A year after failing to advance a single wrestler to the NJSIAA Individual Championships for only the second time since 1995, the storied Old Bridge High School program appears to be back on track.
The Knights will not allow injuries, which dampened the reigning District 20 champions’ otherwise successful 2011-12 campaign, to again hinder their focus.
“If anything happens, the next guy is just ready to step in,” said Old Bridge coach Keith Cousens, who has already lost starting heavyweight James O’Connell (ACL tear) and starting 145-pounder James Genova (shoulder) to season-ending injuries.
“The kids are working together as a team. The better kids are getting the younger kids better and helping the jayvee kids improve. That’s important because as they graduate, we have kids to fill their shoes, and if an injury happens, kids are ready to step up.”
Old Bridge represented the Greater Middlesex Conference, along with East Brunswick and host South Brunswick, in Saturday’s Region 5/6 duals. The schools wrestled Shore Conference foes Manalapan, Marlboro and Freehold Boro in a round-robin format.
The Knights (5-0) and Bears (4-0), who are expected to battle for second place in the GMC Red Division, won three duals apiece while South Brunswick went 2-1 with a loss to Manalapan.
“It shows that our district is not weak,” Old Bridge senior 126-pounder Mike Nadera said.
“I like the way Middlesex County represented ourselves. It just shows that we are one of the toughest.”
The fast start was somewhat unexpected because Old Bridge lost five starters – including district champions Joe Suozzo (138) and Eli Zafrani (160) — to injury or graduation.
Old Bridge returns just three wrestlers – Nadera, Kyle Brown (113) and Erik DeJonge (220) – with significant varsity experience (the trio combined for 63 wins last season). Seven other current varsity starters compiled an 18-40 record a year ago.
“Even though they didn’t get to Atlantic City, we just kept the ball rolling with summer training, sending them to camps,” Cousens said.
“We had our own little club, getting kids to work out and wrestle together. Trying to keep the team together is very important because it keeps the momentum going. It keeps our focus going every day in practice staying on the right course and working together. Every time a kid takes a little dip, there’s another kid there waiting to pick him up.”
Old Bridge’s football program, which enjoyed a rebirth, winning its first playoff game earlier this month in a decade, has fed the wrestling squad. The Knights feature a string of seven wrestlers, beginning at 152 pounds, who played on the gridiron including Christian Manzanares, who will replace O’Connell at heavyweight.
The program’s flagship wrestlers are now DeJonge and Nadera. Were it not for a season-ending knee injury, which knocked DeJonge out of the postseason last winter, he likely would have qualified for and maybe even placed in the state tournament.
“We expected at least two of our kids to go (to Atlantic City), but we finished just short,” Nadera said.
“This year we have a more dedicated team. Everyone comes in to work. We don’t have to tell them. We automatically have this good work ethic since we have to rebound off last year with the disappointing ending to our season.
“Everyone came in stronger and better. We just have more will to win. I’m liking this team that we have this year. We don’t have any slackers. We are all dedicated. This year we are going to try to get as many kids as possible to states, of course.”
Cousens said Saturday’s Region 5/6 duals – as well as a similar regular-season ending competition pitting GMC schools against Skyland Conference foes later this year – will better prepare the Knights for the postseason.
“It was great to get matchups with the other teams from the Shore that we don’t get to wrestle very often,” Cousens said.
“It was a good opportunity for kids to wrestle different competition and different styles – just another way to get our kids ready.”
Farley reaches milestone
J.F. Kennedy senior Collin Farley earned the 100th victory of his career with a 2-1 decision over incumbent region qualifier Nick Wahba of Somerville during the final leg of a tri meet on Saturday.