No wrestler from Freehold High School in Freehold Borough had earned a medal in his weight class at the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association state wrestling tournament since 1964, but that streak was broken by Nico Messina at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City on March 7.
Messina, who qualified for the NJSIAA state wrestling tournament four times, finally broke through in his final shot to win a medal as he rolled to a sixth place finish in the 126-pound weight class and capped an outstanding scholastic career.
“It felt amazing,” Messina said. “It was a huge relief to finally place at states. I did it for my team, my town, my coaches and my family.”
Messina put together an incredible career, recording a school record 41-5 senior campaign during the winter of 2019-20 and finishing with a program record 143 victories. He won four district titles, three regional titles and one Shore Conference championship (2019-20).
“He’s a special kid,” Colonials’ coach Matt Shepherd said of Messina. “He was fantastic at the state tournament. We all worked so hard for this. I couldn’t imagine this not happening for him and the program. It was one great ride.”
Messina’s wrestling journey began in first grade. It was tough sledding at first, Messina admitted, but he said once he reached middle school he knew he could do big things in the sport.
As a 106-pound grappler during his freshman year at Freehold High School, Messina rolled to his first district title at the NJSIAA District 23 tournament and placed second at the Region 6 tournament to earn a trip to the state tournament.
Messina repeated as a District 23 champion during his sophomore year at 113 pounds and won his first regional championship as he earned his second trip to the state tournament.
Wrestling at 120 pounds as a junior, Messina rolled to his third district championship, this time in District 21, won his second regional title and made a third consecutive trip to the state tournament.
Although he earned three straight trips to the state tournament, Messina never won more than one match during two of his first three appearances at the state tournament. Those setbacks provided the motivation he needed to win a medal at the state tournament as a senior.
“I’m happy I went through all those ups and downs in my career,” Messina said. “It drove me to work harder and harder to get what I deserved. When I finally got it, it was well deserved.”
Messina trained hard at the Triumph Wrestling Club during the off-season. He worked with Joseph Lamparelli of Allentown High School, who earned a medal at the 2019-20 state tournament, and with Tyler Klinsky of Middletown High School North, who won the 2019-20 state title at 113 pounds.
When this season began, Messina was ready to go. A big moment for Messina came at the Shore Conference Tournament, which the senior said was the best tournament he wrestled at during the year.
As a junior, Messina finished fourth in his weight class when he was favored to win the conference title.
This winter, Messina rose to the challenge of being a conference champion. He won his first three matches at the conference tournament by pin fall. In the final, he defeated Middletown North’s Thomas O’Keefe by a 6-4 decision to win his first Shore Conference championship.
That victory was the springboard to a fourth district championship, a third straight regional title and Messina’s fourth ticket to the state tournament. Messina began the state tournament with an 8-6 victory over Robbinsville High School’s Drake Torrington.
In his next match, Messina fell to Bogota-Ridgefield Park’s Andre Ruiz by an 8-7 decision. That loss sent Messina to the wrestlebacks and there was no room for error if he wanted to earn a spot on the medal podium.
Wrestling at his best, Messina won three straight matches to claim sixth place in his weight class. His final victory was an 8-5 decision over Westfield High School’s Luke Hoerle.
“It feels unreal,” Messina said. “I hear about people from the past who made school history and now I’m one of those people. This teaches you that if you put everything into something, you are going to get the results you want.”
Messina said he could not have achieved everything he did on the wrestling mat if it wasn’t for the outstanding support he received from his family, his coaches and his teammates.
The senior said he hopes his storied career will motivate more Freehold High School wrestlers, like his brother, Angelo, who just completed his freshman year, to follow his lead and bring more success to the Colonials’ program.
“I hope my career starts something here,” Messina said. “As a role model, I hope it shows kids that if they take it more seriously, they can have success.”