January 4, 2023

PHS Wrestling Produces Encouraging 3-1 Start, Helped by Paul’s Development into a Standout

GAINING CONTROL: Princeton High wrestler Christian Paul, right, controls a foe in a bout last season. Last Friday, junior standout Paul earned three wins at 157 pounds as PHS went 2-1 in a quad meet with wins over Montgomery (39-33) and Monroe (35-33) and a loss (51-16) to Hillsborough. In upcoming action, the Tigers, now 3-1, host Franklin on January 4 and then have a quad at Hightstown on January 7. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

Christian Paul got a taste of the action last season for the Princeton High School wrestling team.

After going 8-6 in limited time in the regular lineup, Paul resolved to be a bigger part of the team this year.

“The main thing is not necessarily from starting but that feeling that I never want to be on the bench again,” said Paul. “I always want to be there and the idea that I don’t want to let anybody else outwork me.”

Paul is off to a good start. The junior won all three of his matches at 157 pounds as PHS went 2-1 in a quad meet last Friday with wins over Montgomery (39-33) and Monroe (35-33) and a loss (51-16) to Hillsborough. Paul defeated his Montgomery and Monroe opponents each by pin and then captured a 7-4 decision over Giuseppe Cicciari of Hillsborough while overcoming a bloody nose that had to be taped up.

“You can’t breathe out of your nose, it’s all taped up, so he’s trying to breathe out of his mouth and trying to figure stuff out, trying to pull the tape down so he could see as it rides up in his eyes,” said PHS head coach Jess Monzo, whose squad is now 3-1 in dual meets.

“The way he was able to gut that win out — it was a close match, tooth and nail right to the end — and it really showed a lot about who he is as a person and what he’s here for and what he wants to do this season. We’re excited for the rest of the year, especially for him, to see what he can do at a full 157. We’re looking to see some special things from him this year and I’m excited.”

Paul wrestled at three different weights last year, wherever PHS would get him on the mat. It was hard with him often giving up pounds to opponents. He was splitting time with Basil Rieger. Rieger has since moved away, leaving Paul as the lone junior to return to the PHS roster, but Paul set his mind on developing himself as soon as last year ended.

“In the offseason, I definitely got in the weight room a lot more,” said Paul. “I was going to the gym extremely consistently. Over the summer, I put in a lot of work. I wasn’t specifically wrestling, but I did a lot of strength work and that helped me going into the season. And I think that overall I’ve just worked harder this year. Last year, I obviously tried hard, but this year I’m really pushing it because I see what I’m able to do and I really want to get there so I’m pushing it all out every single time.”

Paul kept up workouts leading up to the start of the season. He came back motivated after being one of the younger wrestlers on the team a year ago. The PHS veterans inspired him to dedicate himself for his final two years in the program.

“It was seeing all the other guys around me,” said Paul. “I know specifically last year, Aaron Munford and Matt Ellsworth, they were some really big inspirations for me because I saw how strong they were and how successful they were on the mat. It really motivated me to try to push even harder.”

Paul’s improvements have helped PHS solidify the middle of their lineup. The Tigers have been bit early by the injury bug, but are seeing the potential for another good season. Last year’s state qualifier Blasé Mele picked up a fifth-place finish at 132 pounds at the Sam Cali Invitational last Wednesday. Cole Rose also picked up a pair of wins in the competitive tournament. The Tigers also feature some key returners from a year ago in Marty Brophy, Ava Rose, Harrison Ehee, Tyler Ehee and Jordy Paredes.

“I think the team is actually looking exceptionally well,” said Paul. “We’ve lost five seniors that were all in the starting lineup so being able to fill those spots is important. We’ve gotten a lot of new guys like Chase (Hamerschlag), who is a freshman and filling a spot at 165, which is really huge for us. I’m hopeful for this season. I think we can do really well, and maybe even repeat.”

Last year, the Tigers won the Colonial Division of the Colonial Valley Conference by taking out defending champion Hightstown. PHS hosts Franklin Township on January 4 in a match that could pair future District 17 opponents, then will see Hightstown in a key quad on Saturday that also includes Manalapan, whom they beat by a point last year, and Middle Township.

