Mike Russo knows he is good enough to be a state wrestling champion.
“I feel like I’m right there,” said Russo, a Jackson Liberty junior after he finished third in the 120-pound weight class on Sunday at Boardwalk Hall.
Russo, who is now a two-time state top four finisher, was so close to wrestling against St. Peter’s Prep’s Mike Russo in the 120-pound final. He was defeated by Hanover Park’s Anthony Cefolo, 2-1, in double overtime in the semifinals on Saturday night.
“I wanted to be there, but I have one more year,” said Russo, who is Jackson Liberty’s highest-ever placewinner in the program’s seven-year history.
Russo was one of two wrestlers from Region VI to finish third in his respective weight class. Wall’s Brett Donner was third at 160 as he became the Crimson Knights’ first placewinner since 2010 and their highest placewinner since heavyweight Drew Doyle was second in 2007.
The Shore Conference had no state finalists for the first time since 1970, but there were 18 placewinners from Region VI.
Russo was ultra-impressive on Sunday. He pinned Delbarton’s Nick Farro, the Region III champion, in the wrestleback semifinals before he pinned two-time state top five finisher Bryan Damon of Jefferson in the third-place bout.
“This year, I really wanted to wrestleback and take that third,” said Russo, who was fourth at 106 last year and is Jackson Liberty’s first two-time state placewinner.
Russo might have also have benefited from the change in format the NJSIAA instituted last year of having semifinal losers not wrestling their wrestleback semifinal bouts until Sunday.
Before last year, when the NJSIAA added an extra round of wrestlebacks, semifinals had to wrestle their wrestleback semifinal bouts on Saturday night, shortly after they lost their semifinal.
“I got a good night’s sleep (on Saturday night) and it got me focused,” Russo said.
Donner, who lost in the quarterfinals to Riverside’s Christian Stackhouse, rallied from a three-point deficit to defeat Bergen Catholic’s Jordan Pagano, 5-4, in the third-place bout after he defeated Howell’s Joey Schultz, 3-1, in the wrestleback semifinals.
“It’s awesome to finish like this,” Donner said. “After I lost in the quarters, to a kid I thought I could beat, I just kind of brushed it off because I had a long way to go.
Donner, who is a sophomore and has now been to the state tournament twice, said his showing this year enabled him to clear a big hurdle.
“I’ve kind of broken through,” Donner said. “Now, I can really set the bar higher next year and get a state championship.
Also, Donner knows he has now passed the “Happy to be here” stage.
“Last year, when I turned that corner into hall (Boardwalk Hall), I was like, ‘Oh, my God this is awesome,’ ” Donner said. ‘This year, I turned the corner, saw it took in and said, ‘All right, I’m ready to go’.”
Five Region VI wrestlers finished fifth. Christian Brothers Academy’s Sebastian Rivera and Mike Oxley accomplished that at 106 and 195 respectively. Raritan’s Patrick Toal and Brick Memorial’s Nick Costa did it at heavyweight and 182 and Southern’s Zach Wilhelm was fifth at 145.
For Wilhelm and the Southern wrestling community, it was an emotional moment.
Southern head coach John Stout and assistant coach Gerry Tabbachino were extremely animated during Wilhelm’s 6-4 win over Westfield’s Matt Barber. Both hugged Wilhelm after the bout with Tabbachino hugging Wilhelm for a good 30 seconds before he went back upstairs into the coaches’ seating area in the end zone of the arena.
Wilhelm, whose father, Eric, is Southern’s principal and a former Rams’ assistant coach, bookended his career with state medals. He was eighth at 112 in 2011, his freshman year. During his career, the Rams won four NJSIAA South Group IV championships, appeared in two Group IV state finals and won the Shore Conference Tournament title in 2011.
“It has not hit me yet,” said Wilhelm, about putting on the Southern singlet for the last time. “I’m sure it will when we have our banquet and maybe even by Monday that I’m not ever going to wrestle for Southern again.”
Wilhelm became Southern’s first placewinner since he and two-time state runner-up Kyle Casaletto in 2011.
Oxley defeated Keansburg’s Tyree Sutton 2-1. Oxley recorded a reversal early in the second period and then rode Sutton, who is Keansburg’s first state placewinner ever, for close than four e minutes over the second and third periods
It was the second time Oxley has beaten Sutton in the last two weeks. He beat Sutton in the District 22 final.
Oxley knows he was there with anyone in the 195-pound weight class. He lost his semifinal and wrestleback semifinal to Franklin’s Ralph Normandia and Millville’s Ed Shockley by a combined three points.
“I knew coming into the tournament all the top guys were within a point or two of each other and whomever had the best day was going to win,” Oxley said.
Region VI’s other medalists were Freehold Township’s Nick DePierro (sixth at 113); Howell’s Kris Lindemann (sixth at 132); Howell’s Joey Schultz (sixth at 132); Brick Memorial’s Tyler Poling (sixth at 220); Colts Neck’s Nick Ottaviano (seventh at 126), Brick’s Kyle Wojtaszek (seventh at 152); Red Bank Catholic’s Shawn McCord (seventh at 220); Jackson Liberty’s T.J. Liquori (eighth at 160) and Southern’s Gerardo Jorge (eighth at 170).
McCord is Red Bank Catholic’s first state placewinner since 1979. Ottaviano is Colt Neck’s first state placewinner since 2010. Liquori’s medal makes it the first time Jackson Liberty has had two state medalists in the same year.
Howell’s John Gagliano was named the New Jersey Wrestling Coaches Association’s Coach of the Year. Howelll won its first Shore Conference Tournament and NJSIAA sectional championships this year.