While the Chatham High School wrestling program remains in a condition of flux due to issues over participation, two alumni of the Chatham youth wrestling program, Connor Cortese and Drew Mitzak, both seniors at their respective parochial schools, displayed their talents at the near highest level during the NJSIAA Region 4 individual high school championship tournament this past weekend at Union high school. The NJSIAA Regional tournaments (8 statewide in all) are the second-to-last intermediate competitions, qualifying wrestlers for the pinnacle, the final individual state championship held at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City next weekend. Each “Region” is fed by the top qualifiers from 32 statewide “District” tournaments held the week before and Region participation takes both talent and hard work to get there—quite the accomplishment in and of itself that few wrestlers earn for their resume.

Connor Cortese, a senior at St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, seeded 4th, wrestled in the 138 pound bracket at Region 4 and punched his ticket to the finals in Atlantic city with a 7-0 decision over Julian Colon of Roselle Park in the “wrestleback” semi-finals to secure at least an overall fourth-place finish. Cortese
began the tournament-opening match on last Wednesday night with a decisive 5-0 victory over Hunter Cleaver of public wrestling powerhouse, Phillipsburg. However, the following Friday night, in the quarterfinals, Connor suffered a tough setback against Nicholas Stampoulos of Brearly/Dayton, who would surprisingly go on to be the 138 pound champion as a 5 seed, dropping Connor to the wrestleback (consolation) rounds. After some encouragement from his coaches, Connor then turned up Saturday morning focused and ready, pinning Jaimen Bryant of Somerville in 2 minutes 26 seconds to set up the semi-final wrestleback match with Colon. After beating Colon, Cortese subsequently succumbed to the
number 1 seed, Mark Venson of Bound Brook, another public powerhouse program, in the wrestleback finals but nevertheless kept his season alive, earning the chance to compete against New Jersey’s elite of elites at Boardwalk Hall, a mission surely on his mind since the days of rolling with the other Chatham
youth in the Mountain View gym.

As a captain of the St. Peter’s Prep wrestling team, Connor probably would have accompanied his fellow qualifier teammates to Atlantic city anyway to cheer them on but now Connor will enter the arena in front of 30,000 appreciative fans to take the mat a few last times. He will have earned a career topping moment, born from the sweat of dedication that started years ago in the Chatham youth program.

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Meanwhile, Drew Mitzak, also a senior, but, at Seton Hall Prep, and a rare 3 sport participant there, came ever so close--but not quite--to following Cortese down the Garden State Parkway. Wrestling as the 5th seed in the 220-pound bracket, Drew received a bye into the quarterfinals Friday night and wasted no time putting away Jonathan Heard of Westfield with a pin in 3 minutes and 51 seconds to advance to the Saturday’s main bracket semis. There, Mitzak met the number 1 seed and ultimate 220-pound tournament champion, undefeated Joshua Darisme of Rahway, who proved to be too tough. Similarly moving on to the wrestleback semis, Drew then again succumbed to Jordan Campbell of Middlesex who would go on to finish 3rd in the Region.

Despite the losses, Drew’s season wasn’t quite done as he would enter one last bout to determine the Region’s 5th and 6th place finishers, the 5 th place finisher serving as an “alternate” in the case that one of the first four place winners has to bow out from Atlantic city. Now, the disappointment and deflation of losing an opportunity to guarantee a trip to Boardwalk Hall leads many wrestlers to just “mail” that match in, even forfeit—but not Drew. Facing a rematch with Heard from Westfield, an opponent clearly seeking to revenge the prior loss, Drew fought hard with character, leaving whatever he had left all on the mat. Tied 1-1 heading into the third period, Drew earned a late 2 point takedown and then rode out the clock. As a result, Drew secured the 5th place finish in Region 4 and also the knowledge, with his high school wrestling career likely done, that he didn’t succumb—he went out with a “W”.

Participating on respective teams that face some of the toughest competition all year long, Cortese’s season record stands at 20-19 while Mitzak finished up the year at 31-10.