Jordan Pagano’s coach walked into the South Brunswick High School wrestling room last season and noticed a pair of rather large shoes on the floor.
“Whose are these?” Bobby Januska asked, only to learn, incredulously, that the size 12s belonged to Pagano, a slight 126 pounder at the time.
“He’s turning into a man,” Januska recently observed of Pagano, the reigning Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament champion who is undefeated after making the remarkable jump to 152 pounds while growing into his frame during the offseason.
“It’s almost like Jordan (19-8 as a district champ and GMCT runner-up a year ago) finally caught up to where he should be in many respects.”
Januska has two other state medal contenders in the lineup – undefeated GMCT champion Ali Yildiz (182) and twice-beaten Constantine Rissiotis (195) – but has been waiting for the rest of his young squad to catch up to Pagano’s overnight growth.
Ninth-ranked South Brunswick, which had some big shoes to fill (pun intended) with the graduation of four region qualifiers, finally matured as a unit with a stunning 42-38 upset of third-ranked Old Bridge in a battle of Home News Tribune Top 10 teams on Tuesday night.
“This was a huge building block,” Yildiz said. “A lot of our better kids and more experienced ones already have their signature wins. We needed one as a team so we can move forward and realize we could really do damage if we want to. We had a lot of kids step up and it was just great to see. I know it’s not going to stop because our team is so young and we are just going to keep moving forward.”
South Brunswick (11-9) erased a 38-30 deficit with pins from heavyweight Gordon Thompson and 106-pounder Mike Klimkiewicz in the final two bouts to win their third straight dual.
Old Bridge (11-5), wrestling without three starters Tuesday night, has dropped four straight and five of its last six.
The Vikings were in a position to win the dual thanks to first-year wrestler Brian Lee’s stunning upset of John McCarthy (he trailed 8-0 before reversing McCarthy to his back for a 4:53 pin) and Januska’s decision to juggle Yildiz and Rissiotis, who both weighed in at 182 pounds but provide some flexibility up top.
“I did what we had to do to win,” Januska said of wrestling Rissiotis at 182 and Yildiz at 195, a move that avoided a meeting between Yildiz and reigning GMCT 195-pound champion Eric DeJonge.
DeJonge competed by design at 220 pounds, where he filled in for Chris Middleton (flu), who was sidelined along with 152-pounder David Hopman (concussion) and heavyweight James O’Connell (knee).
“Ali was 100 percent down for wrestling DeJonge,” Januska said, noting Yildiz won a meeting between the two last year and that DeJonge decisioned Rissiotis 4-1 in last weekend’s GMCT final.
After Rissiotis and Yildiz won by fall, closing a 33-18 deficit to three points, DeJonge answered with a technical fall over Carson Hess. The point Hess saved appeared enormous at the time, but Thompson nullified its significance with his pin at heavyweight.
“That pin was huge,” Januska said. “It took a lot of pressure off Mikey to be able to go out and wrestle his match.”
Old Bridge pinned in the first three bouts and upped its lead to 21-0 when Terry Boateng reversed Jesse Tainow with six seconds remaining for an 8-7 decision that, on paper, appeared to dash South Brunswick’s upset hopes.
The Vikings, however, responded with three consecutive pins, the most significant from Lee, a GMCT pigtail wrestler who appeared to be no match for McCarthy, who placed fifth in the conference tournament.
“I couldn’t let my teammates down,” Lee said. “I knew I had to do something. If it wasn’t for my teammates cheering me on, I wouldn’t have gotten that pin.”
The South Brunswick bench, understanding the significance of Lee’s upset, leaped to its feet and let out a collective roar that sent shorthanded Old Bridge reeling.
“It’s hard to cover those hole when you are missing three quality guys that usually get wins for you,” Old Bridge coach Keith Cousens said of his three absent starters. “South Brunswick wrestled well. They took it to us.”
Pagano, who recorded one of seven South Brunswick pins on the night as the teams split bouts, took pride in watching his younger teammates make some overnight growth.
“It’s great to have these kids get better each day in the room,” Pagano said. “Everyone is working hard. We just want to be the best.”
Old Bridge placed third in the GMCT, four points ahead of the fifth-place Vikings. The teams will meet again in the District 20 Tournament, where South Brunswick hopes the roll it just began will continue.
Cinderella, it appears, could be growing into a size 12 shoe.