St. Peter’s Prep veteran wrestling coach Anthony Verdi realized that this year might represent a chance of a lifetime for his program.
With many of the Marauders’ regular roster returning from a season where they dominated the District 16 and Region 4 tournaments, Verdi figured that this would be a perfect time for the Marauders to take a step up and push the envelope a bit.
“With the core of the team back and a real junior class, we felt like this was the year to make the move,” said Verdi, who saw the Marauders crown a record 11 District 16 champions last year. “If we wanted to get to the national level, then we had to move this year. Next year, we expect our team to be the strongest team we’ve ever had.”
So Verdi added some tougher competition to the schedule, facing off against powers such as Blair Academy in northwestern New Jersey, traditionally one of the strongest wrestling programs in the nation.
Verdi also took his team to a 32-team tournament called The Clash in Rochester, Minnesota during the Christmas break.
“The whole experience was great for us,” said Verdi, who was a standout football player and wrestler during his days at Grand and Warren. “We were in the middle of the country, facing top teams from places like Missouri, Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota. It was a great experience. We came back a much better team.”
The Clash tournament was unique in that it featured full teams participating, rather than individuals like most local holiday tournaments. So the Marauders were involved in dual meets against schools like Bettendorf of Iowa, Chicago Marist and fellow New Jersey power Bound Brook.
“It’s a lot different,” Verdi said. “We had to prepare for teams that we never saw before. We tried to do our homework, but it’s not easy to scout a team from Iowa. The teams were pretty strong.”
The Marauders finished 4-2 at the Clash, good enough for seventh overall out of the 32 teams.
The Marauders had to overcome some early injuries, including one to heavyweight Jose Palomino, the surprising District 16 champion last year who ended up finishing eighth in the state. Palomino broke his fibula early on and was lost for the season.
“We had seven early season injuries,” Verdi said. “I never experienced anything like it. Despite the injuries, we stepped up and became a better team.”
Verdi said that the Marauders have a tough regular season schedule as well.
“We faced Bergen Catholic, Don Bosco and Delbarton,” Verdi said. “The guys are getting great experience and will get them ready for the postseason. The kids are excited wrestling all these good New Jersey teams. They want to be in tough matches.”
The Marauders, currently ranked fourth in the state, own a 12-5 record. Thanks to the appearance in the Clash tourney, the Marauders have participated in 17 dual matches already.
“The five losses are all to teams ranked in the country,” Verdi said.
The Marauders’ lineup is solid. Sophomore Alec Kelly is the team’s 106-pounder. Kelly owns a 17-4 record thus far this season and won both the district and region title last year at the same weight class last year.
“He made the choice to get back down to 106 this year,” Verdi said.
Freshman Nick Santos is the Marauders’ 113-pounder.
“He’s wrestled a lot of good kids so far,” Verdi said of Santos.
Senior Mike Russo is the team’s 120-pounder. Russo recently became the seventh Prep wrestler to reach the 100-win milestone. Russo finished sixth in the state last year at 113 pounds and has already committed to wrestle at Brown University in the fall.
“I see him getting high up on the podium in Atlantic City [at the state championships],” Verdi said. “He’s a two-year captain for us and a great kid. He has worked so hard and it’s well deserved that he’s going to an Ivy League school.”
Russo owns a 12-4 record thus far.
Juniors James Handy and Jericho Martinez are sharing the 126-pound responsibilities.
Junior Sonny Simonetti is the Marauders’ 132-pounder. He was second at District 16 last year.
The Burkert twins hold down the 138-pound and 145-pound classes. Connor Burkert won District 16, was second at Region 4 and seventh in the state last year. He owns a 15-6 record thus far. Ryan Burkert won the district and region championships last year and was eighth in the state. He owns a 16-5 record this season. Like most of the rest of the team, the Burkert twins are juniors.
Junior Manny Ramirez is the Marauders’ 152-pounder. Ramirez won District 16 gold a year ago. Junior Steven Kellner is the team’s 160-pounder who is in the Marauders’ starting lineup for the first time.
Junior Dan Splendorio and freshman Damian Abrams are at 171 and 182 pounds respectively.
Junior Christian Colucci is one of the top Marauder wrestlers. Colucci owns an 18-3 record this year, after winning district and region gold last year.
Jordan Fox is the Marauders’ 220-pounder. The junior, who is also a football standout, won the district title, finished third in the region and was sixth in the state last year.
“He has taken some time after football and he wrestled at 182 last year, so he has to get used to the heavier weights,” Verdi said.
Senior Armond Cox, another standout on the gridiron, owns a 15-1 record this season at heavyweight.
Verdi said that he’s happy that the Marauders took the step up in competition this year.
“It’s not hard to get them motivated,” Verdi said. “I think most of them got a taste of what it was like to win last year and a lot of them have their eyes on getting medals [at the state tournament] this year.”
But before the Marauders think about winning individual crowns, there is the obstacle of earning a state title as a team.
“That’s the goal,” Verdi said. “We can wrestle a national schedule, but it doesn’t do any good if we can’t win a state championship. We’re in the toughest section [Non-Public A North] in the state. All of the top four teams in the section have national rankings. That’s our goal. I feel good about our chances.”
Thanks to making the effort to take on tougher competition all over the country, the Marauders certainly have a chance to make some noise on the state level next month.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.