a program from the exceptional Class A South division, has won the NJSIAA Group IV title every year since 2004. The Jaguars graduated some key cogs but will reload as always with some promising freshman and some role players ready to take on a starting spot. Aaron Gottesman takes over as Jackson's head coach, replacing Doug Withstandley. Junior Alec Huxford, a state qualifiers, anchors the lower weights at 106 pounds. Brian Hamann, who was fourth in the state as a freshman, returns after an injury sidelined him toward the end of last season. He'll start at 126 pounds followed by Brad Royle, Spencer Young, Dylan McLaughlin and Randy Royle. The five wrestlers have combined for eight District 21 medals and 194 career wins.
If there is a question it will be about the upper weights, but that will be the case for many teams with the new weight classes for this season. Senior Dallas Winston is the major hammer at 182 pounds, however, after finishing second in the state at 189 pounds last season. Senior Dylan Harrington wrestled 26 matches last season and brings experience, and sophomore Ken Bradley holds great potential at 195 pounds. A football standout who missed last wrestling season with an injury, Bradley is healthy and should be a major contributor.
Several teams will challenge the Jaguars along the way, but the back-to-back champs have proven they can continue to get the job done.
Brick Memorial – The Mustangs closed last season on a 16-3 run and return several standouts that will look to get Brick Memorial back to the Group IV final. The champs in 2008 and 2009 bring back state fourth-place finisher Joe Ghione, a sophomore, at 113 pounds, senior Sean Stephenson (25-6) at 120, senior Evan Berti (35-5) at 145, junior Matt Moore (29-8) at 182 and junior Anthony Miller (25-14) at 195. Factor in 15-match winners Connor Maliff, Nick Costa and Tyler Richardson, plus the addition of four impact freshman and you have the makings of championship squad.
Phillipsburg – The Stateliners are always among the contenders for a group title and this season should be no different. Senior Brandon Hull returns at 220 pounds after finishing eighth in the state last season. Senior District 1 medalists Tyler Rehl, Joe Moyer, Victor Delmonico, Larry Giammarco, Anthony Pare and Derek Pierson, and junior Andrew Kaluzny will lead the way.
Southern Regional – The Rams lost a lot to graduation but always seem to find themselves in the thick of things at the end of the season. Sophomore Zach Wilhelm is coming off a 29-13 season and an eighth-place finish in the state tournament, and he will be surrounded by some experienced wrestlers who have been waiting their turn to start. The records from last year won't jump off the page, but consider the schedule and don't sleep on Southern.
Franklin – State qualifiers Jake Balestrieri, Mike Fagg-Daves and Anthony Messner anchor a lineup that also features district placers Brett Smith, Ryan Kaplan, Cory Goshkagarian and Ralph Normandia. Balestrieri and Fagg-Daves both captured Region 5 titles last season, the first time the Warriors have had multiple region champs.
Howell – The Rebels have great depth and will try and use that to against teams with heavy hitters but holes in the lineup. The question is can the Rebels get over the hump. They have been a top 20 team in New Jersey over the years but have never one a sectional title. They will have to get through both Jackson Memorial and Brick Memorial, among others, to do that. District medalists Jimmy Slendorn, Ben Esposito, Cole Cameron, Ashanti Maurice, Zach Bohm and Matt Sulkowski, as well as sophomore Matt Lindemann and senior Cody Kirk form a strong nucleus.
South Plainfield – The Tigers return in 2012 once again riding their tremendous junior class that is headlined by state champion Anthony Ashnault. State runner-up Troy Heilmann (36-3) at 120, Ashnault at 126, Scott DelVecchio (39-4) at 132, senior Tyler Hunt (36-9) at 138, Corey Stasenko (36-5) at 145 and Dylan Painton (23-12) at 152 will be a brutal stretch for any team to navigate. Sophomore Raymond Jazikoff will be at 113 pounds after a 27-11 freshman campaign and junior Mike Molinaro will be at 182 coming off a 21-15 season. The critics don't believe South Plainfield is strong enough in the upperweights to win a group title, but the Tigers have earned the benefit of the doubt with their recent success.
