February 5, 2020

Munford Earns Title in MCT Wrestling Debut, Helping to Spark PHS to Strong 4th Place Finish

FORD TOUGH: Princeton High wrestler Aaron Munford, top, dominates a foe in recent action. Last Saturday, sophomore Munford placed first at 138 pounds in the Mercer County Tournament to help PHS place fourth in the team standings at the event. PHS also got titles at the competition from senior Dominic Riendeau-Krause at 145 pounds and junior James Romaine at 152 pounds. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

Aaron Munford was one of three champions for Princeton High wrestling at the Mercer County Tournament last weekend, but unlike the other two it was his first time in the varsity spotlight.

Sophomore Munford made the most of the opportunity at his first MCT at Robbinsville High on Saturday. In the quarterfinals at 138 pounds, he pinned Viraj Chandra of WW/P-North and then recorded a 16-6 major decision over Robbinsville’s Isaiah Lederman in the semifinals. In the final, he earned a 16-11 decision over Hopewell Valley’s Alejandro Lopez to uphold his top seeding and win his first county crown.

“I think it’s like the start of the postseason so it boosts my confidence going into districts and maybe regions,” said Munford, who improved to 24-3 this year. “I wasn’t as confident, but being the No. 1 seed definitely helped.”

Munford picked up 27 points for the Little Tigers, who placed fourth in the MCT with Hopewell Valley winning the team title. PHS got titles from senior Dominic Riendeau-Krause at 145 pounds and junior James Romaine at 152 pounds, and also picked up a second-place finish from junior Chris Sockler at 132 pounds.

“I think we exceeded expectations,” said PHS head coach Jess Monzo.

“We did very well. My kids believe in themselves, but at the end of the day they surprised themselves. They were super happy. We were in third place for a little while. We were battling back and forth with Allentown and Robbinsville. Our kids were happy. They were very excited and they did well.”

Munford’s title was part of a murderer’s row for PHS. Riendeau-Krause claimed his first title in convincing fashion at 145 pounds with three straight pins. None of his opponents made it past 3:00 as he demonstrated a style that PHS would use throughout the tournament.

“They dictated right from the beginning,” said Monzo. “They took it to them. They made their opponent wrestle our match. We wrestled our style and dictated the pace. We came out and we were the aggressor. We owned the center of the mat. We let them know it was our match, it was our pace, it’s our style.”

Romaine captured his first championship at 152 pounds. After winning by technical fall over RJ Stradling of Robbinsville in the quarterfinals, he won by major decision over Sean Mills of Lawrence in the semifinals. In the final, he upset top-seeded Matt Paglia of Allentown, 1-0, after scoring a point in the second period and wrestling wisely in the third period for the win.

“James wrestled a great match,” said Monzo. “He wrestled a kid he sees all the time. It’s one of his workout partners at his club that he goes to. We knew going in it was going to be a tough match. He was a region place winner last year. James was a wrestleback one guy. It was a big win for him, to be able to grind it out and stay tough for the last two minutes of the match, and keep him on the mat and not let him get to his feet, he wrestled tremendous.”

PHS is hoping that the experience gained at the county meet will pay off in districts and beyond. The Tigers have veteran wrestlers like Riendeau-Krause and Romaine along with up-and-coming wrestlers like Munford and Sockler, who won a pair of major decisions before falling in the final.

“He wrestled a good match,” said Monzo of Sockler. “He was in the match, he was wrestling well. He hung his head and got cradled. He came off the mat a little upset and we talked about it. Him being a junior, it’s a great thing getting to the finals and experiencing it and now you know what it’s like. When you get to that point next year, we’re ahead of the game.”

Munford won all 10 varsity matches he was in last year, but otherwise was stuck behind Alec Bobchin, who would go on to finish fourth in the state before graduating and continuing his wrestling career at Rider University. Munford, who lost only two junior varsity matches, was itching for his chance to compete regularly.

“At the time, I didn’t really like it,” said Munford of waiting his turn. “I would do a lot of watching and seeing what it was like. I think that helped prepare me for this year instead of jumping right into it freshman year.”

But Munford doesn’t view the year as a lost season. He learned a lot while working in the wrestling room with Sockler, who remains his wrestling partner this year, and while observing matches and having a chance to compete in some varsity contests.

“The main thing I took out of it was treating every match the same,” said Munford.

“It really didn’t feel different. Except the first time, it wasn’t a huge difference from JV matches in terms of treating it. The skill level was definitely different, but my warm up and the way I wrestle is still going to be the same. The main thing I learned was wrestling every match the same no matter what.”

