By ANTHONY SPAULDING
Director of Communications
Pope John XXIII Regional High School
ATLANTIC CITY — Pope John XXIII Regional High School’s wrestling team may not have a state champion this year, but it is going to be bringing home a lot of hardware from the 85th NJSIAA Wrestling Championships.
The Lions will have a school-record five state placewinners after junior JoJo Aragona, senior Jake Brown, senior Jake Rotunda, sophomore Eddie Ventresca and senior Reece Muldoon each won enough matches on Saturday to guarantee a top-eight finish at the tournament at Boardwalk Hall.
“It’s great,” said Pope John head coach Mark Piotrowsky, whose team had seven state qualifiers this year after also seeing junior Robbie Garcia and sophomore Kaya Sement compete in the tournament. “This team has put in a lot of work over the last three, four years. This team has broken a lot of school records over the years and this is another one to check off. This is probably one of, if not the best, Pope John teams that has ever seen.”
“It’s a nice feeling,” Brown said. “It shows how much hard work we have put into this sport in the offseason and during the season. We’ve been building our program up since I came here freshman year.
Aragona (138 pounds) and Brown (195) became state placewinners by each winning in the quarterfinals on Saturday morning to advance to the semifinals. However, they both fell short in their attemps to become Pope John's first state champ since 1990, when Brian Unkert won at 145, after dropping tough decisions to defending state champion Jake Benner of Ocean Township and returning state finalist Sam Wustefeld of Scotch Plains-Fanwood, respectively.
As for Rotunda (132) and Ventresca (113), they lost in the quarterfinals, but got to the medal round after posting wins in the fourth round of wrestlebacks. In regards to Muldoon (182), he won four matches in a row in the wrestlebacks to guarantee his place on the podium.
Aragona, Brown, Rotunda and Ventresca still have a chance to wrestle for as high as third place when action resumes at 10 a.m. with the sixth round of wrestlebacks, followed by the third- fifth- and seventh-place consolations. Muldoon will wrestle for either seventh or eighth place at his weight after losing in the fifth round of wrestlebacks.
Before this year, the Lions only had three state placewinners in a single season, doing it in both 1975 and last year. In 1975, the Lions saw Hugh Albora (188 pounds), John Frick (115) and Steve Opitz (101) finish second, eighth and eighth, respectively. Last year, Aragona took second at 120, Robbie Garcia took fourth at 132 and Ventresca placed sixth at 113.
This time, the Lions found their way to the podium by notching some impressive wins.
Aragona became the Lions’ third wrestler to become a three-time state placewinner after earning a 3-1 win over Phillipsburg’s Cody Harrison in the quarters. Aragona, who placed second at 120 last year and third at 106 as a freshman, fell short of trying to become a back-to-back state finalist in his semifinal bout, as he lost a 4-1 decision to Benner in a match where Benner scored three of his points on back points in the second period.
Brown became a first-time placewinner in his third trip to states after beating South Plainfield’s Luke Niemeyer, 2-1, in the quarters. However, Brown’s bid to become the Lions’ seventh different wrestler to make the state final ended with a 3-1 heartbreaking loss to Wustefeld in which he gave up a takedown with seven seconds left.
“I went out there and gave it all I got,” Brown said of his match with Wustefeld, who made the finals again after getting there last year at 182. “I had my goals to be in the state finals and be a state champ, but I fell short. I never made it this far, so now I just have to bounce back tomorrow and try to go for third.”
Ventresca became a two-time state placewinner for the Lions after bouncing back from his 4-3 two-tiebreaker loss to Sammy Alvarez of St. Joseph-Montvale in the quarters by beating Fair Lawn’s Dylan Cedeno, 5-4, in the fourth round of wrestlebacks. Ventresca also pinned Howell’s Jerry Lleshi in 1:24 in the fifth round of wrestlebacks to put himself in a position for another top-six state medal after placing sixth last year at the same weight.
Rotunda guaranteed himself a spot on the medal stand for the first and only time in his career after recovering from his 7-6 quarterfinal loss to Camden Catholic’s Lucas Revano by dominating his way to a 16-0 technical-fall win over Hunterdon Central’s Hunter Graf. Rotunda also won by pin in the fifth round of wrestlebacks, decking Ocean Township’s Alex Poniros in 54 seconds.
