As spectators we are awed by the wrestler who uses advanced technique. Whether you are a 30 year veteran of the sport, or you are watching your first match, slick looking moves are striking. Often we are so impressed with the technical aspect of wrestling that we overlook something far more important, the wrestler himself. After all, somebody actually has to step up and hit the move.
The greater Lehigh Valley is arguably the most tradition-rich wrestling area in the United States. While predominantly a Pennsylvania region, New Jersey's Hunterdon and Warren counties are a strong part of this historic wrestling domain. Voorhees High School in Glen Gardner NJ has made a worthy contribution to "the Valley"'s celebrated reputation.
Voorhees has won 7 overall New Jersey HS state championships. In the '80's alone, the Vikings won 9 state sectional championships. They were ranked in the Star Ledger top 20 every year between 1980 and 1996. In 1987, they finished the season as the 7th ranked team in the nation.
Tradition is not lost at Voorhees HS. Since the 1970's, the team's pre-match ritual is unchanged. As the sound system begins to blast the 2001 Space Odyssey theme, the gym lights are systematically shut off to the exact, set cadence that has been used for every home match for over 30 years. Just as the last light is shut off, the music segues from Space Odyssey to The Rolling Stones' Satisfaction, and the Viking wrestlers take the mat. This routine is now in its 5th decade.
On Monday February 8th, 2010, the 5th seeded Governor Livingston Highlander wrestling team was given the opportunity to travel to Glen Gardner to take on the 4th seeded Voorhees Vikings. By all accounts, this was going to be quite a challenge for the Highlanders. The fact that the match would take place in one of the state's more historic venues added to the proposition.
Only the best teams qualify for the state tournament. The margin of error in most state matches is very, very small. Generally, the formula is to have your wrestlers win the matches they should, steal a couple of toss up bouts, and have your underdog wrestlers avoid giving up bonus points. There is another vital factor in evenly matched dual meets. If you've been to a match you may have noticed the referee flipping a small disc. The disc is red on one side and green on the other. The winner of this toss gets what is known as "choice".
In certain matches "choice" can be the decisive factor. A flip of that plastic disc can change everything.
The winner of the toss gets to choose whether they want "odd or even". If you choose odd, your opponent has to declare which of their wrestlers will participate in odd numbered matches before you do (and vice versa). If you are not a seasoned follower of the sport this either sounds ridiculously trivial or, even more likely, it makes no sense at all. The fact is however, in this particular match, the toss was crucial.
Going in to the match, Governor Livingston (GL) coach Rick Iacono felt there were two very evenly matched bouts, at 152 and at Heavyweight. For GL to win, they were going to have to win at least one of those contests. As importantly, Iacono knew he had to win the toss. The match was to start at the 145 pound weight class. This means the last matches of the night would be the 135 and 140 pound bouts.
Everyone involved knew Voorhees had the edge in both of the final bouts. Winning the toss would enable Iacono to get his standout 135 pounder Joey Hoy up a weight class and almost guarantee a split of the 135 and 140 pound bouts. Highlander 140 pounder Victor Oroszco is a second year wrestler who, as a result of a concussion, had not practiced in almost two weeks. The Voorhees 140 pounder, Steven Baker, is a seasoned wrestler. Even if Orozco had been healthy, Baker was the favorite in that match. If the Highlanders could get a lead of 4 or more going in to the last two bouts Iacono would be able to make a maneuver that would almost ensure a GL victory.
Things did not work out as planned. GL lost the toss. Effectively, this put the Highlanders in a 6 point hole. The success scenario deteriorated again as GL's Shane Haddad was edged 3-2 by Jadaen Bernstien at 152 in the second bout of the night and Tony Manganiello dropped a 5-2 decision to Ben Guevera at Heavyweight. Essentially, the effective GL deficit was now 9. The Highlanders had lost the edge they felt they'd need in both cases. They'd now need some exceptional production and an extraordinary performance somewhere along the way. Exceptional performance number one came at 160 pounds. With starter Steve Schaumberg sidelined, Iacono called upon Ricky Quandt to step in to the rotation. Everyone close to the GL program knows that Quandt is a quality wrestler who is more than just a capable replacement. Voorhees might have felt otherwise but GL expected a win here. What no one could not have expected was how thoroughly dominant Quandt would be. A pin from Quandt gave the Highlanders their first edge. Plus 3 for GL and the virtual deficit is down to 6.