Timber Creek – The latest South Jersey powerhouse returns state third-place finisher Ricky Carter (Sr.) and fifth-place finisher Brandon Keller (Jr.) along with state qualifiers Dom Ruggierrio and Bryce Shade and region qualifiers Alan Nguyen, Keith Bauberger and Robert Shade. Already that is a group prepared to contend for championships at every level, but add in junior heavyweight transfer Greg Webb from Paul VI (8th in NJ last year) and sophomore transfer John Amato from Camden Catholic (3rd in Region VII) and you could have the No. 1 team in the state when the dust clears.
Toms River South – Speaking of transfers, the Indians got a talented pair when Ken and Matt Theobold transferred from Manchester Township. Ken was 7th in the state last season and Matt was a state qualifier. They join state runner-up B.J. Clagon (36-1) and junior Kevin Corrigan (33-4) as hammers in the lower-middle portion of the lineup. Zack Maikisch, Garrett Applegate, Matt Maroukis, Nick Osborn, Anthony Ravallo and freshman Joe Salvato help form a solid group. The Indians have a brutal schedule, however, with Jackson Memorial, Brick Memorial, Southern, Timber Creek and South Plainfield all standing in their way.
Roxbury – Sophomore Region I champ Dillon Artigliere returns along with state qualifier Tim Garripoli and region qualifier Jonathan Patane. The biggest problem for the Gaels is that South Plainfield and Timber Creek are in their group, but Roxbury is the favorite in North Jersey Section 1, Group III.
Ocean Township – The Spartans have a new coach in Cippy Apicelli but still have the same formidable lineup they've become known for. District champs Colton Bigelow and Kyle Gora at 220 and heavyweight give the Spartans a big advantage over most teams up top, while senior Sam Sottile will be at 195 after not wrestling last season. District champ Jason DaCruz at 126 and region runner-up Withler Marcelin at 145 will both be tough and some promising freshman and sophomores make Ocean a very intriguing team.
Brick Township – The Dragons lost state third-place finisher Connor Brennan to graduation but return five region qualifiers including juniors Steve Cimmino and Dan Wojtaszek. The Dragons are a young squad and keep improving every year, and will be in contention for the Central Jersey Group III title.
Delaware Valley – Coming off a 19-3 season and a second-place finish in North Jersey Section 2, Group II, the Terriers are ready to make a splash in Group II with two returning state qualifiers. Seniors Derek Zehnbauer (31-7) and Will Vandoren (29-8) both placed third in Region 5 last season while junior Mike Pongracz (38-4) was a district and region champ and finished eighth in the state at 119 pounds. In total, seven starters return from last season's squad with capable backups ready to step into a starting role. Juniors Matt Gilmore (22-7) at 113 and Alex Niemann at 152 and sophomores Kody Eichlin at 160 and Luke Zehnbauer at 170 will also be main contributors.
Raritan – The Shore Conference school has just one sectional title to its credit, but has been knocking on the door for several seasons. Head coach Rob Nucci always fields a squad that is both talented and scrappy, and the Rockets have plenty of both in 2012. Senior Nick Ligouri, who transferred to Toms River South and then back to Raritan, returns after a late-season tun to a fourth-place finish in the state tournament. Senior Matt Lindo (24-7) and juniors Vin Masi (20-15) and Anthony Scarcella (21-13) help form a solid lower weight group leading into Ligouri and junior Jason Bohal (32-7) at 138 pounds. Seniors Devin Holmes, Steve Corona, Vic Ianello and Nick Rice give Raritan experience in the middle and upper weights that will be coveted this season.
High Point – The amount of talent High Point lost to graduation is simply absurd. The defending Group III champs and No. 1 team in New Jersey lost state champs Drew Wagenhoffer, Nick Francavilla, Ethan Orr and Billy Smith, along with medalists Joe Gaccione and Billy Hagany. That's just impossible to replace. District champ John Torpey and region qualifier Jason Snider will lead the way and we'll see how the new starters progress as the season goes on. Head coach John Gardner will have his team improving each week, so you can't dismiss High Point just yet. Group II is no cakewalk, but it should help the Wildcats regroup.
