It’s hard to say if some Halloween spirits had invaded Pine Belt Arena or if Christmas had moved to March.
This year’s NJSIAA Region VI wrestling theme — expect the unexpected. Some of the finals were more surprising than the decision to get rid of wrestling in the Summer Olympics.
At 132 pounds, seventh seed Ben Esposito knocked off a state returning third-place finisher, Zack Hertling. At 195 pounds, a kid that wrestled most of the year at 182, Mike Oxley, bounced up and upset state returning seventh-place finisher Matt Moore. Four consecutive Brick Memorial upperweight finalists lost. Neptune fans appeared seemingly from a fairy tale and loudly cheered on as the Scarlet Fliers crowned two champs for the first time in 35 years. Seven of 14 top-seeded favorites lost.
And all three Jackson Memorial Jaguars were denied . . . okay, enough is enough. Let’s put on the brakes. Enough of this theater of the absurd stuff. Jackson Liberty, Jackson Memorial’s neighboring little brother, survived the insanity . . . well, not exactly because the Lions did outwrestle big brother Jackson Memorial.
Both Lions’ sophomore Mike Russo (35-0) and senior Nick Zak (35-0) were top-seeded. Both were favorites. Both have brothers who wrestled for Liberty and the two families form the foundation from which coach Mike Eddy’s team has built some success.
Both won. The program, in its sixth year of existence, won. Zak edged Brick Memorial’s Nick Costa, 4-2 at 182 pounds for his second title. Russo edged Toms River South’s Owen McClave, 1-0, at 106.
Zak and Russo are not only a combined 70-0, they are virtually unscored upon. Zak, sixth in the state at 170 last year, has not given up a takedown or backpoint all season. Ditto for Russo, except for one takedown when he wrestled up two weights at 120 pounds.
“Russo and Zak, I’ve known them since I started the program,” Eddy said. “They have put in the time. I saw what it was like at Jackson Memorial when I was an assistant there. I know what it takes to win. You have to have star power and we have that with these guys.”
Zak’s brother Chris was the first Lion to ever qualify for the state tournament in Boardwalk Hall two years ago. Nick was Liberty’s first region champ and first state place-winner. Matt Russo (120) finished third Saturday and will join his brother and Nick Zak in Atlantic City this Friday.
Rooming together should be no problem.
“I’ve known the Russos since we were little,” Zak said. “They took home my shoe from a wrestling practice and my dad had to drive me to their house to get it. I had ended up with theirs. After that, our parents started baby-sitting us for each other.”
The brothers Russo and Zak have led Liberty to consecutive appearances in the state sectionals.
“My brother and I were looking at private schools,” said Russo. “And some people said we should go to the other side of town (Jackson Memorial). They had the tradition. But I am happy I go to Liberty. It was a pretty good decision.
“My brother and the Zaks, they pulled this team along in the beginning. It’s a nice feeling to be in on the start of something. Especially with your best friends.”
Zak shut out his first two region opponents, 15-0 and 11-0, before holding off Costa. A first period dump takedown was the difference.
“I knew that Costa likes a lot of throws so I was cautious,” said Zak, who won last year’s 170 final, 3-0. “It feels good to be the first winner for Liberty in so many things.
“My ultimate goal is to win states. I think everybody has a chance. I know Johnny Sebastian (last year’s 160-pound champ) is a good wrestler but so am I.”
Russo rode out McClave in the second period, escaped to open the third frame, and made the point hold up despite getting warned for stalling once and receiving two cautions for false starts.
“I was a little nervous, but I focused and kept working,” Russo said.
Both Russo, who was second here last year, and McClave have a chance to place in Boardwalk Hall. But a state championship will be tough. According to intermat, the nation’s top-ranked 106-pounder is from New Jersey.
Perhaps Region VI will bring some of its Halloween spirt to Atlantic City this weekend.