Toms River East’s Richard Lewis never has been an NJSIAA Region VI Wrestling Tournament favorite, never been the top seed. The two-time champ is used to being underrated, used to being the underdog.
That’s a good thing … because Lewis (29-0) could have felt a bit strange warming up for the quarterfinals Friday night. For the first time in over 30 years, if ever, Lewis was the only Raider to reach the quarters.
The senior could have felt surrounded by the matful of kids (10) wearing the Brick Memorial green and gold singlets, swallowed up by the 10 wrestlers with the Southern Regional black and gold.
Somehow, all alone among the contenders at 112 warming up, Lewis stood out.
“Tradition never graduates,” Lewis said.
And Toms River East, just 4-18 on the year and 30-64 over Lewis’ four-year career, sure does have tradition. The school’s coach of 33 years, Warren Reid, is a legend and has compiled a Shore Conference record 365 victories.
Lewis was born the summer of 1994 and the next March the Raiders Pat McGrath became East’s first state champ.
Lewis overwhelmed Wall senior Dan Kinsella (23-10) by technical fall in Friday’s quarters and meets Brick Memorial sophomore Alec Donovan (28-7) in this morning’s semifinals.
Two wins today and he joins Joe Hadge and Tony Mangione from the 1980s and Vin Salek as Raider three-time region champs. Current Rutgers starter Vin DellaFave won four Region VI titles for East.
Lewis feels like the last of the East legacy. The Raiders 31 Region VI champs since the 1983 re-alignment is second only to Brick Memorial. Lewis is a two-time state place-winner. He has 114 career wins. He is also on a team that started the year 0-10.
“Those guys sit up in the stands at our matches and come down and shake my hand afterwards,” Lewis said. “I ask coach Reid ‘who are those guys,’ he tells me that’s Tony Mangione, that’s Pat McGrath.”
“Coach Reid is like a wrestling encylopedia. And his alums are always coming in to help.”
It is Reid’s heart and his soul squarely behind all 35 East region champs. It is Reid’s work ethic, his sweat and blood that define and embody everything that represents this proud program. Yet the team Lewis leads is very different than the ones that McGrath and Andy Chencharik (1997) won states titles on.
Lewis is one of five Region VI unbeatens but the 138-pound second seed behind Jackson Memorial’s Brian Hamann, a two-time state fourth-place finisher. But East’s lone quarterfinalist is also his school’s only hope.
East has had five consecutive losing seasons. The days of 200 kids trying out for the team are a faded memory.
Lewis’ resume is impressive. He wrestled 11 of his 22 dual bouts up two weights at 152-pounds. He has wins over two of Friday night’s 152 quarterfinalists — Brick Memorial’s Cliff Ruggerio and Middletown South’s Andrew Blasco.
Both Lewis and Hamann (30-3) would be in the state championship conversation most years. But not this year. Not really. Not at 138 pounds. Not with South Plainfield senior Anthony Ashnault (167-0) looking to close out his career as a four-time unbeaten state champ.
“Vin DellaFave never celebrated until he won his second state title as a senior because he was never satisfied,” Lewis said. “This year was a big learning experience for me, not just pushing myself, but pushing others.
“I believe I can win it all. I have to be first in everything. First to Wawa. First to the water fountain. I have gone through some adversity in my life. The other contenders, they have never wrestled someone like me, I can tell you that much.”
Lewis should make it to Atlantic City. He and Hamann could both place. Perhaps quite high. But one will be in the same half of the state bracket as Ashnault.
Lewis is East’s last region champ. Today, he tries to do it again, win his third. He’s the lone Raider.