When Tony Pafumi entered the halls of St. Peter’s Prep three years ago, the school’s head wrestling coach Anthony Verdi knew that he had the makings of a good wrestler.
“By the time he got to us, he already had a few years of wrestling under his belt,” Verdi said. “He was successful at the recreation level and had a good background in the sport. I knew he would eventually develop. We knew we had something special.”
However, Verdi didn’t give Pafumi much time to develop. He threw Pafumi to the wolves right away as a freshman, placing him in a very difficult 152-pound weight class. It’s a weight group that is usually dominated by experienced, older wrestlers who have moved their way up the weight ranks.
“It is a tough weight class for a freshman, but he was the best wrestler we had in the room at that weight,” Verdi said.
It was just the first of many challenges Pafumi has had to handle.
“I think wrestling at 152 was good for me,” Pafumi said. “I wrestled a lot of upperclassmen, but it helped me prepare for the road ahead. I wasn’t worried about it. I really liked that challenge. I did well with it and it definitely helped my confidence. I just kept building on it.”
Since that time, Pafumi has been one of the very best wrestlers in New Jersey. He’s already captured three NJSIAA District 16 championships and has made three journeys to the overall state championships in Atlantic City. He’s won more than 100 matches during his career and is on pace to become one of the all-time leading win leaders at Grand and Warren, with an outside shot of earning the No. 1 win total in the history of the school’s storied wrestling program.
“That has definitely helped me in terms of motivation,” Pafumi said. “It makes me want to push myself. I don’t want to be just another kid. I know that there are hundreds of others who are good. I always want to be motivated to be better.”
Pafumi placed fifth in the entire state last year at 171 pounds, but this year, his senior year, he wanted more.
“He had a reputation coming into the season,” Verdi said. “He wanted to be one of the top kids in the state.”
Pafumi began his senior season wrestling at the highly competitive Beast of the East tournament in Delaware, a tourney where he finished third overall. He went on to win the gold medal at another tough tournament, the Mustang Classic at Brick Memorial.
But his biggest challenge came last week in the finals of the Hudson County Duals, with the Marauders shooting for their fifth straight team title against North Bergen.
Verdi said that he talked to Pafumi on Thursday prior to the county duals, knowing full well that the Marauders were more than likely headed for a title showdown with the Bruins.
“I looked at their lineup and I wanted Tony to match up with the best wrestler possible,” Verdi said. “He hadn’t had a real tough match in a while. So I mentioned to Tony that I might want to see him wrestle [Eric] McMullen.”
McMullen, the standout Bruin wrestler and football star, weighs in at 195 pounds. Pafumi is a 170-pounder. For Pafumi to square off against McMullen, it would mean he would have to sacrifice a 25-pound weight differential, an almost unthinkable total in high school wrestling.
It’s one thing to bump up a weight class here and there. But to give the opponent a 25-pound weight advantage? And McMullen was ranked as the No. 2 wrestler in the state in his own weight class. McMullen wasn’t going to drop down to face Pafumi. This was Pafumi’s mountain to climb.
“He was excited for it,” Verdi said. “He said, `Let’s do it.’ He knew he was giving up more than 20 pounds and facing a really good wrestler who was bigger and stronger than him.”
“First off, I was doing it for the team,” Pafumi said. “I wanted to win for the team. But I also knew that I wanted to face the good competition. He’s ranked No. 2 in the state at 195. I hadn’t really wrestled any of the top kids lately. I had to see where I stood.”
Pafumi didn’t mind being at the disadvantage.
“I didn’t mind the weight difference at all,” Pafumi said. “It was going to be like wrestling with a backpack on. But it didn’t mess with my head at all and it didn’t scare me at all.”
Pafumi went out and defeated McMullen, 3-1, in triple overtime in an epic battle. And the victory helped to give the Marauders a 42-16 team victory that sealed the Marauders’ fifth straight team title in the Hudson County Duals.
For his efforts, Pafumi has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week.
“I had faith in him,” Verdi said. “He would definitely do anything for the team if I asked him. He’s a captain on this team for a reason. He’s a great leader and he helps to pull the others through the grind. He needed a good match, not just physically, but mentally. I think this was good for him moving forward.”
“It was exciting to win and it feels good,” said Pafumi, who increased his record to 23-1 with the win. “It really helps me out mentally, but to be honest, it’s just another step in the road. I’m proud of myself and I’m glad to have experienced it, but I want to go further. I’m trying not to over think it, but I’m ready for it. I’m going to try to win it.”
Pafumi has another goal in mind before he heads on his final sojourn to Atlantic City. The Marauders are the top seed in the upcoming NJSIAA Non-Public A state sectionals and Pafumi would like nothing more than to give the Marauders a state team title before the individual tournaments start in a few weeks.
“That’s the No. 1 goal,” Pafumi said. “We’ve come close a few times since I was a freshman, but we always ended up losing. This year, we’re on a roll. This is a real special team. We’re very close-knit and stick together. We’re all working hard and all focused. I’m confident we can win it this year.”
Pafumi is a lot like other Prep wrestling standouts, like former Hudson Reporter Male Athlete of the Year Kevin Innis and last year’s state champion James Fox, who carved their teeth as fine defensive football players before heading to the mats.
“I don’t think there’s any coincidence that there have been others who have done well in both sports,” said Verdi, who was also a fine football player and wrestler during his heyday at the Prep. “I think the skills go hand-in-hand. I think what Tony has done on the football field has translated to the wrestling mats.”
“It has definitely helped me a lot,” Pafumi said. “I’m always working out with the football team in the summer and then I go to wrestling. It keeps me mentally strong. That approach has helped me with both sports.”
Pafumi, who has already signed a national letter of intent to wrestle at Rutgers University next fall, said that he’s looking forward to the challenge of wrestling in college.
“I’m looking forward to it a great deal,” Pafumi said. “I’m happy with my decision. I feel like I’m going to fit in well there.”
For now, Pafumi is looking forward to the championship season that lies ahead.
“He’s a very tough kid,” Verdi said. “He’s as tough, if not tougher, than any kid we’ve had. I think he’s a contender for the state title, but there are a lot of tough kids in his weight class.”
But not many who took on a defending region champ, gave up 25 pounds and won. That alone says what Tony Pafumi is all about. – Jim Hague.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.