By Matthew Rocco
After a rare step back last season, the Ocean Township High School wrestling team is back to its winning ways.
The Spartans have won all but two of their dual meets to start the new campaign, which began with a first-place showing at Kearny High School’s tournament in December. Ocean Township swept a doubleheader Jan. 14, defeating Allentown High School and Matawan Regional High School.
In the win over Allentown, a 36-35 final, returning district gold medalist Jack Benner (152 pounds) pinned John Kuchar in an overtime bout. Ocean Township also got pins from Clayton Oates (220), Alex Poniros (132), Adam Manzo (126) and Saif Ali (152).
Benner, a senior, is Ocean Township’s most accomplished returning grappler. He placed first in the District 22 tournament and second at Region 6 to book a ticket to Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, all on his way to a 36-3 season. This season, Benner has a 16-1 record to his credit.
The Spartans (9-2) also have experience in Manzo, a junior who is coming off an 18-win season and a third-place finish at districts. Manzo is off to an 11-5 start.
Other seniors have taken on greater roles, and newcomers are making big contributions, as Ocean Township looks to erase last season’s 12-13 record — the program’s first season below .500 since 1995.
Oates is 12-4 on the season, while fellow seniors Nick Villapiano (11-2) and John Santos (9-5) have also helped the Spartans fill the void left by Dave Tieto, Brian Olesen and other talented wrestlers who graduated last season.
Poniros has quickly emerged as one of the best young wrestlers on the team, going 16-1 as a freshman. That ties him with Benner for the team’s lead in wins. Another freshman, Jack Nies, has gone an equally impressive 14-4.
The Spartans, who will compete in District 24 this season, have beaten some tough opponents in the first month of the season, including Point Pleasant Borough High School, Hopewell Valley Central High School and Shore Conference B North Division rival Wall High School.
Their two losses have come inside the division. Long Branch High School (11-2) defeated Ocean Township, 31-18, in a key B North matchup Jan. 4. Undefeated Middletown High School North (12-0) posted a 42-19 win over the Spartans.
The Spartans will host Toms River High School East Jan. 19 in their next dual meet. Ocean Township will also host Shore Conference powerhouses Colts Neck High School (18-1) and Raritan High School (14-1) Jan. 28 at 10 a.m.