Forgetting the competition, St. Joseph’s wrestlers quickly turn into spectators, marveling at their Falcons teammates on the mat.
“Especially when it’s a close match and one of our kids makes it,” heavyweight Jake Tooley said. “It’s almost like you forget you’re part of the team and just sit there like a fan. “Whether it’s a win or a loss, you kind of just sit back and really enjoy watching these people put on great performances.”
Senior Evan Mendez said, “For me, I was all over the place. After my match I was rooting for everyone because my family is there. They are my brothers, so I have to support them.”
St. Joseph’s fans had plenty to scream and shout about at the Greater Middlesex Conference tournament.
St. Joseph won the program’s first-ever team title with 290 team points, well ahead of second-place Old Bridge’s 241 and third-place St. Thomas Aquinas’ 166 in the two-day event that ended Saturday. South Plainfield finished fourth with 159.5.
The Falcons are favorites after defeating Old Bridge and South Plainfield in the dual and are ranked No. 10 in the New Jersey Wrestling Writers Association’s top 20 state rankings.
However, both of these teams showed quality and depth, and other opponents were capable of beating St. Joseph’s wrestlers. There are also disorders. So, until St. Joseph did it, nobody in green and white was going to celebrate.
“We obviously knew it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park,” St. Joseph coach Mike Carbone said. “To get 14 kids through to the quarterfinals is just amazing, and I think that’s an attribute of the tough schedule we’re fighting. Some of our kids come in with five, six, seven losses, but you look at who’s been hurt by a loss and they don’t buckle down or hang around. They get a solution or a specialty of the state placers. This is a different scenario. They wrestle hard and they wrestle for six minutes because we don’t have a lot of pins on our schedule.
“These kids are used to pressure and to win a tournament like this you have to work hard. This is what South Plainfield has been doing for 35 years. We are, as it were, copying their method.”
On Saturday, St. Joseph’s had Zach Bidling (120), Giovanni Alejandro (138), Evan Mendez (150), Brian Christie (190) and Jake Tooley (285) champion.
Tyler Whitford (144) and Andrew Bouchard (175) finished second for the Falcons.
Julian Aranga (106), John Whitacre (113), Morgan Schwartz (126), Vincent Genna (157) and Jake Zarga (165) placed third. Sophomores Damian Pipitone (132), who was battling an injury, and Giovanni Spallino (215) advanced to the third consolation round and scored extra points.
To take third place, a wrestler had to win four bouts in two days.
“Third place is the hardest place to finish in any tournament,” Carbone said. “It takes a lot of grit to finish third. … Third place you lost down the line and you had to grind your way back and earn it. So the third one is just a description of how this team has performed all year. They’re grinding and I couldn’t be happier with the third-place guys we’ve had.”
The Falcons had success last season, but trailed perennial South Plainfield by 12 points. 2023 was out of the question for St. Joseph’s, in its fifth season after relaunching the program after 26 years without a team.
Tooley said getting the team trophy at the end “was almost surreal” and everyone from the champions to the JV wrestlers deserved it.
“Everybody worked hard and they’re all a part of this win because everybody makes each other better,” Tooley said. “And it starts with the coaches, then it goes to the seniors, then to the juniors, then to the freshmen. It works in a chain and everyone feeds off everyone else, and I think that’s what makes our team so good because there’s no hierarchy. … It runs like a well-oiled machine.”
The GMCT finals began at 144, and at 150, fourth-seeded Mendez opened the game for the Falcons with a 7-1 win over Middlesex/Dunelen third-seeded Arjay Stradling in the finals. Mendez got the first takedown and made a comeback en route to the win.
He beat St. Thomas Aquinas top seed Landon Kearns in 5:22 in Saturday morning’s semifinals. Mendez was leading 11-3 before the fall. In the first period, Mendez said Kearns attempted a shot but was unable to score. Later, Kearns – the 2022 champion at 138 – went for another, and Mendez countered with a side fall for five points to set the tone.
Cairns started throwing in the third period and after a bit of a struggle, Mendez finished off his opponent with a chin kick. The tough senior didn’t let up as he battled for the No. 1 seed.
“I didn’t really have any emotions about it because my dad and I talk all the time,” Mendez said. “We say it’s just another match. I don’t look at the brackets. I don’t look at sowing. I don’t look at any of that. Whatever they want to plant me as a seed, they can plant me as a seed. I will always give 100 percent in every match. For me it was just another match. I had to make sure my head was clear, I made sure to control the pace and fight off my moves. I didn’t want to agree with what he was doing.”
Carbone added of Mendez, “Not even scared when he’s out there, and that’s just an example of our team. There is no fear when we step on the carpet. They know that what we do in the room will translate to the mat. They’re going to go out there and fight for each other.”
At 190, Christie showed no fear, winning three matches by a total of 2:12 after opening with a pinfall. That includes a fall over defending champion Nazareth Pina (St. Thomas Aquinas) in 1:15. Christy finished third at 190 last season as a sophomore.
“Pina is a great wrestler,” Carbone said. “Brian is relentless. When he’s at his best, he’s relentless and hard to beat. He showed it in the final.”
At 285, it was a heavyweight battle. Tooley got the better of Piscataway’s Malachi Wyatt, ejecting him in the final 30 seconds of the final tiebreaker after the score was tied at 2-2.
“I always expect a tough, tough match when it comes to fighting Wyatt,” Tooley said. “This kid is a tough, tough man to fight. … I respect him for everything and how hard he works.”
Often for heavyweights, losing a coin toss in UTB and having to go on top means defeat, as it is difficult to outplay an opponent so late in a match.
However, Tooley turned a weakness into a strength by working with his coaches, including top assistant Joe Liquori. At this point late in the match, having heart is just as important as technique.
“Everything counts, but I think it’s more mental because that’s one of the things we preach in the wrestling room is you have to be mentally tough before you get physically tough,” Tooley said. “Because if you’re mentally tough, it’s very easy to be physically tough. Then the technique kicks in because you’re mentally there and not tired. … So it’s like 90 percent mental and the rest is technique and physical ability.”
The top-seeded senior reached the finals with three pins in 23 seconds, 1:24 and 2:29 in the semifinals.
At 120, Bidling, a sophomore, scored four first-period pins for the title. Simply, he fought like the first seed. That included defeating St. Thomas Aquinas’ No. 11 seed Jahir Aguilar in 1:31 in the finals. Aguilar advanced with wins over the Nos. 2, 3 and 6 seeds.
“At this point, Zach Beadling is just stressing over people,” Carbone said. “Zach dominated this tournament. He really showed how good he is.”
At 138, Alejandro won his final match of the day with a 9-2 decision over Piscataway’s Brian Butler.
“He had a battle with Butler today and he calmed the storm with a big home crowd against him,” Carbone said. – He did what he had to do. Gio is just a solid arm where he doesn’t get too high and doesn’t get too low. He’s just very resilient and it’s nice to have a senior group like that.”
He started with a pin in 1:37 and won his semifinal match via fall in 3:11.
Alejandro, who won the 126-pound title last season, is one of the top wrestlers in the GMC, as evidenced by his top-12 finish at the state tournament last season and a medal win at the Beast of East.
However, he was down 6-0 against Olma of Monroe in Friday’s quarterfinals before coming back to win.
“He (Monroe’s Joe Yurrell) is a great coach,” Carbone said. “He coached his kid and put him in a position to win. Jio needed to make adjustments and he did.”
It was St. Joseph’s day after all.
“The team this year is a phenomenal team,” Mendez said. “If you look at our wrestling room, everyone gives 100 percent or more in training. We all give it our all and it shows on the mat.”