WOODBRIDGE- It’s commonly said that death and taxes are the only certainties in life, but you couldn’t really blame anyone if they added South Plainfield High School wrestling winning districts to that list.
The #2 Tigers (30-1) were the overwhelming favorite to take home the team title in today’s District 14 tournament. Despite some strong efforts from #11 Cranford, South Plainfield scored four individual titles, which led the Tigers to their first team title in the newly realigned District 14, and their 33rd consecutive district title.
This year’s district title race was a bit tighter than South Plainfield’s most recent wins in their former district, District 12. South Plainfield ended up scoring 235 points, while Cranford came in second with 208. Tigers coach Bill Pavlak knew they needed a complete effort from all of their wrestlers to keep their streak going, and that’s exactly what he got.
“For us to win it had to be a team effort,” Pavlak said. “(We needed) guys taking fourth, third and second. They worked as a team to not give up bonus points.”
“I know we won by thirty points, but thirty points isn’t a lot. Someone who takes first or second is
getting 25 points, so if one person doesn’t do their job, Cranford probably wins this thing.”
If there’s any athlete on South Plainfield’s team who knows what it takes to win a district title, it’s undefeated junior Joe Heilmann. Heilmann’s older brothers, Nick and Troy, both won four district titles as Tigers, and Joe came into today’s final looking to get his third.
The Heilmann family tradition continued in today’s 120 pound championship match, as Joe handled Middlesex’s Troy O’Connor with ease en route to a 21-5 tech fall. The win was Heilmann’s 24th bonus point win of the year.
“It’s always cool to perform in front of a big crowd like this,” Heilmann said after the match.”I’m just looking to dominate. I go out there trying to score as many points as I can.”
Senior 132-pounder Jake Giordano earned his second district title when he defeated Conor Halpin of Cranford 13-4. Luke Niemeyer won his first district championship when he used a head and arm throw to pin Cranford’s Dylan Budnik three and a half minutes into the 195 pound final.
Top-seeded sophomore, and 2016 district champ, Zach DelVecchio had to go to overtime in his 220 pound final match against Woodbridge’s Vincent Zecchino. While the first three periods consisted mostly of pummeling for underhooks, DelVecchio connected on a match-clinching takedown with five seconds left in the overtime period.
Even with the stakes high, DelVecchio said he didn’t feel any kind of nerves or pressure heading into OT.
(Zecchino) was kind of staying away from me a little bit, and I was just trying to work for my takedown,” DelVecchio said. “I worked pretty hard for this. I just try my best and do everything I can.”
Jacob Painton, Kyle Bythell, Alex Amato, Tommy Fierro, and Joe Sacco all came in second place after losses in the final round, while fifth-seeded Jake Hoffman and Ben Lundy finished in third after consolation wins.
The Tigers ended up winning four of their nine championships matches, which Pavlak admits he isn’t ecstatic about. The coach said this year’s win was one of their tougher and closer ones. South Plainfield had five finals matches against Cranford, and the Cougars managed to win three of them. Even with that, Pavlak was quick to note that it has taken a lot to keep South Plainfield’s historic streak going.
“I remember one year in the mid-80’s we won by a point,” the coach said. “So a lot of things have to happen, and a lot of good wrestlers have to go through our program to keep this thing going.”
Up next for the Tigers is region competition. Pavlak says he expects the road to Atlantic City to be a dog fight for his wrestlers who placed second and third today, as they'll need to compete throughout the week to earn their spot. The Tigers’ stars know exactly what they want out of the rest of the post-season.
“I’m not underestimating anyone, but the main goal is getting a state championship this year, Heilmann said. “I’m still going to take it one match at a time.”