He also increased his dedication to the sport, seeing what enabled success for others and mimicking it.

“Starting freshman year, I just started wrestling way, way more,” said Munford.

“I was seeing what the other top guys were doing and I knew I had to do it if I wanted to be at that level. I started doing way more clubs, and some private lessons, and I increased my wrestling. I was wrestling five or six times per week. And then in the summer, I did some camps. I tried to increase my time on the mat because I think doing the actual wrestling is what gets improvement.”

It has paid off with a fast start to this season. Munford has fortified the lineup that lost Bobchin by jumping right into the mix and continuing the Tigers success. From Sockler to Riendeau-Krause, PHS feels like it has an advantage.

“Whenever we have a meet, we know we’re really, really tough at those weights,” said Munford. “It helps the team too. It scares the other team and boosts our confidence. I really enjoy being a part of that.”

PHS flexed its muscles in those weights at counties to put itself in contention for a top-three finish. The Tigers picked up points here and there from its lineup as Chloe Ayres took fourth at 106 pounds, Martin Brophy placed fourth at 113 pounds, and Matt Elsworth picked up a sixth place at 160.

“Letting them see that fourth-place finish and knowing they contributed as a team, every single person picking up wins in the wrestlebacks and scoring points, it makes them believe that what they’re doing is really working,” said Monzo.

“It gives them a sense of a team and it really builds forward and gets them closer together. They realize it’s not just the Chloe Ayres Show or the Dominic Riendeau-Krause Show or the James Romaine Show or Sockler Show, it’s a team and it’s a team effort. They’re one out of 14. When one gets beat, who’s going to step up next, and who’s going to pick up the slack? Now they’re seeing it doesn’t have to be one certain person, I can step in and do well. The culture is changing and it’s starting to get fun and they’re starting to see success. The work in the room is starting to pay off.”

In Munford’s view, that collective approach has been paying dividends.

“I think we’ve been emphasizing a lot of support throughout the team, but also giving it your all, no matter what,” said Munford.

“It was emphasized last year but this year I feel like it’s more of a group effort. I have my teammates to thank for that.”

With Munford having been able to step into the lineup and help immediately, he is setting an example that younger Tigers can emulate.

“He’s been a staple in our lineup,” said Monzo. “He was very tough last year as a freshman. He was 10-0 on varsity. He popped in the lineup here or there. Sometimes you have a kid that has to sit behind a two-time place winner and just kind of wait it out. He had to wait his turn. Dominic was at 145 last year and James was at 152 so they both started and went into the region tournament and Bobchin was at 138. I don’t believe Aaron was able to cut down to 132. Sockler was in the lineup at 132.”

Doing the right things helped Munford get himself in position to contribute this year.

“Aaron was very fortunate,” said Monzo. “He wrestled well. He put a lot of work in during the offseason. He knew what he wanted to do and he knew the right steps to take and how to accomplish his goals.”

Monzo is seeing that attitude across the board from his wrestlers.

“They came to me and said, we’re putting Princeton where we used to be,” said Monzo. “We’re getting back to it. I just try to give my kids the motivation they need. They’re the ones wrestling. They’re moving forward.”

The biggest thing that PHS got out of the county tournament was confidence, finishing higher than some of the same teams that defeated them in dual meets.

“It’s motivation to move forward and let them know you’re the fourth best team in Mercer County right now, regardless of who won dual meets,” said Monzo.

“We were two matches today away from taking a top-three finish. The kids know what they have to improve on and it gives them that little bit of light. It opens up that tunnel a little more and they can start to see that light at the end of the tunnel and see that their preparation is building for success in the future.”

Munford remains motivated to advance deep into the season. He is focused on improving more before districts, seeing the MCT as a stepping stone for him.

“I’m really just trying to sharpen up my technique and try to watch film and fix little mistakes and things I’m doing sloppy,” said Munford.

“I want to do my main shots and things I always do and keep those clean and as sharp as possible during match time. I really wanted to prove myself and show that the team could be just as strong without some of our top guys from last year.”

PHS accomplished that with a strong showing on Saturday. Now the Tigers want to show it was no fluke when they take on District 17 competition on February 22.

“Come district time, we’re looking to put more than four in the finals,” said Monzo.

“We’re looking to do great things at Princeton and it’s starting to show by the way kids are moving in the room, and moving on the mat and showing that we can be successful.”

Munford, for his part, is hungry for more success this winter. “I’m definitely more confident, but I know I still have things to work on,” said Munford. “Districts and regions, there will be different kids, and tougher kids.”