Muldoon will get on the medal stand after he made a big run Saturday, as he beat Northern Burlington’s Tommy Hill (13-2), Rancocas Valley’s Drew Bowker (pin in 4:26), Cedar Grove’s Joseph McCarthy (8-6) and Howell’s Christian Murphy (5-3), respectively. Muldoon wound up losing to Middletown North’s Nicholas Cofone for the second time in the tournament, as Cofone notched a 5-1 win after earning a 5-0 victory in their preliminary round match on Friday night.
Piotrowsky was proud of the effort he saw in these five wrestlers and believes they will finish strong Sunday.
“They wrestled hard,” Piotrowsky said. “They’ve done it all year. They’ve been tough tournaments like the Beast of the East, the Hunterdon Warren Sussex Tournament, District 2 and Region 1. They are battle tested and they are ready to place.”
As for the Lions’ other state qualifiers, Garcia and Sement tried to make a run toward a state medal in the wrestlebacks, but they both unfortunately fell short in their attempts.
Garcia started the day looking to place in states for the second straight year after placing fourth last season, but lost a 5-4 decision to Delbarton’s Travis Tavoso in the quarterfinals. In his next match, Garcia was denied his bid for another medal after dropping a heartbreaking 6-1 decision to Bergen Catholic’s Wade Unger in sudden victory.
Though he did not place, Garcia ended the year with a 36-7 record that included a second District 2 title and a Region 1 runner-up finish. Garcia also recorded his 100th career win this year and enters next season with a 103-22 mark.
Sement beat Pascack Valley’s Robbie Natelli, 2-1, in two tiebreakers in the second round of wrestlebacks, but lost to South Plainfield’s David Loniewski, 8-4, in the third round of wrestlebacks.
Sement finished his first season with the Lions with a 36-7 record that included a Region 1 title, a District 2 title and a 2-2 showing at states.
NJSIAA Wrestling Championships
138: No. 2 Jake Benner (Ocean Township) dec. No. 3 JoJo Aragona (Pope John), 4-1
195: No. 2 Sam Wustefeld (Scotch Plains-Fanwood) dec. No. 3 Jake Brown (Pope John), 3-1
113: No. 2 Sammy Alvarez (St. Joseph-Montvale) dec. No. 7 Eddie Ventresca (Pope John), 4-3 (2 t.b.)
132: No. 4 Lucas Revano (Camden Catholic) dec. No. 5 Jake Rotunda (Pope John), 7-6
138: No. 3 JoJo Aragona (Pope John) dec. No. 6 Cody Harrison (Phillipsburg), 3-1
145: No. 5 Travis Tavoso (Delbarton) dec. No. 4 Robbie Garcia (Pope John), 5-4
195: No. 3 Jake Brown (Pope John) dec. No. 6 Luke Niemeyer (South Plainfield), 2-1
113: Eddie Ventresca (Pope John) pin. Jerry Lleshi (Howell), 1:24
132: Jake Rotunda (Pope John) pin. Alex Poniros (Ocean Township), 0:54
182: Nicholas Cofone (Middletown North) dec. Reece Muldoon (Pope John), 5-1
113: Eddie Ventresca (Pope John) dec. Dylan Cedeno (Fair Lawn), 5-4
132: Jake Rotunda (Pope John) tech. fall. Hunter Graf (38-5), Hunterdon Central (Sr.), 16-0 (5:51)
145: Wade Unger (Bergen Catholic) dec. Robbie Garcia (Pope John), 6-1 (s.v.)
182: Reece Muldoon (Pope John) dec. Christian Murphy (Howell), 5-3
120: David Loniewski (South Plainfield) dec. Kaya Sement (Pope John), 8-4
182: Reece Muldoon (Pope John) dec. Joseph McCarthy (Cedar Grove), 8-6
120: Kaya Sement (Pope John) dec. Robbie Natelli (Pascack Valley), 2-1 (2 t.b.)
182: Reece Muldoon (Pope John) pin. Drew Bowker (Rancocas Valley), 4:26
182: Reece Muldoon (Pope John) maj. dec. Tommy Hill (Northern Burlington), 13-2