Voorhees 171 pound senior Mike Hafke is, quite deservingly, ranked in the top 5 in New Jersey. His record this season is 25-2. More concerning for the Highlanders is that he has 16 pins. With two "allowances" in place for this particular match, this weight class is up to 175 lbs. Hafke is a very muscular kid who is pushing the weight limitation. GL's Zach Heissler is a sophomore who is building a very impressive wrestling resume. Heissler is giving up 10 pounds and two years to the imposing Hafke. Voorhees thoroughly expects their star to get them 6 points with a pin here.
Exceptional performance number two for GL. Somebody forgot to tell Zach Heissler he was not supposed to last against the hulking Hafke. In an incredibly courageous battle, Heissler not only avoids the pin, he keeps the deficit below 15. Plus 2 for GL, the effective gap is now 4.
Where favored, GL is performing as expected. At 145, Patrick Eichner rings up 5 team points with a technical fall. Jon Mele, despite being outweighed by 11 pounds, wins by decision. 112 pounder Anthony DeFranco gets the 6 points his team needs with a pin.
In 1998, The Star Ledger began ranking the state's top 8 wrestlers in each weight class. On February 3rd, Frank Colder became the 4th GL wrestler to attain this honor (the first three were Brett Vanderveer '99, Tim Marcantonio '00 and Matt Fullowan '07). On February 10th, Mike Stepien became the 5th. Stepien and Colder are the consummate team captains. They each have the compulsory drive to push themselves to succeed, but their focus is much broader than the typical high school athlete. Neither is very talkative. Neither has to be. The exemplary work ethic, toughness and commitment each has made has driven their team to a level far above where it would be with average leadership. To most high school athletes, captaincy is more of an accolade than a responsibility. These two are not the norm. They relish the burden.
Both captains have reached a level in which winning in a dual meet by anything other than a pin can be disappointing. Both wrestlers had tough Voorhees opponents. Stepien in particular had a significant challenge. His opponent, Ronnie Honickel, is a defending district champion. Their bout is considered the match of the night.
Colder, despite giving up an early takedown, overpowers the Vikings' Bobby Burd and gains a second period pin for the Highlanders. With a record of 9-4, Burd is a quality wrestler but at Colder's level, the pin is part of his job. He is his customary stoic self as he walks off the mat. By all accounts Stepien has is hands full. Honickel is 18-3. His losses have been by narrow margins to some of the state's best wrestlers.
Off the mat, Michael Stepien is a very quiet, soft spoken young man with a friendly and gentle demeanor. On the mat, he is an intensely focused competitor. He appears a little extra jacked up tonight. One of the women in the stands remarks, "ohh, he looks scary".
The alleged battle of the night never materializes. Stepien is thoroughly dominant in ringing up his 90th career win. In an overwhelming performance he gains a second period pin. The effective deficit is now 1.
GL's Joey Hoy takes the mat for the evening's penultimate bout. With a 5 point lead, GL, if they had the "choice", could have forfeited to Voorhees standout Vinny Peoni and bumped up Hoy. Having lost the toss, Iacono has no choice but to send Hoy out to wrestle the Voorhees standout. Peoni is one of the state's hottest wrestlers. A week ago he lost to the number two ranked wrestler in the state in overtime. Hoy wrestles an outstanding match and nearly pulls off the upset in losing 8-7.
Going in to the final match, GL leads 32-30. Now that we have all learned the tie-breaker criteria, the lead is one point less than the Highlanders would have hoped for (if the match had ended tied, GL would have won on criteria #3 -- most pins). GL's hopes for its first state tournament victory since 1991 rested firmly on the shoulders of a second year wrestler.
It's a sport that requires hours of practice. Technique is vital. But somewhere it comes down to will. Going into the decisive bout of the night, Voorhees was holding all the advantages. GL's Victor Orozco was cleared to wrestle at 1:00 pm that afternoon. He had not practiced in over a week. Unlike Stepien, Colder, Hoy, DeFranco, Eichner, etc., Victor's primary role this season is not as much to win matches as it is to gain experience and make progress. At this point in his progression the onus of delivering team points is not yet upon him.
