By Matthew Rocco
Raritan High School’s young wrestlers have made a big impact on the team, and the Rockets are looking for more of the same in the Shore Conference Tournament (SCT).
The Rockets, seeded seventh in the SCT, are a young squad this season with five sophomores and two freshmen sitting first on the depth chart. Despite the lack of experience, Raritan has been able to count on its up-and-comers.
Sophomore Russell Benson, who took home a silver medal at the Neptune Classic Dec. 19, leads Raritan with 18 wins at 126 pounds through Jan. 24. Fellow sophomore A.J. Erven (120 pounds) and freshmen Charles Barrale (106) and Anthony Aquilano (138) each have 14 victories to their credit. Christian Sookdeo (113), another sophomore, is 13-7.
“When you have two freshmen in the lineup with nearly 15 wins, that’s pretty good,” Raritan head coach Rob Nucci said.
Meanwhile, the Rockets bring experience to the table with one of the best 160-pound grapplers in Region 6, Nick Bohal. The senior is 17-2 in his bouts.
Nucci believes the Rockets’ mix of young and veteran talent will match up well with their Shore Conference rivals this week. The first three rounds of the SCT are set for Jan. 28, with matches hosted by the top four seeds. Semifinal matches and the championship round will take place Jan. 30 at Red Bank Regional High School.
“This is the fun part of the season,” Nucci said. “This is the time that you have to step it up, and we’re starting to climb confidence-wise. We haven’t had any easy dual meets, and that’s how we set the schedule up. Hopefully, we start to peak and get it going.”
The 15-year head coach is looking forward to the state tournament, too. Raritan is currently first in the power point rankings for Central Jersey Group II ahead of Point Pleasant Borough High School and Delaware Valley Regional High School.
“It seems like we’ve gone to Delaware Valley every year. It would be nice to have Delaware Valley come here for a change instead of us going there,” Nucci said.
Among Raritan’s biggest wins was a 39-25 victory over Jackson Liberty High School, the team that Raritan will face in Howell to start the SCT. The Rockets (10-3) also got the better of St. John Vianney High School and Old Bridge High School. The Rockets suffered back-to-back losses at the hands of Long Branch and first-seeded Christian Brothers Academy (CBA), and the team is coming off a win against Camden Catholic High School Jan. 20.
Not much separates this season’s SCT field. At the top, CBA (9-3) is followed by Howell High School (14-3) in the No. 2 slot. Undefeated Wall High School (13-0) was seeded third, and Jackson Memorial High School (11-2) received the No. 4 seed.
CBA, which is 5-0 in Shore Conference Class A North, has wins over Raritan and Howell, the latter ending Howell’s 73-meet win streak within the division. Junior Nick Schutzenhofer (106) and seniors Jack LaCorte (195) and Will Oxley (220) lead the Colts with 17 wins apiece. The Colts have a formidable senior class that also includes Sebastian Rivera (120), Carl Vasti (138) and Dylan VanSickell (132), who is a perfect 15-0.
It was Rivera and VanSickell who led the 28-27 upset win at Howell. They closed the meet with a major decision and decision that allowed the Colts to tie it at 27-27 and win it on the most matches won tiebreaker (eight match wins to Howell’s six).
The Colts have not won a SCT wrestling title in their history. In fact, CBA has never advanced to the championship round, and it did not enter the SCT in six of the last seven seasons. A rematch with Howell could be in the offing.
The crosstown rivals in Middletown factor into the SCT mix as well. Middletown High School North (9-3), the sixth seed, has had a rough schedule that features losses to Roxbury High School, Hopewell Valley Central High School and Howell, but the Lions have wins over Ocean Township High School and Lacey Township High School. Senior Anthony Vetrano (182) is having a big year at 16-2. Sophomore Stanley Wodjylak (138) also has 16 wins under his belt.
As for the 19th-seeded Eagles, Middletown High School South (8-4) got a boost for the SCT by squeaking past Point Pleasant Beach High School, 34-33, in the team’s final meet before seedings were announced. The Eagles count on a large senior class. Rob Hulse (195) leads Middletown South with 16 wins, and three other seniors — Alex Asfar (152), Louis Avena (160) and Brendan Rumsby (170) — have reached double-digits in the win column.
St. John Vianney (9-4) will be the 16th seed in the SCT after handily defeating Class A Central opponents Manasquan High School and Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School in recent meetings. The Lancers are looking for juniors Luke Ecklof (106) and Micah Clark (heavyweight) to continue their dominance. Ecklof is 15-1, while Clark is 17-2 thus far. Senior Calvin Beaty has also recorded 17 wins heading into the SCT.