By BRIAN CUNNIFF
High school wrestling season begins Thursday for the two local teams, Lower Cape May and Middle Township.
Both teams are expected to produce winning seasons and have numerous wrestlers enjoy success at the district tournaments in February.
The following is a look at the wrestling programs from Lower Cape May and Middle Township:
LOWER CAPE MAY
Billy Damiana, now in his third season, has breathed new life into the Lower Cape May Regional program. After a couple of seasons of improving the overall talent level and commitment, the program is ready to take a big leap in his opinion.
“I think we can compete for the Cape-Atlantic (National Conference) title,” Damiana said boldly. “And I think we should be shooting for the group playoffs this year.”
With a lot of experience returning, it’s no wonder the coach has such lofty goals.
Lower returns two region qualifiers and three others who placed fourth in districts last season.
The returning region qualifiers are junior Wesley Tosto (132) and sophomore Brayden Castillo (160). They’re both expected to have big seasons for the team. Narrowly missing regions last season were senior Cameron Leslie (145), junior Sean Connelly (195) and junior Matt Craig (220/Hwt.), all of whom could top 20 wins this season.
Other returnees with some experience expected to perform well include junior Devon Bohn (120), sophomore Mike Castellano (126), junior Eric Konczyk (152), senior Jonas Lumbruno (170), junior Connor Eckel (182) and junior Zack Shutter (Hwt.).
Sophomore Christian Douglass (113) is one of the top newcomers.
Other wrestlers providing depth and expected to help in some varsity matches include junior Christian Campanaro (145-152), junior Martin Thomas (132/138) and sophomore Brady Saltzman (170/182).
Lower also features one of the South Jersey’s top female wrestlers in senior Joelle Klein, who won the inaugural South Jersey region tournament last season at 215 pounds. She’s expected to challenge for a state title this season.
Another wrestler expected to help is Middle Township transfer Marcus Hebron (220), a sophomore who must sit out the first 30 days of the season.
Lower finished 14-10 last season, losing just once after mid January.
Damiana believes the team has the capability to break the program record for wins in a season, which is 17. He’d also like to send a record number of wrestlers through to the region tournament. The current mark is seven.
“We’re looking forward to getting going,” Damiana said. “We think we have a chance to break a couple team records and have a really good year.”
Damiana is assisted by Dennis Elia, A.J. Fisher, Josh Dickinson and Cory Damiana, the head coach’s younger brother.
Lower opens the season Thursday at Cedar Creek before competing in a pair of tournaments over the weekend – at Gateway Saturday and at Pennsauken Sunday.
Middle Township enjoyed a banner season last winter, going 18-3 (tying the program record for wins set the previous season) and sending seven wrestlers through to the region tournament (also tying the program record set the previous season).
Quite a few of the top wrestlers from last season are gone, including Romeo Rodriguez, who set the program record for career victories with 111.
But there are a handful of talented wrestlers back and the overall numbers in the program are up significantly, creating hope that this can be another solid season for the Panthers.
The top returnees are brothers Karl Giulian (170) and David Giulian (182). Karl, a senior, and David, a sophomore, are the team’s two returning region qualifiers. They combined for 54 wins last season.
Sophomores Evan Dugan (126) and Alick Killian (132) also return after winning more than 20 varsity matches apiece as freshmen last season.
“We have those four kids who, I think, are really ready to have good seasons,” 12th-year Middle coach Matt Wolf said. “But there are 14 weight classes and you usually need to win eight to win matches (in team scoring) so we have to find at least four other kids who can win consistently.”
Wolf expects juniors Matt Gariano (145) and Jayden Matthews (195) to take big steps forward this season.
Rounding out the regular varsity lineup are freshman Andrew Nelson (106), sophomore Parker Smart (113), frehman Matt Sgrignioli (113), freshman Adrien LaBoy (120), freshman Cuamez Rodriguez (120), senior Cole Miller (138), junior Mike Adelizzi (152), sophomore Matt Frame (160), freshman Chris Miller (220) and senior Dominic Galati (Hwt.).
“We have a lot of kids out and at this point it looks like we’re going to be able to fill every weight class,” Wolf said. “Even the past couple years when we had a lot of success there were times where we were forfeiting at some spots.
“We maybe don’t have as many higher-end guys, at least not right now, but we’re definitely deeper. We’ll see how it goes.”
Wolf is assisted by Tom Bissett, Paul Connor, Ryan Freyer, Oliver Barry and Justin Rhinesmith.
Middle opens the season at home Thursday evening against Ocean City, which Middle beat on criteria last season. The team then is scheduled to wrestle in a tournament at Haddon Heights on Saturday.