By BRIAN CUNNIFF
ERMA — Jayden Matthews had no problem admitting he weighed 227 pounds as an eighth-grader two years ago.
On Wednesday, the now sophomore on the Middle Township High School wrestling team weighed in at 167 pounds for a match against rival Lower Cape May.
Thrust into a difficult spot, Matthews came through for the Panthers.
Matthews earned his first varsity win with a 7-5 decision in overtime at 182 pounds to provide one of the key turning points of his team’s 33-27 victory over the Caper Tigers.
“We absolutely love Jayden,” Middle coach Matt Wolf beamed after the match. “I don’t know if he won a JV match last year. He weighed around 225 pounds in eighth grade but he’s really worked hard to change his life, really. And he’s really improved as a wrestler.
“We all talked (Tuesday) that if (circumstances dictated), we’d use him somewhere. And then we got a chance to put him in there and then he goes out and pulls it out. That turned out to be really key match.”
Lower’s Paul Gilbert rallied with a late takedown to send the match to overtime tied at 5-5. But Matthews regrouped and scored a takedown early in the extra period to clinch the win.
Matthews’ win was the fourth of eight straight for Middle in the match, which began at 126 pounds. Carson Haas (8-5 decision at 152), David Giulian (8-2 decision at 160) and Karl Giulian (6-2 decision at 170) each won before Matthews at 182. Kyle Matthews (10-5 decision at 195), Marcus Hebron (5-1 decision at 220), Dawson Tallant (1-0 decision at heavyweight) each followed with victories, before Parker Smart clinched the team victory for Middle with a 49-second pin at 103.
“We had some big wins because we had quite a few of our kids bumped up (in weight class),” Wolf said. “Some of our guys really battled in there and wrestled smart matches.”
Middle also got a win from Romeo Rodriguez (pin at 132).
The match was held in a rather intense atmosphere. The gymnasium at Lower Cape May was packed, with empty seats hard to find. Some fans watch from behind the benches near the walls of the facility. The gym was darkened throughout, save for a bright spotlight that illuminated the wrestling mat. Lower’s wrestlers entered the gym prior to the match to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.”
The Tigers were clearly hoping for a better effort against Middle over last year, when the Panthers scored a 54-21 win. Lower got 18 of its 21 points via forfeits.
“We did the spotlight thing last year so we knew they were going to do something similar this year,” Wolf said. “It’s a great rivalry, but we have such a good relationship with them. We work out together, we scrimmaged twice this year and the kids all know each other.
“They’re really improved. We knew this was going to be a tough match and it was. But we really enjoyed it. It was a really good atmosphere, something you don’t really see until district finals. This is definitely the most fun dual meet of the year and obviously it makes it more fun when you’re on the winning side.”
Lower Cape May received wins by fall from Devon Bohn (126), Cameron Leslie (138), Brayden Castillo (145) and Matt Harris (113). Harris, a freshman, scored his pin in just 23 seconds for his first varsity win. Wesley Tosto picked up a win by 8-2 decision at 120.
Lower coach Billy Damiana was pleased with his team’s effort when placed in the context of what happened in the same match last season. But he also thought his group left some points out on the mat that may have changed the outcome.
“I thought we gave up three matches that we thought we could win,” Damiana said. “It’s tough because our kids are working so hard and they’ve made great strides, not just in this match but overall.
“All our guys that won their matches did a really great job. And Frankie Casper at 152, he did a great job not giving up bonus points to a really good kid (Haas). And he had him on his back there and we thought he had it from our vantage point but it was ruled out of bounds.
“We’re trying to get more interest in our program and we are. We have 38 kids out and the majority of them are freshmen and sophomores, so we’re running a lot of underclassmen out there. This was a great atmosphere and it was nice for the community to come out. It made it great for the kids.”