It’s been a sizzling start on the mat this winter for the Manalapan High School wrestling team.
The Braves have surged to a 14-2 record and look primed to make a run back to the final of the NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group 5 sectional tournament.
“We try to keep a short term and long term goal,” said Manalapan coach Scott Pressman. “Our long term goal is to put ourselves in the best position seed wise for the state tournament. In the short term we’re trying to improve each day and get healthy. We want to get everyone firing on all cylinders. It’s going to take more than 14 guys to win a sectional title. It’s going to take every guy on the varsity roster.”
Manalapan was defeated by Hunterdon Central Regional High School, which made it to the final of the Group 5 tournament. Hunterdon Central fell to Southern Regional High School in the 2019 Group 5 state final.
The Braves are currently ranked first and Hunterdon Central is second in the Central Jersey, Group 5 power index standings.
The state sectional wrestling tournament will begin on Feb. 10 and the state group title matches scheduled for Feb.16.
Manalapan is loaded up in the middle of its lineup this winter, led by Matt Benedetti, who has wrestled at 160, 170 and 182 pounds this season for the Braves.
Benedetti performed well at the highest level on the mat as a junior for Manalapan. He was crowned District 20 champion at 160 pounds, placed second at both Shore Conference Tournament and the Region 5 Tournament, and finished off his season when he placed sixth at 160 pounds in the state tournament in Atlantic City.
So far this season, Benedetti has been nothing but stellar on the mat, standing with a perfect individual mark of 16-0 as he shoots to place high in the state tournament that will be wrestled March 5-7 at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City.
“I’m excited to be a leader on the team this season,” Benedetti said. “We just go out and compete every week. Do everything in our matches that we practice. It’s great to see our hard work pay off.”
Senior Dylan Waller adds to the power in the middle of the lineup for Manalapan at 182 pounds, coming off a junior campaign where he took home third place at District 20 and fifth place at Region 5.
Waller is 14-1 on the season for the Braves and shooting to place in the top-four at regions at either 170 or 182 pounds to qualify for the state tournament.
“Everyday we strive in the room to be sectional champs,” Waller said. “That’s our goal. We just have to keep working hard.”
Junior Gavin Claro is back for Manalapan at 195 pounds after going 34-11 last season and qualifying for the state tournament.
Senior Matt Kavocs has been solid at heavyweight, standing at 11-3 on the season. Junior George Zavalnik is 7-3 while wrestling at 220 pounds this winter.
At 145 pounds, senior Hunter Konstantoulas is another returning state tournament qualifier for the Braves. Konstantoulas is 12-3 this season, while teammate James Grande at 152 pounds is 9-3 this winter
Junior Chris Balzano (113) anchors the lower weights for Manalapan, rolling out to a 10-2 individual mark to begin the season. Senior Justin Schifter (120) is 9-3 on the year for the Braves.
Pressman hopes to be bringing multiple guys to regions and then to the state tournament. Manalapan had five wrestlers compete in Atlantic City last season.
Team wise, Pressman said his squad lives by a team first mentality and are focused on taking things one match at a time as they start to prepare to make a run for the program’s fourth sectional title.
“Our goal every year is to put a competitive team out there on the mat,” Pressman said. “That means having a good guy every single weight class. If you’re going to win a sectional title and big dual meets, you need a good guy at every weight.”
On the girls side, Manalapan has 19 female wrestlers competing on the squad this season.
Manalapan had three girls compete at the state tournament last season, including Jesse Johnson who took home the state championship at 136 pounds as a sophomore.
Teammate Julia Manolas placed fifth in the state tournament at 105 pounds.
The team feels it made a difference in girls’ wrestling with the success it had last season
“Manalapan was one of the very first programs to show that we were a team and ready to take the action to the mat,” Manolas said. “We definitely made a difference.”
Follow Steven Bassin on Twitter @SBassin_Sports