By BRIAN CUNNIFF
Romeo Rodriguez has reached quite a few milestones over the past couple of seasons for the Middle Township High School wrestling team.
He reached another last weekend.
Rodriguez became just the third two-time district champion in program history when he secured the 126-pound title at the District 31 Tournament Saturday at Williamstown High School.
Rodriguez will lead a contingent of seven Panther wrestlers — matching the program record set last season — into the Region 8 Tournament this week at Egg Harbor Township High School. As a district champ, Rodriguez has earned a bye into Friday’s quarterfinal round. His six teammates, who each finished third in their respective weight classes, will see action in the preliminary round on Wednesday.
Rodriguez, a senior, joins former teammate Gary Nagle (2017, 2018) and Jeff Kane (1981, 1982) as Middle’s only two-time district champions. Rodriguez, however, is the first from Middle to win in two different district tournaments. He won in District 30 last season.
“When you win a district title one year, you figure you’re a favorite to win it again but now that they’re changing the districts so much, who knows?” Middle coach Matt Wolf said. “Things have been changing so much the last couple years that you don’t know what to expect as much. But there was definitely pressure on the kid to repeat and do as well as he did the year before.”
It wasn’t easy for Rodriguez, the top seed in the weight class. He trailed second-seeded Gianni Danze of St. Augustine 4-2 early in the third period. But after Danze was penalized a point for an illegal move, Rodriguez quickly escaped and then took Danze down for a 6-4 victory.
“When (Danze) got called for the penalty point we told Romeo that was his chance and he took advantage,” Wolf said. “He escaped right away and then took him down right after that.”
Rodriguez improved his season record to 39-1, leaving him two away from tying Nagle’s single-season win total of 41. Should he break the record with three wins at the region tournament, that would send him through to the state tournament in Atlantic City. Already Middle’s all-time wins leader, Rodriguez enters the region tournament at 109-32 for his career.
All six of Middle’s other region qualifiers lost semifinal bouts but bounced back to win in third-place consolations.
In the consolation finals, third-seeded Carson Haas (145) posted a pin in 2:15, fourth-seeded David Giulian (160) scored a 10-3 decision, second-seeded Karl Giulian (170) scored a win by fall in 5:10, second-seeded Kyle Matthews (182) was a 12-8 winner, third-seeded Marcus Hebron (195) posted a pin in 53 seconds and third-seeded Dawson Tallant (220) slipped through with a 9-8 decision.
Haas (31-10) and Tallant (30-11) each passed the 30-win mark for the season at the district tournament. Karl Giulian (29-7), Hebron (29-9) and Matthews (29-11) can each reach that plateau with wins in their Region 8 preliminaries.
Hebron and David Giulian are the first Middle freshmen to qualify for the region tournament in 18 seasons.
“You don’t like to put expectations on things but we knew at the beginning of the year we had lost a lot from last year. We only had four returning starters,” Wolf said. “We told the kids we weren’t rebuilding, we were reloading, but at the same time we really weren’t sure what we had and how we were going to do.
“But then we went 18-3, which was a better record than last year, and now we have seven region qualifiers again. So obviously we’re very happy with how the season’s gone.”
(Note: video courtesy Jersey Sports Zone)