The St. Peter’s Prep wrestling team created a slice of history last season, when senior
James Fox became the first Marauder wrestler – and only the third in Hudson County history – to claim an NJSIAA state championship. Fox, now at Harvard, won the 189-pound state title, capping a brilliant undefeated season.
“You can’t replace someone like James Fox,” said veteran Prep head wrestling coach Anthony Verdi. “He’s someone we dearly miss. You don’t replace state champions.”
The Marauders’ program received a major shot of credibility and respect over the last two seasons, when former Hudson Reporter Male Athlete of the Year Kevin Innis made it all the way to the 215-pound state title match in 2009, only to fall in overtime, followed by Fox’s championship run last year.
Having both state-ranked wrestlers helped the program’s reputation, but Verdi knew that he had a solid team coming back this season, even with the departure of Fox.
“We had a good balance of returning veterans and talented young kids,” Verdi said. “We had more balance as team. Coming into the season, we were battle tested already, ready for a grueling dual meet season.”
It also helped that three seniors, Alexander Richardson, Francisco Colom, and Tony Pafumi, all won medals at last year’s state tourney in Atlantic City. Richardson was fifth in the state at 135 pounds last year, Colom was eighth at 152, and Pafumi was fifth at 171. All three have collected more than 100 victories during their Marauder careers.
Verdi took his team to a team camp at Penn State University over the summer. They also competed in regular meets during the summer in Long Branch.
“Going to Penn State was a great experience,” Verdi said. “We did a lot of work together, but it also helped with the team getting along and the freshmen knowing each other better. It really helped a lot.”
So Verdi wasted little time testing his talented group. He took the entire team in unison to the prestigious Beast of the East tournament in Wilmington, Del., a season-opening tourney that features all the best teams and competitors in the East Coast.
“I think it definitely helped our young guys,” Verdi said. “They got to see some of the best competition we’ll see all year right away.”
Verdi liked the makeup of his roster.
“It’s really a great group of kids who work hard together,” Verdi said. “I expected big things.”
But even Verdi could have not predicted what has transpired so far this season.
The Marauders have already defeated state powerhouses like Delbarton and Phillipsburg, but the big win was the upset of the state’s No. 1-ranked squad, South Plainfield, last week.
The Marauders’ early season success has enabled them to move all the way to No. 3 overall in the state rankings, the highest ranking in the history of the school.
“If someone asked me in the past, I never would have believed this,” Verdi said. “But I had faith this year. We have a lot more balanced team than we’ve had in the past.”
Having the three state place finishers in the same lineup certainly helps.
“It does help the rest of the team,” Verdi said. “They’ve all been in the lineup since they were freshmen and they’ve been successful since they were freshmen. You can’t put a price tag on that kind of experience. Their hard work pushes everyone else and their leadership is tremendous.”
The Marauders’ lineup features 106-pound sophomore Mike Russo, who was a state qualifier last year as a freshman. Russo was third at the recent Mustang Classic at Brick Memorial. The NJSIAA has implemented new weight classifications this season.
“He’s gotten much bigger and having the three extra pounds [Russo competed at 103 last year] has helped him.”
Freshman Sonny Simonetti is the team’s 113-pounder. Simonetti is one of five freshmen in the Marauders’ starting lineup.
A pair of freshman twins, namely Ryan and Connor Burkert, occupies the 120-pound and 126-pound weight classes respectively.
“They’re both doing well,” Verdi said. “They give us a lot of hope for the future.”
Much like Richardson, Colom, and Pafumi did three years ago.
Junior Andrew Ulloa is the team’s 132-pounder, with sophomore Pete Hilburn at 138 pounds. Hilburn was a third-place finisher at the District 16 tourney last year.
Richardson is the mainstay at 145 pounds. He is ranked among the best in his weight class in the state and could very well be standing atop the podium in Atlantic City come March. He was fourth overall at the Beast of the East tourney.
“His goal is to be a state champion and he’s right up there,” Verdi said.
Colom is the Marauders’ 152-pound wrestler. Colom was the champion at the recent Mustang Classic.
“He’s already won some tough matches,” Verdi said of Colom.
Junior James Kellner is the Marauders’ 160-pounder. Kellner also won a District 16 title last year.
Pafumi, who has already collected more than 110 victories in his career, will get the chance to challenge Innis’ school career record of 136 wins. Pafumi was third at the Beast of the East and is also ranked among the best in the state.
“He also has his goal set at winning a gold medal at the states this year,” Verdi said. “All three of those kids watched Kevin and James do what they did at the states and they want to do it on their own.”
Freshman Jordan Fox is the Marauders’ 182-pounder. He’s also the younger brother of state champion James, so he already has a dubious distinction.
“He’s already doing OK in the shadows of his older brother,” Verdi said. “He won a big match to help us beat South Plainfield. He’s physically imposing for a freshman. He’s a tough kid who is going to get better with maturity and experience.”
Sophomore Armond Cox is the team’s 195-pounder, with freshman Christian Colucci at 220 and senior Ryan Medina at heavyweight. Medina won the District 16 title a year ago.
It’s definitely the making of something special for the Marauders’ wrestling program. After all, they already own three impressive wins and a high state ranking.
“I think having depth helps,” Verdi said. “It’s definitely the most balanced team we’ve ever had. There are no holes in the lineup, so that helps. We’re able to compete in every weight class.”
It could mean a possible NJSIAA Non-Public A state championship in the weeks to come. The possibility is there. For now, the Marauders will settle for the three impressive wins and the state ranking, but there are bigger fish to fry down the road.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.