David Brearley – After winning their first group title last season, the Bears will have to regroup after losing some key firepower to graduation. State qualifier Anthony Rice, District 11 champ Nick Lospinoso and region qualifier Dylan Olivia lead the way for the Union County school.
Voorhees: Senior state runner-up Jadaen Bernstein leads the Vikings as they search for their first group title since 1985. Fellow Region 5 champion Ronnie Honickel and region qualifier Steven Baker bolster the Hunterdon County school.
Delsea – The Crusaders return a pair of state qualifiers in junior John Hennelly and senior Curt Delia, and also have five region qualifiers with juniors Jesse Swope, Dylan Dobzanski, sophomore Bryan Dobzanski and seniors Robert Keener and William Porch.
Kittatinny – It hasn't been wise to bet against South Jersey juggernaut Paulsboro over the last 30 years, but Kittatinny has the goods to unseat the mighty Red Raiders. The eight-time champions, who won Group I in 2008, feature senior state qualifier Clarke Moynihan (31-9) at 152, sophomore Kieran Gerrity (25-12), a region qualifier, at 160 and sophomore Nick Romyns (25-12) at 138. The Cougars get a big boost from the return of senior Avelino Jacinto, who missed the better part of the last two seasons with shoulder injuries. Jacinto placed sixth in the state tournament as a freshman and is a wildcard that could turn the tide in their favor. Sophomores Christian Silva at 106, Nick West, a region qualifier, at 113 and junior David Popek at 120 the Cougars are strong through the middle of the lineup. If the upper weights can develop throughout the season Kittatinny will be standing tall at the Poland Spring Arena.
Paulsboro – All the Red Raiders have done is won 28 of the last 30 Group I titles, including a mind-boggling 25 in a row from 1983-2007. Graduation hit Paulsboro hard, as did the transfer of Region VIII champ Eric McMullen to North Bergen. Junior John Gentile is back after winning a region title last year to lead the lowerweights, while seniors Nick Knauer and Mike Silvetro lead the middleweights. The next wrestlers in line will step up and make an impact as is always the case for Paulsboro, and there are surely some impact freshman in the stable. How quickly the Red Raiders can come together will be key.
Haddonfield – The Bulldogs return state medalist Robert Schlitt and state qualifier Carson Stack among the upperweights while senior Whitten Oswald, a region qualifier, bolsters the middleweights. They will battle with Paulsboro in South Jersey Group I.
Emerson/Park Ridge – Legendary coach Stan Woods has a solid group coming back in 2012 led by senior state medalist Steven Schneider, state qualifiers Andrew Vecchione and Nick Maselli, and region participants Brandon Buonomo, James DiGregorio, Jack Mallett, Billy Schwartz, Dylan Menze and Robbie Maggiulli.
Pequannock – Senior state qualifier R.J. DeGeorge leads the way for the Golden Panthers while a fivesome of region qualifiers includes senior Chaz Coppa, senior Tyler Vandyke, junior Luke Foukas, senior Keith Lemongello and senior Mike Spencer.
Roselle Park – Senior Vic Pozsonyi, 7th in the state at 171 a season ago, is the Panthers hammer. Junior John Devito leads the lowerweights after a third-place District 10 finish last season and sophomore Phil Woods returns after qualifying for the Region III tournament.
