By Justin Feil, Packet Media Group
Tanner Johnson is off to a solid start to his final season of wrestling, and it has encouraged him that he can reach one of his big goals.
“Hopefully I can get to 100 wins,” said the Hillsborough High School senior.
Johnson picked up three more victories at 145 pounds in the Raiders’ quad meet at North Warren on Saturday.
“It actually went pretty well, better than I have done in it in the past few years,” Johnson said. “Usually the beginning of the season is a little slow for me. I’m actually feeling better than ever.”
Johnson has been a regular in the Raiders’ lineup for three years. According to Beacon records, his weekend wins brings his lifetime record to 77-39, on pace to aim for the century mark.
“I hope to get 100 wins and I hope to make it to Atlantic City,” Johnson said of the site for the NJSIAA state finals. “My life in wrestling would be fulfilled. That’d be a good way to end it.”
Wins haven’t been easy to come by, not with starting right in the middle of the lineup as a freshman. He still managed to go 16-19 as a freshman at 132 pounds. He was 23-10 as a sophomore at 138.
“It was more good than bad,” Johnson said. “Wrestling a kid better than you is a real benefit to yourself. You learn from what he does and how he reacts to that. Freshman year, I wrestled a lot of seniors. That helps; they’ve been doing it for four years. Middle school wrestling is a lot different, so it’s a lot harder when you come to high school.”
He made another improvement when he went 28-8 and reached the Region 5 tournament after placing third in District 18 at 145 pounds last year. It helped him realize part of his goals for the year.
“I placed third in districts and I went 1-2 at regions,” Johnson said. “It was kind of disappointing my last match at regions. I lost in overtime. I hope to make it to A.C. this year. My further goal is winning a match or maybe even placing.”
This year is off to a faster start for Johnson, who is using his years of experience to help earn points for the Raiders.
“I think I’m more confident in wrestling whoever steps on the mat against me,” he said. “I just trust in my practicing and my coaches and what they’ve taught me and I’m applying the on the mat.”
Johnson is one of the veterans that the Raiders have in their lineup that has been struck recently by a rash of injuries with a broken ankle and a broken nose suffered over the holiday break.
“Where we’re experienced and have a lot of mat time we’re doing OK,” said Hillsborough head coach Steve Molinaro. “It’s not a bad start. We’re 6-3. We had a number of placewinners at the opening tournament at Del Val. We’ve already been fighting a few injuries, but the kids had to wrestle a lot over the break. We hope to get them healthy for counties.”
Michael McClellan will miss this Saturday’s Somerset County Tournament that the Raiders will host due to his broken ankle, but Hillsborough is hoping that Anthony DelGuercio can be fitted for a faceguard to protect his nose. In the Raiders’ 48-30 victory over North Warren, Kevin Quabeck, Joshua Villa, Anthony Donnadio, Austin Schimmel, Kevin Gallego, Ryan Geoghegan, Michael Dooley, Emilio Guerrero Nieto and Johnson were all winners. The Raiders are showing signs that they will be competitive with any team.
“We lost a lot of good kids that graduated,” Johnson said. “They helped the team out with points, even giving away two bouts last year. It’s going to be hard to outdo last year. Our seniors have to step up and at least come close to what we did last year. I think that’ll be tough.”
Said Molinaro: “The Skyland always has a pretty competitive set of teams. Bound Brook is still there with their situation and other teams that have been strong. Bridgewater has a solid lineup, Watchung Hills is good and Manville has been climbing. Tournaments are a whole different situation. Dual meets, you have to find the right pairings. Tournaments can have a different look.”
The Raiders are maximizing their potential in whatever the competition. Johnson is trying to do his part on the mat while also serving his second year as a team captain.“I was really good friends with the grade above me last year,” Johnson said. “They used to wrestle when I was little. I was one of the captains last year. It was a relief I was a leader last year. Kids pay more respect to me with it being the second time I’m a captain and being a senior. I guess it’s a little more pressure because coaches look to you.”
Johnson likes how the team is working and the improvements that they are seeing thus far. Hillsborough is benefiting from the efforts it put in while its wrestlers were off from school.
“During the break, we basically practiced every day at 9 in the morning,” Johnson said. “We’d do a two-hour practice and did conditioning to keep the weight off. The only breaks we had were Sunday and Christmas. . . the coaches always preach you need mat time. Practice and mat time gets you better.”
Experience has helped Johnson develop into a stronger competitor. Molinaro believes that Johnson could start rolling after his big day at the quad meet. After a scheduled match against Notre Dame on Wednesday, Johnson will be gearing up for the county tournament. Seedings will be assigned Saturday morning.
“It’s always a competitive weight class,” Molinaro said. “Tanner works hard. It’s early to make any predictions. He’s in the race county-wise like anyone else.
“As a senior, you always come in with the attitude that it’s your last chance,” he added. “He’s been wrestling varsity since he was a freshman. He shows that better composure he might not have had when he was younger. He has that confidence level. He’s one of the guys you rely on.”
Johnson kept up his annual routine in preparation for his last season with the Raiders. He lifted weights daily over the summer and by the fall, he was wrestling at Rhino in Flemington to get some practice and live matches.
“I think I’m pretty good in neutral,” Johnson said. “I think I improved on that more which is good. Top, that’s not my strongest position. I try to work on that and learn some more moves and keep practicing those moves. Bottom, it’s a mental game. I basically just have to get out. It’s like there’s a burning fire under me that I have to get out from.”
Every point Tanner Johnson earns pushes him closer to his career milestone while also helping steer the Raiders closer to achieving more than many would have expected.“We’re filling the weights better,” Molinaro said.
“Our heavyweight is out a while with his ribs injury. We have a newer guy at 220. Nick Pizza is new but he’s an athlete.“We’re a little more sound than last year. A couple kids moved up some weights. We’re adjusting to that. Overall, we still have that nucleus that can help carry us and we hope the young kids can step up like they have in the past.”
By Justin Feil, Packet Media Group