“Hightstown is in our conference, in our division, so it’s a very big match,” said Monzo. “They’re kids from down the road, not far away. Manalapan always puts a good team on the mat. They have kids that can wrestle and they’ll be looking for a little bit of payback after last year’s dual meet.”

Monzo has been finding plenty of good spots with the way the PHS team has wrestled early on, and how it has handled some early adversity with missing some starters. Going 2-1 in the quad was a promising sign.

“I feel like we wrestled well,” said Monzo. “We kind of went out and we’re short staffed right now. We have some holes in the lineup right now so we’re trying to figure some stuff out. And even in the first dual meet, we had a couple seniors go down and it didn’t look too promising, and we had some of our younger kids step up. And it really showed a little bit of that team aspect and how to wrestle as a team. I think the kids are starting to understand.”

Paul is developing into a reliable piece of the PHS lineup. He picked up his first CVC win as the Tigers routed WW/P-South 71-6 on December 21, then three more in the quad meet. That perfect day boosted his confidence and has him feeling good in 2023.

“I feel like I underperformed a little bit at the first tournament of the year, but that was mostly getting the kinks out and getting back into shape,” said Paul. “It was really just like an introduction to the season. I feel like I’ve come into my own and I think I perform much better going into the rest of the season and the postseason.”

Paul is feeling more confident about his potential after his offseason work and start to the season. It has helped him reset goals for this year. They are bigger than ever.

“I think my goals are a lot more tangible this year,” said Paul. “In the past few years, it’s been ‘get better’ or ‘get more experience,’ intangible ideas that you can get by showing up basically. But now I have these concrete goals I want to make. I want to place well in counties, place well in districts, potentially make it to regions — these concrete goals that I can measure myself by each and every day and each and every match.”

Paul has the potential to accomplish them because of his increased commitment since last year. Monzo could see a difference in the wrestler when he returned. Whereas Paul at times wrestled up at 157 last year to fill the spot, this year his lifting helped push him into that weight class organically.

“He really put an emphasis all through the summer and up to the season on lifting, and it shows,” said Monzo. “He’s a totally different person. He’s strong, he’s thick, he’s solid. He’s not cutting a lot of weight, so he’s wrestling at a more natural weight for him. And being as big and strong as he is, it’s showing up. It’s helping him in situations where in the past couple years he didn’t have as much.”

Paul has the chance to push forward with a strong group of wrestling partners on the team. They have helped prepare him for any number of circumstances he could face on the mat.

“Usually for drilling I’ll be going with Jordy and we go back and forth pretty regularly,” said Paul. “When we start to go live and go a little bit bigger groups like groups of three or four, we’ll have Chase and Noah [Kassas] join us so we have a group ranging from 157 to 190. It’s really good practice. Even with guys heavier than me, it’s getting used to that feeling of being able to move weight around and be able to control my opponent regardless of how heavy they are.”

The offseason work combined with getting back on the mat for practice and matches has helped push Paul to another level. It is showing up on the mat and with his attitude and expectations. He is more determined to win matches regardless of opponent.

“He’s definitely capable of getting it,” said Monzo. “With all the outside offseason work he put in, he’s now expecting himself to get those wins. He put a little size and strength on and he looks imposing now. I think he started really believing in himself too. There’s something about a young 15-16 year old kid when he starts lifting weights and seeing differences, he starts to believe a little bit more too.”

Paul is reflecting his newfound confidence in the practice room with the team. Now as an upperclassman he has more leadership potential. He tries to set a tone that will help the less experienced wrestlers as they adjust to high school wrestling.

“There are six or seven seniors obviously and Marty and Ava, being captains, they’re really big with the leadership part,” said Paul. “I think I’ve been able to help a decent amount because I know Ava has been injured and Marty hasn’t been feeling well. So I think I’ve been able to get in the room and during practice be able to motivate these younger guys that are being first introduced to such a competitive environment.”

Paul knows from experience how tough an adjustment it is and what it takes to get into the lineup and contribute. He got his start wrestling in sixth grade for the Princeton Middle School team, then made the big jump to high school as a freshman. It’s taken a couple of seasons, but Paul has lofty goals now after earning a steady role in his third year.

“I can definitely feel myself gaining a larger and larger role as the years have gone on,” said Paul. “And specifically this year where I’ll be holding a full-time starting spot. I feel there’s a much higher expectation for me than in previous years.”