No one expected the Hunterdon Central High School wrestling team to have much of a chance against juggernaut Brick Memorial in Sunday’s NJSIAA Group V final.
So even though Red Devils head coach Jon Cantagallo-Rohm was not exactly thrilled with the 53-15 loss to the Mustangs, who are ranked No. 2 in the New Jersey Wrestling Writers Association Top 20 poll, the rookie mentor took solace in knowing the experience of competing at the Sun National Bank Center benefited his young team.
“We lost to a better team today,” Cantagallo-Rohm said. “Brick is a heck of a team and they came out ready to wrestle. I’m not happy with the outcome but I’m proud of my team for being here. We have some guys in our lineup that are inexperienced (eight underclassmen wrestled). Being in this environment for some of those guys is, I guess, a little shell-shocking. But for our guys to work their butts off all season and even have a shot to be in contention for a state title is a big testament to this team and their work ethic.”
Hunterdon Central (15-8) had it string of consecutive dual meet victories, which included a 30-27 win over North Hunterdon in the state semifinal, snapped at six by a team that is widely regarded as the state’s top public school program.
Brick Memorial (21-1), whose only loss this season came to reigning Non-Public A state champion Bergen Catholic, which InterMat ranks among the 10 best teams in the country, advanced to the final with a 43-15 state semifinal win over North Bergen.
The Mustangs racked up 11 pins on the day, six of which came against Hunterdon Central.
The dual meet started favorably, so to speak, at 152 pounds for Hunterdon Central, whose lineup is strongest at 160 through 195 pounds.
The teams split the first eight bouts, but Brick Memorial did not allow any bonus points until the eighth bout when Hunter Graf pinned at 106 pounds to help the Red Devils close to 19-15.
“They knew that was the heart of our lineup and they didn’t open up,” Cantagallo-Rohm said. “They wrestled smart. They didn’t enable themselves to be put in bad positions to give up bonus points. They forced us to come to them and we just couldn’t pick up that (bonus) point.”
Nestor Crespo, who some regard as the state’s best 195-pounder, capped a run of three consecutive Hunterdon Central wins with a 3-0 decision over Connor Owen. Michael Iodice (170) and Nick Suk (182) also won by decision for the Red Devils.
Sophomore Victor Lacombe dropped a 6-1 decision in overtime at 220 pounds to Brick Memorial’s Chris Hayes, who used an inside trip for a five-point move. Nick Rivera followed with a pin at heavyweight to give the Mustangs a 19-9 lead.
In the marquee bout of the dual meet, Brick’s Gianni Ghione, an incumbent region champion who finished one win shy of medaling in Atlantic City last year, pinned sophomore Peter Nace (29-4) in 3:22.
“We wanted (Nace) to go out there and wrestle one of the best kids and kind of keep things in perspective,” Cantagallo-Rohm said.
The fall was the first of three straight as Brick Memorial, one of six Shore Conference teams ranked in the NJWWA Top 20, pulled away for a lopsided win.
Unranked Hunterdon Central, which posted a 2-4 record against teams that advanced to the state semifinals, now stands at 1-12 in state championship duals. The lone state title for the Red Devils, one of six Skyland Conference teams representing the league on Sunday, was over Lenape in 1989.
“We still have a goal for these seniors (five wrestled Sunday) to be four-time district champs,” Cantagallo-Rohm said.
“So while this is the end of the team duals, we still have one more thing we can come away with as a team, and it would be a nice cherry on top to call ourselves district champs for another year.