SOUTH PLAINFIELD - New section, same result. After realignments pushed South Plainfield High School’s wrestling team from Group 3 to Group 2, the Tigers became the heavy favorite to capture the Central Jersey Group 2 sectional final. On Friday night, the only thing between South Plainfield and that title was the defending CJ2 champions, Raritan. Although the Rockets are a formidable squad in its own right, the Tigers continued their run of lopsided post-season victories by notching a 52-12 victory over the Rockets, clinching the sectional title.
The win allows South Plainfield to return to Toms River’s Pine Belt Arena on Sunday, where the team will vie for another state championship.
“There were a couple tossup wins there and we battled and got a couple upsets too,” South Plainfield coach Steve Johnston said. “Our kids just want to wrestle and scrap for six minutes so we just gotta make sure we keep that up for two more dual meets.”
While the dual might’ve been lopsided overall, there were enough competitive tossup matches to keep the many fans in attendance entertained. Senior 195-pound standout Luke Niemeyer was pushed to the limit in his matchup against a very game opponent in former state qualifier Justin Acevedo.
The two 195-pound seniors battled back and forth on the feet in the first period, and traded escapes in the second and third periods. With just over a minute left in the third period, Acevedo connected on a takedown that put Niemeyer, the No. 3 195-pounder in the state, in serious danger of conceding an upset. Niemeyer quickly worked his way to an escape and upped his offensive pressure, which led to him scoring a takedown off a counter with 20 seconds left in the third. Niemeyer maintained top position to earn the 4-3 win.
“He was tough, and I knew he was going to be tough heading in,” Niemeyer said. “I’m sure he’s gonna make a run in the state tournament. It’s good to get matches like that to prepare you for the individual post-season.”
Freshman Kyle Balent earned himself a wild and impressive win filling in at 132-pounds for an out-of-action Tommy Fierro. Michael Lonnay, a Region 5 qualifier senior seemed to have Balent dead to rights with a half-nelson in the second period, but the young Tiger willed his way to a reversal and put Lonnay on his back to secure a shocking pin that brought the South Plainfield crowd to its feet.
“He’s talented and he’s a battler,” Johnston said of Balent. “He may not have the experience that others do, but he wrestled well tonight. He’s just got to keep that going. Can’t be satisfied.”
The night also marked the last time South Plainfield’s group of seniors will compete on their home mat for a dual, and it's fair to say the group came up big. Senior Divon Pender took a grueling Ultimate Tie-Breaker win over Anthony Bailey at 170 pounds, while Marc Giordano used a late takedown to edge out a 3-2 win over Anthony Aquilano at 160 pounds. Standout senior Zach DelVecchio snatched a quick pin over Kevin Lind at 220, while Joe Sacco, David Loniewski and Alex Amato also picked up wins.
“Obviously we have Districts at home, but there’s nothing like a dual meet match,” Johnston said. “I told them to enjoy it, wrestle hard, and be able to look back on it years from now and smile about it. I think they did that as a whole.”
It’s safe to say that the senior Tigers appreciated being able to get one last big dual win in front of the crowd that’s supported them throughout their high school careers.
“I know we’ve got the best fans in the state, there’s no question about it in my mind,” Niemeyer said. “They come out, even for the matches they know aren’t going to be close, and they support us every time. I’d just like to thank them, because wrestling in front of them for four years couldn’t have been better.”
The attention now turns to Sunday and the last two legs of Group 2 competition. The Tigers are slated to take on Hanover Park in the semifinals at 9 AM, and a victory in that match would likely lead to a final against a formidable opponent in High Point.
“We’re excited and we’re ready to get after it, because we know we’re the best team in the group,” said Niemeyer. “If we wrestle like we’re capable of on Sunday, there shouldn’t be any questions about it after we’re done.”