PISCATAWAY -- South Plainfield High School wrestling coach Bill Pavlak returned to Piscataway High School for a dual match Wednesday evening for the first time since stepping down as the coach of the Chiefs to return to coach the Tigers again before the 2016-17 season.
Behind a fast start and dominating finish, South Plainfield defeated Piscataway, 44-21.
Pavlak previously spent eight years as the head man at SPHS from 1994-2002 where he compiled a 110-14-3 record before coming to Piscataway for four years spanning from the 2012-13 season to 2015-16.
“Piscataway is a tough team. We had some good matches at the beginning and built up a lead. They were tough in the middle,” Pavlak said. “They got some guys that hang in there. From 152-182 (pounds), they pick up 20 points or so on you quick.
“It’s the first time I’ve been back for a home match here. I kind of enjoyed it because they’ve really come along. The first year I was the coach at Piscataway, we lost to South Plainfield (73-3). It’s good that we’re right next to each other, next town over rivals. It was a good match.”
The Tigers, who are ranked No. 15 in the NJ.com Top 20, improved to 12-3 and 5-0 in the Red Division of the Greater Middlesex Conference, while the Chiefs fell to 6-6 and 2-3. South Plainfield won six of the first seven bouts of the night.
Starting at 106, Anthony White of South Plainfield won by a technical fall over William Irwin to put the Tigers up 5-0. But, Dan Mikita put Piscataway on the scoreboard to make it 5-3 with a 4-0 decision victory over Frank Mannino.
However, South Plainfield would reel-off five straight victories to take a 28-3 lead with seven matches to go. At 120, David Loniewski won by a tech fall, 20-5, over Joe Dulog. Next, at 126, Joe Heilmann, a University of North Carolina signee, won by a forfeit. At 132, Tommy Fierro made quick work of Erick Valentin, pinning him in just 47 seconds. Following that, at 138, in a good battle that went down to wire as both grapplers kept each other from scoring, Alex Amato topped James Sisk by a 3-1 decision. And at 145, Joe Sacco earned a 4-1 victory over Marcus Petite.
The Tigers had full control.
But just when things looked like they were going to get out of hand, the Chiefs stormed back with their stars. Piscataway won four straight matches to cut the South Plainfield lead to 28-21.
Joseph Hatcher, at 152, pinned his opponent in 1:26 to make it 28-9. Hatcher moved to 8-0 on the year with five of them being falls. Michael Petite, a University of Buffalo signee, followed Hatcher with a pin in 57 seconds against Mike Marrero in 160.
Then, in the match of the night, Piscataway’s Gabriel Rodriguez held on to defeat Joe Nardacci, 7-6. Rodriguez was winning 6-1 after the second period, But Nardacci came up to to score five points -- including three on a near-fall count -- while Rodriguez picked up a bout-deciding escape.
Nick Recine also won by a 3-0 decision at 182 over Brenden Hedden.
“No matter what and no matter what weight you start at, you just have to fight. Every day we tell each other keep fighting no matter what happens. It doesn’t matter whether we’re playing South Plainfield or the best team in the country. You just have to go out there and fight and don’t give up bonus points,” Hatcher said. “Keep them on their back and get the most out of your match.
“...Right before I go out on the mat, coach always tell me it’s a big match and to just go out and do what I do. So, I just went out and did what I had to do.”
After Recine’s win, there were three matches left. South Plainfield crushed any hope of an upset win for the Chiefs, earning a decision victory at 195 and pins at 220, and heavyweight. Luke Niemeyer and Zach DelVecchio overpowered Elijah Pitt-Goodson and Paris Foster at 195 and 220 respectively. Julian Medina also quickly took care of Andre Felton at 285.
“Foster gives up a lot weight, but I’ve seen him wrestle and he hangs in there,” Pavlak said. “Zach is an experienced wrestler and when you give up 40 pounds against him, you’re probably going to pay the price.”
Over the next few days and weeks, both programs will be holding an alumni night where they welcome back previous coaches and wrestlers from years past.
This Friday, January 19, there will be a reception at 5 p.m. featuring an alumni-studded reunion featuring the last 60 years of PHS wrestling. All five head coaches, past and present including current coach Dan Smith and Pavlak, are expected to attend.
Norm Winter, the pioneer of the program who registered a 201-26-3 record over 20 years will be in town. Many from the undefeated teams of 1974-75 and 1975-76 are expected as well. The Chiefs held a 40-match unbeaten streak from 1974-77.
Hatcher, who is expected to challenge for the state title at 152 come February/March, wishes he could skip time and having Friday night be here now. After the reception, the Chiefs take on Franklin at 7 p.m.
“I think it’s going to be fun,” he said. “Everybody is coming back including people who built the program up and started it and the other wrestlers who were here before us and did great things. It’s going to be exciting to have them come back here and watching us perform.”
South Plainfield, arguably the top public school program in New Jersey, is also having their annual alumni night on Jan. 20. The Tigers will have a pre-match ceremony starting at 5:45 p.m. The 2017 NJSIAA Group III champs hold the current and active state record mark of 33 straight District Titles and counting.
“We got three years coming back, 1988 1998, and 2008. They were all District champs and ‘98 we were sectional champs,” Pavlak said. “We’re looking forward to seeing everyone back but we have also have a really tough match with Southern. Hopefully we’ll get a good crowd.”
Pavlak compiled a 110-14-3 record at South Plainfield from 1994-2002 before stepping down to let Kevin McCann be the head coach. McCann was inducted into the New Jersey State Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2016 and recorded a 302-40 record in his seven seasons with 14 district titles and seven state titles. McCann resigned in 2016 to be the school’s Athletic Director. Pavlak then made the tough decision to leave Piscataway to return to South Plainfield. During his time at Piscataway, Pavlak inherited a team that went 2-19 in 2011-12. Pavlak brought the Chiefs back to respectability, as they went 17-6 in his final year, making it to the postseason as a team in nearly 10 years. Piscataway advanced to the semifinals of the 2016 North Jersey, Section 2, Group 4 tournament, falling to eventual sectional champ, Bridgewater-Raritan.
Follow Chris Nalwasky on Twitter @ChrisWasky.