VERONA, NJ – “This is a small school and wrestling is not all that popular here, those are just two of the problems we face, outside of just taking on our opponents on the mat,” explained Pete Foster, who is in his third year as the head wrestling coach at Verona High School.

Boasting a total of 112 points, Foster's Hillbilly contingent earned a fifth place showing in the team standings at the Essex County Tournament, a two-day event which ended on Friday night at Codey Arena in West Orange.

While the Hillbillies could not quite beat out crosstown competitor Cedar Grove, which finished fourth with 137 points, Verona vastly improved on last year's 10th place effort.

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The team title went to Seton Hall Prep, which edged out fellow perennial power Caldwell, 177 to172.5, while Nutley came in third with 161.

Completing the list of the county's competing clubs were West Orange with 98, Irvington with 96.5, Bloomfield with 82, West Essex, the 2015 champion with just 81.5, Livingston with 79, Columbia with 56, Newark Academy with 47.5, East Side with 37, former powerhouse Belleville, Glen Ridge and Orange all in 15th place with 34, Montclair with 19, Barringer with five and East Orange Campus and Shabazz in last place at zero points.

Verona's only individual title-taker was Mark Riggio, a top-seeded senior who garnered the 195-pound championship by outpointing Noel Eustaquio, a 12th-grader from Bloomfield, 5-2, in the finals.

That result gave Riggio, who is also a key VHS gridder an18-1 record on the year, leaving him very much on track to his 100th career win sometime soon.

Finishing second at 126 was Frank Gabriele, a second-slotted sophomore who finished second and dropped to 18-2 on the year when he was topped, 6-3 by the top seed, Seton Hall Prep sophomore Charles Cunningham in their finals fracas.

Finishing third at 182-pounds was Billy Czupak, a junior who got to 14-4 overall by outscoring Cedar Grove junior G. J. Rodriguez, 9-5 in their crosstown consolation clash, while three Hillbillies finished fourth, as junior Jimmy Loudon moved to 16-6 at 113, 11th-grader Nick Fierro, a transfer from the Prep, went to 4-2, and 10th-grader John Gabriele, Frank's twin, moved to 15-5 at 138.

In addition to the Hillbillies' good showing at the county contest, the VHS grapplers stand at 8-4 overall and currently stand atop the Super Essex Conference/Liberty Division team totals at 4-0 in conference combat, where the Hillbillies have beaten Glen Ridge, Orange, Millburn and Belleville, with results against Montclair, Livingston and East Side yet to be recorded. Verona is the defending SEC/Liberty champion.

Foster, a member of Bloomfield High Class of 1994, was the school's head softball coach for ten years, before moving from the outdoors to the indoors.

“It was great to finish in the top five this year, but we could've done better,” he celebrated, adding, “It was also great to have six guys finish in the top four in their weight classes, as well as having (145-pound freshman) Anthony Zamloot and 152-pound sophomore Matt DiDia finish eighth, but that's not the whole story.”

“The reason that we have eight dual meet wins so far is that we have a good number of guys on the team and they're all working hard, guys like Carter Kenny, Matt Gautieri,  Jett Hildebrandt, Billy Fauerbach, Anthony Giuliano, Jake Parent, Mike Garcia, Tyler Czupak, Jon Cole, Joe Trapani, Jake Jake Houthuysen, Andrew Oliver and Nick Riggio,” he noted.

“We're trying hard to get more and more students to come out for wrestling, which is only way we're going to be able to do well consistently," Foster explained.

Verona is scheduled to travel to Livingston at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 26, and is slated to host Kearny at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

All photos by Bill Allen-NJSportAction.NET