The four rounds of chemotherapy and 21 days of radiation treatment that Mike Nicolaro endured beginning at the start of the academic year to treat the Hodgkin’s lymphoma with which he was diagnosed with last spring had clearly taken their toll.
One of East Brunswick High School’s best conditioned grapplers a year ago, Nicolaro said he now feels “like an old man in the wrestling room” compared to his teammates, who desperately needed him to gut out a victory in the next-to-last bout against Old Bridge on Wednesday night.
Nicolaro overcame third-period fatigue to hold on for a key decision, which teammate Sean Glasgow followed with a critical pin as the second-ranked Bears rallied for a dramatic 34-33 victory over the third-ranked and previously undefeated Knights on Criteria H (most first points scored) in a battle of Home News Tribune Top 10 teams.
“That was the swing match,” Old Bridge coach Keith Cousens said of Nicolaro’s 7-4 decision over Terry Boateng in a tossup bout at 132 pounds.
“He willed that match out. Our kid is known for having a lot of gas. It’s his strong point. He’s in great shape. The other kid wrestled with a lot of heart. I give him a lot of credit. He’s really tough to come back from that (cancer originating from the white blood cells). I’m happy for him.”
Glasgow, whose only losses this season are to three-time undefeated state champion Anthony Ashnault of South Plainfield and two-time NJSIAA Tournament fourth-place finisher Brian Hamann of Jackson Memorial, improved to 16-2 with his 10th pin of the season.
His trademark combination armbar and half nelson pinned Mike Murphy at 138 pounds to create a 33-33 deadlock, which proved to be the third tie of the dual, forcing referee Ed Marion to convene with both head coaches at the scorer’s table to determine the outcome on criteria.
East Brunswick owned a 16-11 edge on most first points scored to create the fifth and final lead change of a seesaw battle as Marion declared East Brunswick the winner on Criteria H.
The Greater Middlesex Conference Red Division rivals split bouts with each team recording four pins. Old Bridge (10-1) was coming off Saturday’s quad meet sweep which included a 36-35 victory over J.F. Kennedy on Criteria F. The Bears (10-2) have only lost to Westfield by a point and to South Plainfield, which Amateur Wrestling News ranks No. 11 nationally.
Each team competed without an incumbent region qualifier. East Brunswick’s Mike O’Kane (152) and Old Bridge’s James O’Connell (285) were both sidelined with knee injuries. East Brunswick coach Matt Pazinko made several lineup moves from which the Bears benefitted.
He bumped Jonathan Schleifer, who placed third in the NJSIAA Tournament last year, up to 170 pounds and inserted Sam Kim at 160 pounds for the first time all season. The moves enabled East Brunswick, which lost the first two bouts by decision, to build a 9-6 lead on Kim’s decision and Schleifer’s pin.
East Brunswick’s Mahmoud Soliman followed with a crucial 11-9 decision at 182 pounds over Dmitry Mikhol, who the Old Bridge faithful felt should have been awarded a takedown at the buzzer. The bout was 9-9 before Mikhol was called for locking hands and subsequently cut Soliman in the final 25 seconds.
Chris Middleton (195) and Eric DeJonge (220) followed with pins for Old Bridge, erasing a 12-6 deficit.
Pazinko’s decision to bump Michael Quinton up to heavyweight, where he pinned Christian Manzanares, forged an 18-18 tie and proved to be one of the biggest maneuvers of the night.
“It’s a situation where DeJonge is a tough wrestler and Mike is a tough wrestler,” Pazinko said of avoiding a showdown between the two at 220 pounds. “I’m not sure how that’s going to play out. I thought Mike had a better chance to pin at heavyweight so I thought that we had a shot there to wash out rather than possibly going down by six points. I did that because I figured it was a safer bet because I knew they had some power down below.”
After Kyle Brown (113) and Stephen Nadera (120) pinned for Old Bridge, Mike Nadera followed with a decision, giving the Knights a 33-24 lead. The deficit placed Nicolaro in a must-win and Glasgow in a must-pin position.
“You never hear him complain about it,” Pazinko said of Nicolaro’s battle with cancer, noting the senior still has chemicals in his body from treatment. “He never makes excuses. He just goes out and works his hardest every day, and he goes out and gets a big win for us today.”
Glasgow, who wasn’t even sure his pin would enable the Bears to win on criteria, said he and his teammates are inspired by Nicolaro.
“Mike has to be one of the most disciplined and hardest working kids on the team,” he said. “I love wrestling with him.”
Nicolaro, who was diagnosed with cancer after discovering a lump on his neck last March, traveled to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for all of his treatments, each of which provided him with a mental toughness to match his physical ability.
“It’s been really tough,” he said. “You definitely see I’m very tied on the mat, especially compared to a lot of my teammates because we are a very hard-working and well-conditioned team.
“But I’m coming back.”