By BRIAN CUNNIFF
ERMA — When Billy Damiana returned to his alma mater as head coach of the Lower Cape May Regional High School wrestling team after a stint as an assistant at Buena, he didn’t like what he saw.
“When I came here, we had eight kids at the first meeting,” he recalled. “My first year, the stands were half empty for our home matches. When I was at Buena, it was always full. The first thing I thought was, ‘We gotta change this.’”
Change has occurred.
In just three short seasons, Damiana, Lower’s all-time wrestling wins leader during his high school career, has the Caper Tiger wrestling program starting to look like one on the cusp of greatness.
Wednesday’s final regular-season home match against Vineland provided a prime example on how far the program has come in a short period of time. The stands were packed — so packed that some fans had no choice but to sit on the floor or stand in the corners of the gym.
Lower steamrolled the Fighting Clan to the tune of a 69-6 victory on an evening when the Tigers also held their Senior Night festivities and paid tribute to deceased legendary former coach Bill Porter by forever dedicating a seat along coaches’ row in his honor.
“Bill Porter is like a hero to me,” Damiana said. “Whenever I think of this program, the first people I think about are Bill Porter and Bill Garrison (another former coach).”
The victory improved Lower to 19-3, moving the team just one win from the program record, which was set in 1982 by the Caper Tiger team that won a South Jersey Group II championship.
So how did this happen?
“It’s not just me,” Damiana said, quickly deflecting full credit for the program’s remarkable turnaround. “We all had a vision of the whole (wrestling) community here coming together by making it all about the kids. The help I’ve gotten has been incredible. My assistant coaches, the other guys around here helping out, the guys running the (Lower Township) rec program, the coaches at (the Richard M.) Teitelman (School), everyone is really working together, really bringing everything together. It’s been great. But the biggest thing is, the kids are really working hard and doing the right things all the time.”
The sensational regular season has led to a nice reward. The Caper Tigers will host Oakcrest in a South Jersey Group II playoff match on Monday at 6 p.m. It’s the program’s first appearance in the sectional playoffs since hosting Buena in 2009.
Lower, which beat Oakcrest in the regular season by a 40-30 score, is seeking its first playoff victory since 1983.
“We’re getting better every day and I think we’re peaking at right time,” Damiana. “To be 19-3, one of best records in school history, the kids have done a great job.”
They did a great job against a thin Vineland lineup Wednesday. Devon Bohn (120), Wesley Tosto (132), Braydon Castillo (160), Marcus Hebron (220) and Matt Craig (Hwt.) each won by pin for the Caper Tigers. Jonas Lumbruno scored a 12-9 decision at 170. And Mike Castellano (126), David Tosto (138), Cameron Leslie (145), Dylan Donahue (152), Jacob Eisle (182) and Sean Connelly (195) each picked up victories by forfeit.
Lower finishes the regular season on Saturday with an away quad that includes Triton, Lenape and Haddon Heights.