Bergen Catholic – With five state championships already to its credit both as a team and for individuals, Bergen Catholic's wrestling legacy is well-respected around the Garden State. But this season the Crusaders will field a team that is possibly its best ever. A staggering seven state qualifiers return, led by fourth-place finisher at 135 pounds, senior Connor Melde. Sophomore Johnny Sebastian finished fifth in the state last year and could be a title contender this March. Down low the Crusaders boast state-qualifying sophomore Tyler Casamenti (20-18) at 106, senior Charlie Mitchell (19-17), a region qualifier, at 126, Melde at 132 and senior Michael Maye (29-11), a region runner-up at 138. The balance of talent continues with state qualifier Matt Mangini, a senior, at 145 and junior state qualifier James Dawson at 152. District champion Michael Kruklinski is at 170, district runner-up Lukas Iorio is at 182, state qualifier Hunter Kiselick is at 220 and district champ Carmine Goldsack is at heavyweight. That's some serious firepower. The Crusaders will test themselves at the Beast of the East tournament and in dual matches against the likes of South Plainfield and others, and surely look to be a force in the postseason.
Delbarton – Delbarton captured its first ever group championship last season, but will have to battle graduation and injury to get back to the top. Senior Devon Gobbo, third in the state last season at 140, was lost for the season after suffering a knee injury in the offseason. The Green Wave still return two state medalists among the lowerweights in sophomore Christian Innarella and senior Max Rogers. Region III champ Jorge Lopez, a senior, and junior state qualifier Nick Anderson join district bronze medalists Josef Johnson and Kurt Ferdenzi to form a core that is more than capable. The Green Wave could probably still be the favorite if not for Bergen Catholic's overwhelming presence.
St. Peter's Prep – Don't look now, but the Marauders are building a pretty nice wrestling program up in Jersey City. St. Peter's had four state medalists last season, including its first ever champion in James Fox. He was the lone victim of graduation as seniors Alexander Richardson (5th at 135), Francisco Colom (8th at 152) and Anthony Pafumi (5th at 171) are all back. Add in sophomore Michael Russo and senior Brian Merkel, both state qualifiers, and region qualifiers Frank Biafore, Peter Hilburn, James Kellner and Ryan Medina and you have a team that is poised for big things.
Seton Hall Prep – State champion Brenden Calas (103 last season) leads the Pirates, who also feature region champ Eamonn Gaffney and region qualifiers Troy Schafsma, Nick Polimeni, Ben Conover, Michael Cali and Andrew Narduzzi.
Christian Brothers Academy – Former Lacey state champion Russ Witt takes over the Colts, who were one-point away from a sectional title last season. Senior Vin Favia, 6th in the state at 152 last season, leads the way for a squad that also boats district champions in senior Hayden Hrymack and sophomores Erik Beshada and Christian Casselli.
Don Bosco Prep – Injuries and a couple of key transfers hurt the Ironmen last season but they still return state medalist Sal Mastriani, region champ Billy Reardon and region qualifiers Luke Farinaro and Razohan Gross. Also look out for region qualifiers Daniel McBrinn and Tristan Hollenbaugh.
Camden Catholic – To put it bluntly, no one should touch the Fighting Irish in Non-Public B. Camden Catholic would be a title contender in Non-Public A and has won eight titles in a row and 13 all-time. They won last year's final 67-3. State champion T.J. Miller and fifth-place medalist Chad Walsh are the big guns while state qualifier Aaron Lambert and district medalists Frank Varallo and Jeff Miller provide depth and experience. The transfer of region bronze medalist John Amato to Timber Creek will hurt, but the Irish should regroup and be just fine.
DePaul – A finalist a season ago, the Spartans return sophomore region qualifier Lou Carusillo among the lightweights and a bevy of juniors and seniors throughout the lineup.
Bishop Ahr – The Crusaders drop down to B this season after falling to Delbarton in the Non-Public A final last season. State qualifier Taylor Black, a senior, leads a squad that also features eight region qualifiers led by district champs Kyle Brady, Greg McCrystal and Brian McCrystal.
Ten Individuals to watch
Anthony Ashnault, Jr., South Plainfield: All Ashnault has done in his first two seasons is go 86-0 and win two state titles. All eyes will be on the junior, who is ranked 6th nationally at 126 pounds. Bound Brook's Andrew Campolattano and Delbarton's Mike Grey each won four state titles while Jackson Memorial's Scott Winston finished his career undefeated. No one has ever done both.
