By BRIAN CUNNIFF
It’s been a banner season around the Lower Cape May Regional High School wrestling program.
It all culminates with three Caper Tiger wrestlers competing at the state championships at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, beginning this evening and running through Saturday.
Junior Brock Zurawski (165 pounds) and seniors Brayden Castillo (175) and Marcus Hebron (215) will all wrestle on the biggest stage in New Jersey high school wrestling.
All three are making at least their second appearance at states. This is Hebron’s third time at the tournament. Castillo reached that level as a sophomore before missing nearly all of last season with an injury. And Zurawski competed there as a sophomore while at St. Augustine Prep.
“It’s really awesome,” Lower coach Billy Damiana said. “We have a couple seniors who’ve been there before and Brock’s been there before, too, from when he was at his other school. So they’re all experienced and they all know what to expect. The moment’s not going to be too big for them when they walk in the arena and there are thousands of people there.”
Thursday evening’s action includes the preliminary and pre-quarterfinal rounds. Wrestlebacks will begin Friday morning, with quarterfinal matches going off around noon, followed by two more rounds of wrestlebacks. Semifinals and rounds 4 and 5 of wrestlebacks will be held Friday evening. The final wrestleback round and the third-, fifth- and seventh-place bouts will be held Saturday morning. Championship matches will begin no earlier than 3 p.m. Saturday.
The ultimate goal for all wrestlers is to win a state title. But there is also much prestige to finishing among the top eight, which means a spot on the podium when place winners are honored near the end of the tournament.
Thirty-two wrestlers – the top four from each of the state’s eight region tournaments – compete in each weight class.
Zurawski is the No. 7 seed at 165 pounds after winning the Region 8 title. He scored pins in the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds and a relatively easy decision in the title match at regions.
“Winning regions was really exciting for me,” Zurawski said. “It put a lot of confidence in me, knowing what I can do.”
Zurawski enters the state tournament at 35-2 on the season. His only two defeats came at the prestigious Beast of the East tournament in December.
Zurawski opens with a preliminary match against No. 26 Bradford Zajac of Colts Neck.
“I’m wrestling really well right now,” Zurawski said. “I think I’m peaking right now, and this is the best time to be wrestling at your best.”
Hebron, who is 35-4 this season, placed third at the Region 8 Tournament. The top seed in his weight class, Hebron was upset in the quarterfinal round, then tore through the competition in wrestlebacks and won the third-place bout.
He said he’s more than ready to compete at the state level for the third and final time of his career.
“It definitely gives me extra motivation to place at states after what happened at regions,” Hebron said. “But now that I’m there, it doesn’t matter where I placed at regions. I just have to go out and wrestle.”
Hebron, who enters the state tournament three wins shy of 100 for his career, is seeded 15th and will face No. 18 Jake Klein of Jackson Liberty in the preliminary round.
“I want to be top 8,” Hebron said. “I want to be on that podium. That’s all I’m planning to do. I’m confident against anyone I come across. I think I can give anyone a run for their money.”
As a fourth-place finisher at regions, Castillo (30-10 this season) faces a tough road to place. He’s seeded 26th and will face No. 7 Harvey Ludington of Brick Memorial in his opener.
Damiana said he believes his program could produce three state place winners.
“I really like Brock’s chances,” he said. “I definitely see him on the podium, could be even better. If he’s motivated, he’s very difficult to beat.
“Marcus has a little bit of an easier road than Brayden with the seeding but I could see both of them making a run. It would really be something if all three kids medaled.”