FREEHOLD – The members of the Freehold High School wrestling team made history during the 2021-22 season by winning the Shore Conference B North Division championship.
The title was the first division wrestling championship in the long history of sports at the high school in Freehold Borough.
And the Colonials won the B North title with flair as they rolled to a 6-0 record in the division with dual meet victories over Wall High School, Colts Neck High School, Red Bank Regional High School, Matawan Regional High School, Manasquan High School and Neptune High School.
“It was a really great feeling,” Coach Matthew Shepherd said of his wrestlers’ accomplishment of winning the B North championship. “That has been something we have set out to do these past few years. We were very happy to achieve it.”
The Colonials went 14-7 in dual meets, giving the program its second 14-win season in the last four years.
Freehold reached the semifinals of the Central Jersey Group IV state sectional team tournament, which marked the farthest the Colonials have advanced in that event in 20 years. Shepherd said this is the best squad he has had in 17 years at the helm.
In addition to winning the B North crown, the Colonials had nine wrestlers advance from the post-season district tournament to the Region 6 tournament, and three wrestlers advance from the Region 6 tournament to the state tournament in Atlantic City.
Having three student-athletes qualify for the state tournament represents the most wrestlers who have qualified for the state tournament in a single year during Shepherd’s tenure at the school.
“We have built a winning culture here and have guys who can compete against the best in the Shore Conference,” the coach said. “A bunch of the guys have bought in to help us put together a squad that is very competitive.”
Angelo Messina (126), Brandon Smith (165) and Joseph Berryman (157) were the three Colonials who advanced out of Region 6 and competed in the state tournament.
Messina put together a strong junior campaign. He became a two-time district champion when he won his weight class at the District 22 tournament.
Alberto Pantoja (215) also won a District 22 championship for Freehold. The accomplishment by Messina and Pantoja marked the second time in three years the Colonials had two wrestlers win a district title in the same season.
Messina and his brother, Nico Messina, won district championships in 2020. Nico Messina was a four-time district champion and a three-time region champion during his scholastic career. His 143 career wins is the most by any wrestler in the history of Freehold High School.
Shepherd sees Angelo Messina marking his own path as one of the best wrestlers to come through the program. At the state tournament, Messina reached the third round of wrestlebacks. He finished an outstanding junior campaign with a 32-6 record.
“Angelo is special,” Shepherd said. “He did his best wrestling during the state tournament. He started believing in himself and trusting what he could do on the mat. We are hoping to build on that in the off-season.”
Smith, who is a senior, capped his scholastic career by winning his first region title. Shepherd called Smith a “program kid” and said the young man is a true example of what four years of hard work can help an individual achieve at the school.
Berryman placed fourth in the Region 6 tournament and qualified for his first state tournament. Shepherd said “the sky is the limit” for Berryman in 2022-23 after he fashioned a 25-12 record as a junior.
Michael Connelly (138), Jonathon Johnson (285), Andrew Fata (144) and Riley Tate (120) rounded out the group of nine wrestlers who advanced from the district tournament to the Region 6 tournament this season.
As the Colonials head into the off-season and start thinking about the 2022-23 campaign, the biggest positive for the program in Shepherd’s eyes is its strength in numbers.
Freehold had 45 wrestlers in the program during 2021-22 and that level of participation provided the Colonials with the depth they needed to field a full lineup and win more dual meets, Shepherd said.
With recreation wrestling programs running in the community, Shepherd said participation at the high school is expected to grow next season as the Colonials will try to build upon this season’s success.
“Our numbers are going up in the program. We are able to fill spots in our lineup with quality varsity wrestlers. A lot of that credit goes to our rec programs in developing great talent,” Shepherd said.