B.J. Clagon, Jr., Toms River South: Clagon had a monster sophomore season in going 36-1 with his only loss coming to current Rutgers freshman and West Essex grad Anthony Perrotti in the final. Still just a junior, Clagon is a favorite to land on top of the medal stand this season.
Connor Melde, Sr., Bergen Catholic: The two-time state medalist and two-time region champ was fourth at 135 pounds last season and fourth at 125 in 2010. He will lead a deep and talented Crusaders squad this season and has a career record of 110-13.
Alexander Richardson, Sr., St. Peter's Prep: The Marauders senior finished with a 34-8 record and nearly pulled off a brilliant run in the state tournament after he topped top-seeded Jeff Canfora of Delbarton before falling to eventual champion T.J. Miller of Camden Catholic. A fabulous offseason has Richardson ranked No. 6 nationally at 145 pounds.
Brendan Calas, Jr., Seton Hall Prep: Calas opened eyes throughout the state tournament last season, concluding with a dramatic 4-2 victory over North Bergen's Luis Gonzalez in the 103-pound final. The junior finished 31-2.
Ryan Harrington, Sr., Mendham: The senior flew under the radar a bit last season, but that all changed during the state tournament when he pinned top-seeded Otis Wright from Montclair in the quarterfinals. He also stopped undefeated Steve Nelson of Haddon Township and Jadaen Bernstein of Voorhees on his way to a 40-0 season and the 160-pound state title.
Tevin Shaw, Sr., Piscataway: Coming off a state championship in football, Shaw would like to add to the Chiefs history books by becoming their first state champ since 1972. He finished second at 171 last season with a 37-2 record and enters this season ranked 14th in the nation at 182 pounds.
Dallas Winston, Sr., Jackson Memorial: After finishing second at 189 last season, Winston will be a favorite to win a state title as one of the top upperweights in the state. He comes into the season ranked No. 11 nationally at 195 pounds, but will likely wrestle more at 182 pounds for the defending Group IV champion Jaguars.
T.J. Miller, Jr., Camden Catholic: Miller is ranked 13th in the nation at 145 pounds after a dominant sophomore season in which he went undefeated and won the 135 pounds state championship. He is 79-3 for his career.
Sal Mastriani, Sr., Don Bosco Prep: Fresh off a state and national championship for the Ironmen football squad, Mastriani will turn his eyes to winning and individual title. The senior Virginia Tech recruit was fourth at 145 pounds last season and finished with a 37-7 mark. He is ranked 16th nationally at 152 pounds.
New for the 2011-2012 season, the NJSIAA has adopted the new weight classes set forth by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). The new classes are: 106, 113, 120, 126, 132, 138, 145, 152, 160, 170, 182, 195, 220 and 285.
The breakdown is basically the subtraction of a middleweight, 140, and the addition of an upperweight, 220, while raising the lowest weight class three pounds. One side likes the idea and being able to get more football players to possibly come out for the team. The other side argues smaller schools already have trouble finding upperweights and now have one more class to worry about. It also creates a logjam in the middleweights where most of the weights are intensely competitive already.
Not everyone is going to like the new weight classes, but they're here to stay.
Opening weekend tournaments
Battle at the Beach (Indian River HS, Dagsboro, DE)
Teams: Bound Brook, Bishop Eustace, Buena, Cinnaminson.
Beast of the East Tournament (University of Delaware)
Teams: Hanover Park, North Bergen, Timber Creek, Absegami, Northern Burlington, Don Bosco Prep, DePaul, St. Benedict's Prep, Bergen Catholic, Jackson Memorial, St. Peter's Prep, Southern Regional, Delbarton, Brearley.
Caldwell Tournament (Caldwell HS)
Teams: Kittatinny, Randolph, Paramus, Caldwell, Hunterdon Central, West Deptford, Somerville, Hackettstown.
Colts Classic (Christian Brothers Academy)
Teams: CBA, Msgr. Donovan, Point Pleasant Beach. St. Rose, Hopewell Valley, Brick Twp., Colts Neck, Haddon Twp.
