By ANTHONY SPAULDING
Director of Communications
Pope John XXIII Regional High School
ATLANTIC CITY — The Pope John XXIII Regional High School wrestling team can officially say it had a weekend — and season — to remember.
The Lions capped the 2017-18 season on Sunday by officially having a school-record five state placewinners after junior JoJo Aragona, sophomore Eddie Ventresca, senior Jake Rotunda, senior Jake Brown and senior Reece Muldoon each found their way to the medal stand at the end of the 85th NJSIAA Wrestling Championships at Boardwalk Hall.
Aragona and Ventresca each placed third in the three-day tournament, with Aragona earning a bronze medal at 138 pounds while Ventresca grabbed one at 113. Rotunda placed fourth at 132, Brown finished sixth at 195 and Muldoon took seventh at 182 for the Lions.
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.
Here are highlights and notes from the Lions’ historic weekend:
Aragona ascends to medal stand again
Aragona became only the second Pope John wrestler to place in the top three at states three times in a career after earning a 9-1 major decision over Phillipsburg’s Cody Harrison in the third-place consolation. Aragona, who placed second at 120 last year and third at 106 as a freshman, joined the legendary Mike Frick, a three-time state champion and four-time finalist from 1969-72.
“It’s a good feeling,” Aragona said of earning his third top-three state medal, which made him only the 15th Sussex County wrestler to achieve that feat. “It’s not what I originally wanted, but I’ll take it. Not many people can say they have done that.”
Aragona earned his shot at a third-place medal after recovering from a tough loss to defending state champion Jake Benner of Ocean Township in Saturday night’s semifinals by beating Boonton’s Dan Fongaro, 5-3, in the sixth round of wrestlebacks. Aragona said the loss to Benner, who beat him, 4-1, fueled him to get to the third-place consolation.
“I just had to bounce back and wrestle hard,” Aragona said. “Not many kids come off a tough loss like that and are able to bounce back. So, I just old myself, ‘Go in there, go hard and not let anyone take third because that is my spot.’”
Aragona was able to achieve the next best thing outside of gold and silver medals by topping Harrison for the second time in the tournament. Aragona won a 3-1 match against the Stateliner in the quarterfinals to reach the semifinals for the third straight season.
By beating Harrison again, Aragona ended his junior campaign with a 42-2 record that included him winning his third straight Region 1 Tournament title, his third Hunterdon Warren Sussex Tournament crown and his second District 2 Tournament championship. Aragona also enters his senior season with an impressive 116-6 career record after surpassing the 100-win mark this year.
But, Aragona wants nothing more than to ascend his way to the top spot on the podium and become Pope John’s sixth state champion. The Lions’ last state winner was Brian Unkert, who won the 145-pound title in 1990 by beating Jackson Memorial's Scott Goodale.
“The goal is always to get first,” Aragona said. “I'm going to make sure that no one is working harder than me and that I'm going to be the one to come in here and beat everybody up and not let anybody score any points.”
Rotunda finally reaches the podium
Rotunda has been one of the rocks to the Lions’ recent resurgence.
But, when it came to the state tournament, the senior had some bad luck over the last three years.
That all changed this weekend when he finally placed at the tournament after taking fourth in a stacked 132-pound weight class.
“It definitely was a stress-reliever,” Rotunda said of placing. “There’s nothing better than placing in the state of New Jersey.”
Before this year, Rotunda’s states history was as follows: an injury default in his freshman season in 2015 after sustaining a neck injury, losses in the quarters and in the “blood round” as a sophomore in 2016, and an injury default again after hurting his shoulder in 2017.
This year, Rotunda was able to after recovering from a 7-6 quarterfinal loss to Camden Catholic’s eventual state champion Lucas Revano by dominating his way to a 16-0 technical-fall win over Hunterdon Central’s Hunter Graf in the fourth round of wrestlebacks to guarantee himself a medal. Rotunda then went on to win by pin in the fifth round of wrestlebacks, decking Ocean Township’s Alex Poniros in 54 seconds, to earn a shot at third place.
In the consolation, Rotunda took on Hanover Park’s Nick Raimo, who won the 126-pound state title last year before losing to Revano in this year’s semifinals. Raimo also came into the tournament ranked No. 1 in the country at 132.
Rotunda was able to give Raimo all he could handle in their match, as they were tied at 2 before Raimo notched a takedown with four seconds left during a scramble between the two in which Rotunda almost had a takedown.
“It was a tough pill to swallow,” Rotunda said. “It was a good match. I thought I was going to get the two (points for the takedown) at the end. I started to come around and felt him on my hip, but he threw me and got it. It is what it is. I just have to accept it.”
Despite the loss, Rotunda ended his Pope John career as the school’s all-time leader in wins after posting a 130-24 record, including a 40-6 campaign this season, while surpassing Unkert’s previous mark of 109 wins. His final season featured him becoming Pope John’s second four-time state qualifier, second four-time Region 1 finalist, fourth four-time district champion, sixth two-time Region 1 champion and first three-time HWS champion. Rotunda also helped the Lions win their first state championship in 24 years by leading them to the Non-Public B title.
“It’s good to be a part of history,” said Rotunda, who will be wrestling at The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina while looking to serve in the Army as a military intelligence officer. “It’s a great feeling to experience all this, especially with this team.”
Ventresca vaults to second medal
Ventesca became a two-time placewinner at 113 for the Lions after coming away with a 10-7 win over Dante Mininno of Gateway-Woodbury. Last year, Ventresca placed sixth in the state at 113, but it wasn’t because five other wrestlers were better than him.
