For being such a confident and accomplished wrestler, Craig De La Cruz looked extremely comfortable in the role of underdog this past weekend at the Region V Tournament.
The Bound Brook sophomore came to the Hunterdon Central Fieldhouse Friday with a 30-2 record and last year’s fourth place 106-pound state tournament finish. He left Saturday night, carrying a championship and Outstanding Wrestler Award courtesy of a 3-1 tiebreaker win over Monroe’s defending region champ Sal Profaci. De La Cruz beat top-seed and Bishop Ahr’s returning region champ Kyle Brady, 9-4, in the semifinals after Friday night’s epic 3-2 tiebreaker win over North Hunterdon’s Ryan Pomrinca.
De La Cruz was one of eight area champions.
Vorhees’ unbeaten senior 170-pounder Jadaen Bernstein and Hunterdon Central unbeaten junior 138-pounder Gary Dinmore won for the third time. Franklin senior 195-pounder Anthony Messner, a runner-up to Bernstein at 160 two years ago, also won for the third time. Delaware Valley unbeaten senior 126-pounder Mike Pongracz won his second title, adding to the region title at 119 two years ago. Pongraz, who credited former North Hunterdon two-time state champ Ricky Frondorf with helping him with his tilt which he used for five points in the region final, became the all-time Hunterdon County win leader with his 144th victory in the semifinals.
De La Cruz was the third area wrestler to win his first, joining Hillsborough senior 145-pounder Rhys Weinberger and Bound Brook junior 285-pounder S. Michael Johnson to win titles after finishing second last year. Franklin’s junior 220-pounder Ralph Normandia – Messner’s first cousin and daily drill partner –won for the first time.
The 120-pound weight was recognized as the deepest and most talented. De La Cruz was shadowed by Brady, a third-place finisher and region champ last year, John F. Kennedy junior Carl Buttitta, a state runner-up, who beat De La Cruz for the 106 title last year, went on to place second in the state. Profaci won the region title Pomrinca, last year’s runner-up at 113 to Brady, wound up seventh in the state.
The final didn’t disappoint. Profaci got first choice and selected defense for the first tie breaker, but was unable to escape. De La Cruz then chose defense in the second UTB, and reversed Profaci to win 3-1.
“I think I can rideout anybody in the state,” said De La Cruz, a two-time Somerset County and District 18 champ. “I have some good coaches to work on that with Donnie DeFillippis and Andrew (Flanagan).”
Weinberger, beaten in last year’s 138-pound final by graduated Somerville star Paul Kirchner, scored a reversal with 56 seconds left in regulation and beat Hunterdon Central senior Tim Higginson 2-1.
“I was sneaking around and I was lucky enough to snag an ankle I was looking for a reversal because I knew I wasn’t going to be happy with just one (point),” Weinberger said.
He then held on — literally — to Higginson’s right leg.
“I got in on his leg like five times,” said Weinberger. “I had some nice shots on him;: I was confident in my shots, but he’s a funky kid and he’s comfortable in those positions and I’m comfortable in those 2-1 kind of matches.
“I was holding on that leg for dear life,” he added. “I got in on that right leg a few times, but I just couldn’t finish. I give him credit for being good in those positions; he’s good there, he’s good with those whizzers and he stopped me with that the last time we wrestled.”
Nothing stopped Bernstein, who had two tight region victories the last two years.
“I felt like I wrestled pretty well, but I don’t think I’m going to be completely satisfied until I win a state title,” said Bernstein, who was second in the state two years ago and seventh last year.