Clifton Invitational (Clifton HS)
Teams: Clifton, Newark Eastside, Dumont, Lyndhurst/North Arlington, Barringer, Shabazz.
Kris Hicok Memorial Holiday Tournament (Dover HS)
Teams: Dover, West Milford, Montclair, Roxbury, Whippany Park, Lenape Valley, Morris Catholic, Ridge, Union, West Orange.
Nisivoccia Classic (Edison HS)
Teams: Edison, Millburn, Red Bank, Belleville, J.P. Stevens, Metuchen.
Cutter Classic (Fair Lawn HS)
Teams: Fair Lawn, River Dell, Hackensack, Cresskill, New Milford, Tenafly, Teaneck, Secaucus.
Garfield Holiday Tournament (Garfield HS)
Teams: Garfield, Hawthorne, Paramus Catholic, Becton/Wallington, Ridgefield/Ridgefield Park, Elmwood Park, Lodi, Hasbrouck Heights/Wood-Ridge, Demarest.
Hopatcong Invitational (Hopatcong HS)
Teams: Hopatcong, Sparta, North Hunterdon, Belvidere, Woodbridge, Parsippany, Passaic Valley, St. Joseph (Montvale).
Howell Rebel Classic (Howell HS)
Teams: Howell, JFK (Iselin), Piscataway, Montgomery, Peddie, Old Bridge, Lakewood.
King of the Mountain (Central Mountain HS, PA)
Teams: Phillipsburg, High Point.
Joe Arrotti Tournament (Lakeland HS)
Teams: Lakeland, Ramsey, Pascack Hills, Pompton Lakes, Boonton, Cedar Grove, Chatham.
Harry McLaughlin Invitational (Mahwah HS)
Teams: Mahwah, Ramsey, Ridgewood, Ramapo, Cliffside Park, Bergenfield.
Matawan Icebreaker (Matawan HS)
Teams: Matawan, Manasquan, Red Bank Catholic, Allentown, Rumson-Fair Haven, Barnegat.
Morris Knolls Holiday Tournament (Morris Knolls HS)
Teams: Morris Knolls, South Plainfield, Seton Hall Prep, Watchung Hills, Rutherford, Morris Hills, Gov. Livingston.
Marauder Invitational (Mount Olive HS)
Teams: Mount Olive, Bloomfield, Madison, Newton, Mendham, Old Tappan, Kinnelon, Middletown North, Pequannock, West Essex.
Neptune Classic (Neptune HS)
Teams: Neptune, Long Branch, Livingston, Middlesex, Jackson Liberty, Central Regional, Freehold, Franklin, Ocean Township, Lenape, Pinelands, St. John Vianney, Toms River East, Trenton, Manalapan, Kingsway.
Nottingham Invitational (Nottingham HS)
Teams: Nottingham, Moorestown, Riverside, Holy Cross, Bishop Ahr, Plainfield, Toms River North, Ridge, Spotswood, Hamilton West, Oakcrest, Millville, Middle Twp., Manchester Twp., Morristown.
Maroon Raider Classic (Nutley HS)
Teams: Nutley, Cedar Grove, Glen Ridge, Linden, Mountain Lakes, Passaic Tech, West Side, Westfield.
Paulsboro Tournament (Paulsboro HS)
Teams: Paulsboro, Eastern, Emerson/Park Ridge, Vineland, Lowe Cape May, Woodstown.
Garden State Classic (Princeton HS)
Teams: Princeton, Bridgewater-Raritan, Washington Twp., Cranford, North Brunswick, Delaware Valley, St. Augustine.
Brunswick Brawl Duals (South Brunswick HS)
Teams: South Brunswick, Hillsborough, Camden Catholic.
TCNJ Pride Tournament (Sayreville HS)
Teams: Sayreville, Brick Memorial, Toms River South, Middletown South, Collingswood, Jefferson, Steinert, Robbinsville, Lacey.
Bob Badders covers New Jersey wrestling for MSG Varsity. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Bob_Badders