As a freshman, Ventresca made the semifinals, but lost a heartbreaking 3-1 decision to Bergen Catholic’s Robert Howard. In that loss, he suffered a shoulder injury, which forced him to forfeit his sixth-round wrestleback match and the fifth-place consolation.
“Last year, I felt a little bitter,” Ventresca said. “I was hungry. I wanted to wrestle so badly, but I was so mad that I was in a sling, sitting on the sidelines and watching my matches get forfeited. This year, I just wanted to show that I was better than that.”
Ventresca proved that he was the third-best 113-pounder in New Jersey behind champion Anthony Clark of Delbarton and runner-up Sammy Alvarez of St. Joseph-Montvale. Ventresca recovered from his 4-3 two-tiebreaker loss to Alvarez in the quarterfinals 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 and earned a 6-0 decision over Paramus’ Kyle Kaiser to get to the third-place consolation.
In the match for the bronze, Ventresca jumped out to a 7-0 lead in the first period after hitting Mininno for a takedown and five back points on two sets of turns. Ventresca increased his lead to 9-0, but Mininno then hit him with a five-point move in which he almost pinned Ventresca.
Ventresca admitted that Mininno gave him a “scare,” but was able to overcome it because he did not want to end the year with a meltdown loss.
“I was thinking, ‘I came this far, I’m winning 9-0 and if I get put to my back, it would be a bad way to go out,’” Ventresca said. “I had to get off my back, which I did and held on.”
By holding on for the win, Ventresca became the Lions’ eighth two-time placewinner while finishing the year with a 41-4 record in which he won his second District 2 title, second HWS title and placed third at Region 1. He joined Mike Frick, Aragona, Sam Chey (seventh/eighth at 112 in 1998, fourth at 103 in 1997 and fifth/sixth at 103 in 1996), Unkert (first at 145 and fifth/sixth at 140 in 1989), Hugh Albora (second at 188 in 1975 and eighth at 157 in 1973), Jim Frick (first at 130 in 1983 and fourth at 123 in 1982), and Devin Perez (second at heavyweight in 2003 and fourth at heavyweight in 2002) as two-time state medalists.
What can Brown do for you?
Like Rotunda, Brown has been a big part of the Lions’ success over the last four years.
At states, Brown culminated his time with them not only as a sixth-place finisher, but also as only their third wrestler above 195 pounds to place in the tournament. In addition he became only their second different wrestler above 195 to make the semifinals, along with Devin Perez, who did it back in 2003.
Brown guaranteed himself a medal on Saturday morning after beating South Plainfield’s Luke Niemeyer, 2-1, in the quarters. Unfortunately, Brown lost a tough 3-1 match to returning state finalist and eventual runner-up Sam Wustefeld of Scotch Plains-Fanwood on a takedown with seven seconds left on Saturday night, then lost his sixth-round wrestleback match to Williamstown’s Bryan Martin, 5-2, on Sunday morning and had to forfeit his fifth-place consolation due to an undisclosed injury.
Despite the way things ended for Brown at the tournament, Pope John head coach Mark Piotrowsky was so proud of Brown for what he has done for the program, considering he was their anchor in the upper weights while doubling as a star linebacker for Pope John.
“Jake has been a huge presence for us,” Piotrowsky said of Brown, who ended with a career record of 102-24 (26-5 this year) in which he became a three-time district champion, a three-time state qualifier and a Region 1 champion. “For any freshman coming in, it is hard, but for him to come in at like 160, 170 and have success there was big for us. His collaboration with football and wrestling helped a lot. He’s been a leader for us on the mat, in the wrestling room and in the school.”
Muldoon rides momentum for medal, 100th win
The odds were stacked against Muldoon.
After being a Region 1 champion and state qualifier last year, the senior headed into states this year as a fourth-place finisher in the region. Then, he lost his first match at Boardwalk Hall to Middletown North’s Drew Bowker, 5-0, in the preliminary round, putting him on the brink of elimination.
But, Muldoon made a big move on Saturday, winning four straight matches to get to the medal rounds and ended the tournament by claiming his seventh-place medal by winning on injury default over Delbarton’s Cole Kreshpane.
“This feels awesome,” Muldoon said. “I caught a lot of people by surprise because I had a low seed (No. 25 in the bracket). I was feeling a little down on Friday after I lost my first match, but I came back, got my first win and took it from there.”
By overcoming this adversity, Muldoon was able to notch his 100th career victory in the win over Kreshpane and finish his final season with a 32-7 record in which he also finished second at District 2.
Greatest of all time?
The Lions have had some great teams in their history as a program.
One team that stands out is the 1975 team, a team that had four regional champions and three state placewinners. There are the also the state championship teams of 1982, 1983, 1986, 1992 and 1994.
But, this year’s group of Pope John wrestlers has further validated their case as the best team in school history after getting their program-record five state placewinners. This capped a year in which they not only won the Non-Public B title, but also won the Non-Public, North B title, claimed a second straight HWS team title, captured a District 2 team title, and finished seventh as a team at the Beast of the East Tournament while finishing 17-2.
“Since I’ve known Pope John and those who have told me about the past history, this is without a doubt that this is the best team that has gone through,” Piotrowsky said.” It all began with the seniors and it has trickled down. We had some great moments and this was a great way to end the season.”
The Lions attributed their success to the camaraderie they had.
“It started with me and Jake Brown, and it began to grow little by little,” Rotunda said. “We then got JoJo, Robbie and Eddie. ... When we got all these guys, we definitely had a lot of team bonding. We always had a good time together. It made us better in the end.”