On Monday, February 8th, Victor Orozco's agenda changed. Ready or not it was time to deliver.
There is a very dramatic environment to a Voorhees home wrestling match. The Vikings lower a spot light to a point directly over the center of the mat about 12 feet high. The setting looks like something out of an old boxing movie. During a one sided match this might be overkill, but right now, short of Michael Buffer in a tuxedo taking the PA microphone with his patented, "ladies and gentlemen…….let's get ready to rummmmmmbbbbbbblllleeee!!! the atmosphere could not have been better.
Twenty seconds in to the match it was clear that Orozco was unbowed. While fans on both sides watched with pounding hearts, the relative rookie was showing everyone that he was not going to back down from this fight. The first period was scoreless. Orozco's confidence was clearly growing. He knew he was in this one. The wrestlers on the sidelines were squirming, coaches' hearts were pounding, statisticians' hands were shaking. Many in attendance could no longer sit.
Baker escaped in the 2nd to take a one point lead 30 seconds in to the period. Baker is starting to look good as he circles Orozco. Just past the midway point of the second period with the Voorhees faithful chanting "Baker!, Baker! Baker!" the Voorhees wrestler took a shot. Orozco beautifully countered and turned it into a defensive take down to take the lead 2-1! The third period began with Orozco on "bottom". Baker who knows how to "ride legs" is tough on top. Orozco withstands Baker's attack. With 45 seconds remaining, Baker "cuts" Orozco. In "cutting", a wrestler gives up a point as he cuts his opponent loose. The purpose is to create an opportunity to gain a 2 point takedown.
Down two points, Baker has to be the aggressor now. He stalks Orozco. An unsettling, tense excitement overwhelms the Voorhees gym.
One of the first moves a wrestler learns is something called a "headlock". It's basically a move in which you grab the opponent by the arm and head, turn yourself sideways, and flip the man over your back and side. There is a lot of risk involved. Miss the head lock and you can be in big trouble. As you advance, executing the head lock becomes more difficult, but when it's there for the taking it's a very effective move. Even when the opportunity does present itself many wrestlers find it hard to pull the trigger. If you do pull the trigger you'd better do it with complete conviction. It's a gun with one bullet. Nail it and you've hit the wrestling jackpot-5 points and a possible pin. Miss it and you give up an easy two points at a minimum, most often more than that.
"...so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat"
Take a look at the websites of wrestling programs across the country. One of the most common passages quoted on those sites is Teddy Roosevelt's "The Man in the Arena". No other sport initiates character development the way wrestling does. Regardless of the final score, Baker and Orozco were winners this night. Someday both will know that. Tonight, however, the urgent pressure to win was exorbitant.
With Baker pushing into Orozco, the GL sophomore pulled the trigger on the head lock. He hit it with conviction. He hit with fortitude. There's a great football axiom that says, "plays don't win games, players do." In the end, as it always does, it came down to the athlete himself. The man in the arena. In a season full of success stories, Victor Orozco punctuated another very thrilling chapter.
Final score, GL 35, Voorhees 30.
145 lbs: Pat Eichner GL d. Jon Zehnbauer V, 16-0 (TF 2:54).
152 lbs: Jadaen Bernstein V d. Shane Haddad GL, 3-2.
160 lbs: Rick Quandt GL p. Nick Bonavito V, 3:36.
171 lbs: Mike Hafke V d. Zach Hessler GL, 15-1.
189 lbs: Frank Colder GL p. Bobby Burd V, 3:50.
215 lbs: Dan Brereton V p. Matt O'Sullivan GL, 2:52. HWT: Brian Guevera V d. Tony Mangianello GL, 5-2.
103 lbs: Jon Mele GL d. Tyler Yarnell V, 5-2.
112 lbs: Anthony Defranco GL p. Walter Gonsiewski V, 3:38.
119 lbs: Mike Busch V p. Ryne Morrison GL, 4:45.
125 lbs: Chris Davis GL d. John Bohrer GL, 21-6 (TF 5:24).
130 lbs: Mike Stepien GL p. Ronnie Honickel V, 3:07.
135 lbs: Vinny Peoni V d. Joey Hoy GL, 8-7. 140 lbs: Victor Orozco GL d. Steven Baker GL, 8-2.