WEST ORANGE-NJ - As the Dean of Students at West Orange High and a two-decade head coach, Stephan Zichella knows just how to put things in perspective.
“We've never had more than two wrestlers in any given year qualify to go to (the NJSIAA State Finals Tournament in) Atlantic City; so, to have two guys going south in this somewhat down year is just amazing,” said Zichella, after Brian Velez finished second and Victor Lopez took third in their respective weight classes at the NJSIAA Region IV Tournament, a three-day event at West Orange High, which was concluded on Saturday evening, Feb. 27.
The State Finals event at Boardwalk Hall in AC is set to open on Friday, March 4, and end on Sunday, the sixth. It begins with 24 matsmen in each weight class and concludes with medals presented to each of the top eight finishers in each division.
In what ended being one of the longest New Jersey finals fracases ever held, on any level—county, district, region or state, the event came in at just under three hours. The length was due to several factors including blood time and the lack of standard barricades around the mat and medal podium that left fans free to “rush the court” after each bout.
“That was way too long for everyone involved and we're going to make sure that mistake (the lack of barricades) never happens again,” said Zichella.
The Mountaineers' sole finalist was surprise performer Velez, a heavyweight senior who had been seeded third in the region, after winning a title at the District 14 tourney.
After reaping a first round bye, Velez dispatched the sixth seed, Tom Marrotta of Passaic Valley, 3-2, in a quarterfinals round clash on Friday night.
Next, in a semi's showdown, Velez stunned the second seed Clifton junior Jacob Abill, with a pin at the 2:47 mark of their tussle on Saturday morning.
Finally, in a finals fracas, Velez was edged, 4-0, by the top seed, unbeaten Union City senior Jonathan Beltre. That result left Beltre at 30-0 and dropped Velez to 25-10.
“Hey, at one point, Brian was 5-7 on the year and appeared to be going nowhere fast,” said Zichella of Velez' early season performance, adding, “but then, he really seemed to find his way and outperformed anyone's expectations.”
“The bottom line is, for Brian to not only get a district medal and qualify for the region, but to win a district championship and then get a region medal and qualify for the states is just amazing,” he added.
“When he not only beat the Clifton kid, but pinned him was a real milestone, the greatest feeling in the world for everyone who knows him,” he said.
“And, then the final, he goes up against this unbeaten, state-ranked guy and only loses by four points, that was, maybe, even more impressive and, I'll tell you this it was even closer than that 4-0 score would indicate, he added.”
While Velez' performance was, indeed, impressive, Lopez' road to AC was, perhaps, a bit more rocky.
Also a D-14 champion and seeded second at 113, Lopez, a junior, blanked the seventh seed, Jimmy Loudan, a junior from Verona, 15-0, in their quarters clash, earning him a rematch against Anthony Petrillo of Livingston, the third seed, on Saturday morning.
In the D-14 finals, the then second-slotted Lopez upset the district's top seed, Petrillo, 3-2, in six periods.
In the R-IV semi's, however, it was Petrillo's turn to win, as Lopez fell, 6-4.
That loss sent Lopez into the wrestle-back semifinals, where he beat the fifth seed, Saint Peter's Prep senior Michael Simonetti, 5-1, prior to outpointing the fourth seed, Enrique Sanchez, a sophomore from Queen of Peace High, 13-7, in the consolation final (third place bout) to reach 33-2 overall, while Sanchez' season ended at 27-6 and Simonetti ended at 30-8, Petrillo, who finished second, stands at 32-7 and the 113 champion, North Bergen senior Dan Ortega, boasts a 25-2 mark.
“For Victor to come back the way he did was just amazing,” lauded Zichella of Lopez.
“He could very easily just given up hope after losing in the semi's. But, instead, he won two tough bouts and punched his ticket to AC,” he said.
“Victor's match against the QP kid was especially tough. Sanchez is a very unconventional wrestler and uses a lot of throws and is always looking for headlocks,” he said. “But Victor has great hips and was able to use rolls to counter Sanchez' moves,” he said.
“It was just great,” said Zichella.
In addition to Velez and Lopez, 170-pound sophomore Sebastian Rawls, an eight seed, earned a fourth place medal. After beating the nine seed on Wednesday night, Rawls was pinned by the top seed, Jala 'a Darwish, a 33-3 senior from Passaic Valley at the 4:56 mark, but got an injury forfeit from the fifth seed, a Cliffside Park senior, in the first round of the wrestle-backs and pinned the seventh seed, Cedar Grove junior Dan DiPrenda in overtime (7:21), prior to seeing his season ended when he lost to the fourth-seed, James Caldwell High junior Christian Dalla Riva, 9-3, in the bronze medal bout, as Rawls ended with a 23-11 mark and CDR moved to 28-7.
“Overall, it was a great region for our program,” said Zichella, adding, “four of our kids made it to the quarterfinals,
(a total that includes freshman Colin Morgan, (20-11, at 126), three earned medals and two are headed for AC.”
The seedings and first round matchups for the State Finals Tournament will be set during a meeting later today, Monday, Feb. 29.