A year ago, the North Bergen High School wrestling team had three members who stood on the podium at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City to collect a medal at the NJSIAA state championships.
Luis Gonzalez, Eric McMullen and Anthony Giraldo all finished among the top five wrestlers in the state in their respective weight classes. Gonzalez was fourth at 113 pounds, McMullen was the 195-pound class and Giraldo was fifth at 120.
It was only the second time in the school’s history that three Bruins all won medals at the same state tournament.
Now, a year later, McMullen has graduated and is part of the Rutgers University wrestling program. Gonzalez has transferred to Don Bosco Prep, leaving Giraldo as the last one standing.
The junior, who has been wrestling at 132 pounds this season, but plans to get down to 126 in time for the year-end tourneys, has been left to carry the torch for the storied Bruin program.
“Eric has graduated and Luis is still my best friend,” Giraldo said. “I keep in touch with him every day. Even though we’re not in the same school, we still work and train together. But I don’t feel any pressure being the leader now. If I perform to the highest level, that’s all that matters. I always felt like I was a leader, even when they were here.”
Giraldo was asked how he felt when he learned his best friend and drill partner was headed to Don Bosco.
“Of course, I was hurt,” Giraldo said. “He’s my buddy and I loved drilling with Luis every day. But he left and I’m taking it as a positive. I have to continue to get better and lead this team to do the right things.”
Veteran North Bergen head wrestling coach and athletic director Jerry Maietta likes what Giraldo brings to his team.
“He’s a great kid,” Maietta said. “He’s very intelligent. He does what is expected of him. He’s a hard worker and a great leader by example. He’s the leader on this team now, no question about it. And he knows that he has some great expectations to fill. He’s ready to step up and take hold of this team. We can only hope that the younger guys will emulate what Anthony does. They can see that hard work pays off.”
Maietta said that Giraldo eats, drinks and sleeps wrestling.
“He’s doing it all the time and goes all over,” Maietta said. “Wrestling is his life all year round. I wish at times he could stay away from it, but he doesn’t.”
“I love it,” Giraldo said. “I try to improve with every single practice. I put the work in during the summer so I can get to where I want to be. I want to be a state champion. That’s what I have to do.”
Giraldo is well on his way to becoming the school’s all-time win leader. Only a junior, Giraldo has 91 career victories already.
“I’m actually getting excited for my 100th win,” Giraldo said. “I know a lot of wrestlers don’t get that chance. I don’t pay attention to my record. Nothing really matters unless I win the states.”
However, Giraldo has a manager in his corner that worries about win totals and state and national rankings. Martha Giraldo, Anthony’s mom, is on the ball when it comes to her son’s record.
“She really is like my manager,” Giraldo said. “She’s the one that keeps the records.”
Martha Giraldo is quick to point out that Anthony is ranked No. 12 in the country at 126 pounds by Intermat and No. 18 by Full Wrestling. Both are online rankings.
“I don’t want to get those numbers stuck in my head,” Giraldo said. “I want to be able to wrestle the best in the country. Earlier in the summer, I didn’t have the mindset to be the best in the country, but once I got ranked, I had to live up to the ranking.”
This year, Giraldo has traveled to Delaware to participate in the Beast of the East tournament. Over the Christmas holidays, he also went to the George Jockish Bergen County Tournament, where he won for a third straight year.
“The first two years I won, I didn’t know what to expect,” Giraldo said. “It was more of a thrill then winning. But now, I’m expected to go there and dominate.”
“We bumped him up a weight class [to 132 pounds] to get another kid on our team to get a chance to wrestle, but also to give Anthony experience at a higher weight,” Maietta said. “It worked out well.”
Giraldo, who has posted a 14-2 record thus far this season, has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week.
“He’s the complete package,” Maietta said. “He’s smart and he’s a student of the sport. He’s very tough on his feet and he’s a good mat wrestlers. He has all the facets to be successful. He’s always working on trying to improve what he needs to improve on. After he’s done with us, he goes to a club to work even more a couple of days a week. That’s dedication. That’s what all the top wrestlers do.”
Maietta was asked if Giraldo has a good shot to win in Atlantic City.
“He’s very focused,” Maietta said. “He’ll be fine. He’s in a loaded weight class, but he’s as good as any of them. I wish I could have 20 kids in the room like Anthony. Not only is he a good wrestler, but he has great grades as well. He’s such a great kid.”
“I definitely feel like I’ve improved a lot,” Giraldo said. “I’ve worked so hard.”
Giraldo knows that he’s always linked with another great North Bergen wrestler, namely Bobby Dabal, the school’s all-time win leader, who is a Guttenberg resident like Giraldo.
“I’m asked about Bobby Dabal all the time,” Giraldo said. “I got on the mat a couple times with him. I was actually at his house a few days ago. I’m close friends with the family.”
Maybe a little bit of Dabal will rub off on Giraldo in the weeks and months to come.
“It can’t hurt,” Giraldo said. – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.