By BRIAN CUNNIFF
A rather unique high school wrestling season is set to begin this week.
Lower Cape May is set to open at defending South Jersey Group II champion West Deptford Tuesday evening, while Middle Township will host Hammonton on Wednesday.
In reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been many changes to how the sport will operate.
The most obvious is having the start of the season in mid March, instead of back in December. Teams will only get a maximum of 15 regular-season matches, all of which will be single dual competitions. There will be no Saturday tri-matches or quads.
As for the postseason, there will be no team playoffs. And the individual postseason is limited to a combined region tournament scheduled for April 16-18 that will see only three wrestlers from each district qualifying through a subjective selection process. From there, four wrestlers from each of the combined regions will qualify for the following weekend’s state championships, meaning only 16 wrestlers will be competing for a state title instead of the usual 32. Where those region and state tournaments will be held has yet to be announced.
The day-to-day operations of a high school wrestling team have also changed. Locker rooms can’t be used. Athletes must shower at home following practice. Social distancing is supposed to be practiced as much as possible in a sport in which that is often impossible by nature. Any athlete diagnosed with COVID-19 not only must quarantine for a specific amount of time, but in many cases must also be seen by a doctor and pass an electrocardiogram test before being cleared to play.
So it will certainly be different. But, at least we’ll have wrestling. Let’s hope we have as much of it as possible.
The following is a look at the area’s two high school wrestling teams — Lower Cape May and Middle Township.
LOWER CAPE MAY
Lower Cape May is coming off one of the best seasons in program history, setting a program record for team victories (22-4) and winning a South Jersey playoff match for the first time in 37 seasons.
With many of the wrestlers from that team back, plus a big-time transfer added to the mix, the Tigers are confident they can enjoy more success in 2021.
“We hope to compete with everyone,” said fourth-year Lower coach Billy Damiana.
Lower is led by a trio of highly accomplished wrestlers. Juniors Brayden Castillo (25-8 last season) and Marcus Hebron (25-3 last season) were each state qualifiers last season after winning district championships and placing second at the Region 8 Tournament. They’ll both wrestle at the same weight this season, Castillo at 160 and Hebron at 195. Lower also gets a major boost to its lineup through senior Shane Whitney, who will wrestle at 220 pounds for the Caper Tigers this winter after being a Virginia state finalist at 195 last winter.
Lower also returns four other region qualifiers — all of whom are seniors. They include Wesley Tosto (132 pounds; 32-11 last season), David Tosto (138 pounds; 26-13 last season), Christian Campanero (152 pounds; 20-12 last season) and Sean Connelly (182 pounds; 28-8 last season).
Other wrestlers with experience expected to perform well include seniors Devon Bohn (145 pounds; 20-5 last season) and Matthew Craig (heavyweight; 22-9 last season).
Rounding out the varsity lineup are seniors Robbie Elwell (126) and Connor Eckel (170) and freshman Joe DeLong (106).
At this stage, Lower Cape May does not have wrestlers for the 113- and 120-pound weight classes.
“We have some holes there, and it’s going to be tough,” Damiana said. “We’ll have to rely on everyone to pick up the slack by trying to get as many bonus points as we can.
“We have a tough schedule. We’re starting right away with West Deptford, we have Absegami twice and they’re extremely tough. And then Buena’s tough, Middle Township’s tough and Ocean City’s tough. So we have our work cut out for us just to remain competitive.
“Without any team title, there’s more motivation to focus on the individuals and trying to make sure our seniors get sent out correctly while trying to win as much as we possibly can.”
Lower’s first home match was supposed to be Wednesday against St. Augustine but the Hermits are in the midst of a two-week COVID pause so that date has been canceled. The Tigers will travel to Ocean City Saturday. The first home match, as of now, is against Buena next Wednesday, March 24.
Damiana is assisted by Dennis Elia, A.J. Fisher and Josh Dickinson, along with Damiana’s brother, Cory, and father, Bill.
Middle Township lost a handful of seniors from last year’s club, including one of its all-time greats to graduation in Karl Giulian, who became just the third 100-win wrestler in program history and was a District 31 finalist and Region 8 qualifier a year ago.
But the Panthers return five seasoned wrestlers from a team that qualified for the sectional tournament in Group II for the first time in program history.
Among those leading the way include junior Dave Giulian, Karl’s younger brother, who won a single-season program record 45 bouts (against just six defeats) and was a District 31 finalist and Region 8 qualifier at 182 pounds as a sophomore. He’s expected to wrestle at the same weight as a junior.
Other returning region qualifiers include senior Matt Gariano (24-18 last season), who is set to wrestle at 132 pounds; junior Evan Dugan (26-15 last season), who will wrestle at 138 pounds; and senior Mike Adelizzi (33-12 last season), who will compete at 170 pounds.
Also back are junior Alick Killian (145 pounds), who went 30-4 last season, and senior Jayden Matthews (195 pounds), who finished 29-14 in 2020. Killian was injured in the team’s South Jersey playoff match and did not compete in the individual postseason tournaments.
“We’ve got some leadership, for sure,” said 13th-year Middle head coach Matt Wolf. “To have Giulian and Killian back is great for us. We all saw what Dave did last year and then I’d wager to say that Alick is one of the most talented kids in the state that didn’t place in districts because he was hurt.
“Both those guys have done the work in the offseason and we expect them to challenge to be state qualifiers.”
Giulian, Killian, Gariano and Matthews are serving as team captains.
“All four of those kids are great kids all-around,” Wolf said. “All four of them have a 4.0 GPA in school. Gariano’s the class president. It’s just a great group of kids to coach. That makes it even more fun and exciting.”
Adelizzi is also a captain but is currently out of action due to quarantine. He’s expected back later this week.
“His improvement from the beginning to the end of last year was tremendous,” Wolf said. “We can’t wait to get him back.”
Others in the varsity lineup include sophomore Andrew Nelson (113), freshman X’Zavier Swinton (120), sophomore Matt Sgrignioli (126/132), sophomore Adrien LaBoy (152), junior Connor Shute (160), freshman Isaih Carr-Wing (220) and sophomore Kani Perry (Hwt.).
Others expected to see some varsity action include junior Ashton Meltzer (138), sophomore Jerome Licata (170), junior Brett Nabb (195) and senior Brandon Rosensteel (Hwt.).
Middle finished 17-9 last season. The Panthers would like to challenge for a similar winning percentage but the 2021 schedule is difficult.
“The schedule we have is brutal, the way everything lined up, and we’re trying to add some more,” Wolf said. “For us, it’s like the motto we put on our T-shirts — ‘anyone, anywhere, anytime.’ We’re putting ourselves out there and trying to get as many matches as we can.
“Usually you’re always looking ahead with everything focused toward districts, regions and states. But this year, we’re looking at it as, we have Hammonton Wednesday night and then we’ll go one at a time from there. We’re happy to have the opportunity to practice and then get a good match with Hammonton. We’re locked in on one at a time.”
Wolf is assisted by Tommy Bisset, Ryan Freyer and Paul Connor. Others helping with the program include Oliver Barry, Isaac Lopez, Ed Bradway and John Richardson.