By ANTHONY SPAULDING
Director of Communications
Pope John XXIII Regional High School
TOMS RIVER — The state title drought is over for Pope John XXIII Regional High School’s wrestling team.
After not being able to make it to the pinnacle of high school wrestling for the last 24 years, the Lions captured the Non-Public B championship on Sunday by defeating Holy Spirit, 48-21, in the state final at RWJ Barnabas Health Aren on the campus of Toms River North High School.
“It’s awesome,” Pope John senior Jake Rotunda said. “It’s kind of hard to process right now. Being a senior, this is just great. It’s been a long time coming for us. We’ve worked hard these last few years. We’ve put in a lot of blood, sweat and tears on the mat. It’s finally paid off.”
By beating the Spartans, the Lions claimed their sixth state championship — all in Non-Public B — in program history and first since 1994. That year, the Lions were awarded the title after there was no Parochial South B champion that season.
The last time the Lions had to beat a team for a state crown was in 1992, when they defeated St. James of Carneys Point. But, this title meant so much to the Lions because they had went through a stretch from 1996-2017 where they only had four winning seasons and won only two wins in the state tournament — both coming in the Non-Public, North A first round.
“This is really great,” Pope John head coach Mark Piotrowsky said. “We have a member on our coaching staff, Jarrod Cofrancesco, who was on that 1994 team and he always talks to our guys about where Pope John was before this. This is a huge moment for this team, which we believe is the best to have ever come through Pope John.”
Making their seventh state final appearance, the Lions came into the final looking to make their mark on the program after they defeated DePaul, 47-16, in the Non-Public, North B final on Friday night. In doing so, they claimed their ninth sectional title and first since the 1994 squad did it.
However, they had to try to do it against a Holy Spirit team that was looking to pull off a huge upset for the second time in three days after knocking off top-seeded Donovan Catholic in the Non-Public, South B final to reach its third consecutive state championship match. Though Holy Spirit was embracing a underdog role and was hungry to try to win its first state title in program history, the Lions knew they had to keep doing what got them this opportunity.
“We had to stay humble,” Pope John senior Jake Brown said. “We knew every one of us had to come here and wrestle. We just had to do our jobs.”
The Lions came out and did their jobs to a tee from the outset, as they raced out to a 32-0 lead after sophomore Eddie Ventresca, sophomore Kaya Sement, sophomore Matthew Garcia, Rotunda, junior JoJo Aragona and junior Robbie Garcia won the first six bouts from 120 to 152 pounds.
Ventresca, a returning state placewinner who bumped up a weight class from 113, kicked off the match by dominating his way to a 19-4 technical-fall victory over Kevin Mason in a time of 1:41. Following Ventresca was Sement, who picked up a 13-3 major decision over Kevin Mason.
Then, Matthew Garcia pinned Kollin Driscoll in 45 seconds at 132 to extend the Lions’ lead to 15-0. Rotunda, Pope John’s all-time leader in wins, followed up with victory No. 119 by posting a 17-1 technical fall over Zach Long in 4:33.
Aragona and Robbie Garcia capped the six-bout winning streak by both earning pins. Aragona, a returning state finalist, pinned Patrick Newman in 1:57 and Robbie Garcia, a returning state placewinner, decked Ryan Keil in 1:31.
The Lions did drop the next three bouts to allow Holy Spirit to cut the lead to 32-15. However, Brown put the Lions in position to clinch the match by pinning Kurt Driscoll in 1:33 to make it a 38-15 lead with four bouts left, which Holy Spirit had to win every one by pin in order to pull out a victory.
In the next bout, sophomore Cole Zydel helped the Lions’ clinch the victory by doing his job, as allowed Azim Baker-Coley to only win by a 7-5 decision. After that match, the Lions won two of the final three bouts, receiving wins from freshmen Shane Perceley (106) and Michel Ritacco (113), and only seeing senior Jack Morelli (285) drop a 2-1 match in tiebreakers.
Piotrowsky was so proud of his Lions for their effort here and throughout the team season, which they finished with a 17-2 record.
“It was a huge team effort,” Piotrowsky said. “Having these guys plus wrestlers like James Swentzel, Joe Arbolino, Connor Fritsch, Patrick Hanley and Cosmo Esposito do their part all year was great. These are varsity wrestlers who understand what it takes to for us to succeed.”
Now that the team-portion of the season is over, the Lions will look to keep up their success in the state individual tournament, which starts next Friday and Saturday with the District 2 Tournament at Kittatinny High School, then the Region 1 Tournament at West Milford on Feb. 21, 23 and 24, and concludes with the 85th NJSIAA Championships at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City from March 2-4. Last year, the Lions had seven state qualifiers, five Region 1 champs, three state placewinners and a state finalist.
However, the Lions want to enjoy this championship moment now and make this a tradition like it was in the past when they won titles in 1982, 1983, 1986, 1992 and 1994.
“This is unbelievable,” Aragona said. “This is the most exciting thing that we have done. I’m glad I got to do this with my brothers. … To finally bring it back to our school is amazing.”
“This is a turning point,” Brown said. “This program is going in the right direction. Everyone knows our mind-set and what we want to do now.”
Non-Public B final
Pope John 48, Holy Spirit 21
106: Shane Percelay (PJ) pin. Jason Klemm, 1:03
113: Michel Ritacco (PJ) maj. dec. Luke Spotts, 12-2
120: Eddie Ventresca (PJ) tech. fall. Kevin Mason, 19-4 (1:41)
126: Kaya Sement (PJ) maj. dec. Dominic Sacco, 13-3
132: Matthew Garcia (PJ) pin. Kollin Driscoll, 0:45
138: Jake Rotunda (PJ) tech. fall. Zach Long, 17-1 (4:33)
145: JoJo Aragona (PJ) pin. Patrick Newman, 1:57
152: Robbie Garcia (PJ) pin. Ryan Keil, 1:31
160: Connor Boal (HS) pin. Joe Arbolino, 0:20
170: Tim Fitzpatrick (HS) pin. Quinn Muldoon, 1:13
182: Michael Waszen (HS) dec. Reece Muldoon, 7-3
195: Jake Brown (PJ) pin. Kurt Driscoll, 1:33
220: Azim Baker-Coley (HS) dec. Cole Zydel, 7-5
285: Dimitris Pali (HS) dec. Jack Morelli, 2-1 (2 t.b.)
Records: Pope John 17-2, Holy Spirit 8-13