March 1, 2023

PHS Wrestler Mele Earns Return Trip to States, Determined to Fight His Way into Medal Contention

BLASE OF GLORY: Princeton High wrestler Blase Mele gets ready to grapple in recent action. Last weekend, sophomore Mele took second at 132 pounds in the Region 5 tournament to earn a spot at the upcoming 2023 New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA)/Rothman Orthopaedic State Championships, beginning on March 2 in Atlantic City. He will be joined at the boys’ competition by another PHS wrestler, sophomore Cole Rose at 106. Rose’s sister, senior Ava, will also be in A.C. after qualifying at 114 for the girls’ state tournament final. (Photo provided by Daren Mele)

By Justin Feil

Blase Mele is returning to the boys state wrestling tournament a more confident wrestler than a year ago.

The Princeton High sophomore earned his second trip to the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA)/Rothman Orthopaedic State Championships Atlantic City by placing second at 132 pounds in the Region 5 tournament last Saturday at Franklin High. Mele reached states last year despite overcoming a mid-season injury to become the first PHS freshman qualifier in program history. He begins to compete for a medal in states on March 2 in Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City with the finals set for Sunday.

“Last year, the goal was really to make it to A.C., then I had some difficulties in the middle of the season that kind of messed up my season,” said Mele. “This year, I’m really looking to go out there and prove I can compete with the best. Last year did leave a sour taste in my mouth. I would be lying if I told you anything different because I’m a competitor. I like to compete and I train to win.”

Mele is up a weight class from 126 last year. Seeded third, he opened the region meet with a pin of Brandon Castro of South Brunswick. He won, 16-1, by a technical fall over Justin Fearon of Middletown North in the quarterfinals, then pinned second-seeded Vincent DePierro of Manalapan in the semifinals. Top-seeded Patrick O’Keefe finally topped him, 7-5, in the final. O’Keefe edged him in overtime for the District 17 crown the week before.

“Obviously there are things I can fix and improve on, and there are things I’m looking to fix and that I’m going to have to fix if I want to achieve my goal of getting on the podium,” said Mele. “At the end of the day, advancing is the name of the game. Just getting through to the next round is important. Even though I would have liked to get that region title, the state tournament is where you want to do best. That finals match was a 50-50 match, and the district match was the same with the same kid — O’Keefe. I’m looking to get those 50-50 matches to go my way at the state tournament and not necessarily at regions or districts, even though it would have been nice to win one of the two.”

Mele will be joined in the state tournament this year by fellow sophomore Cole Rose, who earned the fourth and final spot at 113 pounds in Region 5 (Rose’s sister, senior standout Ava, will also be in A.C. after qualifying at 114 for the girls’ state tournament finals).

Mele was only the sixth seed and overcame the No. 3 seed in the quarterfinals to put himself in position to win one more match to reach the state tournament for the first time.

“Last year, we had one state qualifier, and this year we have two,” said Mele. “I think that things will only keep going upwards.”

Marty Brophy was seeded sixth and ended up placing sixth at 138 pounds. The PHS senior, though, shocked third-seeded Cole Pangborn of Rumson-Fair Haven by rallying for a 6-4 quarterfinal win before a pair of losses knocked him out of state spot contention.

“That was probably one of the best matches I’ve seen Marty wrestle Friday night,” said PHS coach Jess Monzo. “It cemented where he is in Princeton. The next day it’s a little bit of a different outcome, but beating that kid was the big thing. To represent Princeton as a Group 4 school, we’re not a school known for a tremendous wrestling program, but we’re starting to build it. We put three guys in the semis of 14 weight classes. We only had four guys competing in the tournament. To put ourselves out there and put ourselves on the map is tremendous. He was one win from Atlantic City. He gave everything he had.”

Christian Paul fell, 7-3, in the first round to Raritan’s Logan Acevedo at 150. The Tiger junior was seeded 11th, but making his first region meet for the first time was significant.

“It was huge,” said Monzo. “It really let Christian know that he belongs. It validated his season to get to that level. From where he was two years ago as a freshman coming in and last year as a sophomore, and kind of being thrown into the districts at 157 and probably he had to gain a little weight to get over ’42 to actually wrestle. To be a full ’57 and drop down to ’50 this year and do what he did, it cemented all the work he put in and the weights he lifted over the summer. He was big, he was strong this year and his wrestling showed that he can compete at this level. We’re excited for his senior year and what’s to come.”

The week before, PHS came up one spot short of a fifth region qualifier. Chase Hamerschlag placed fourth at 165 in the District 17 meet with the top three moving onto Region 5. The freshman was winning his third-place match before falling.

“That kid that beat him for third place qualified for the state tournament,” said Monzo. “So it kind of let Chase know he belonged. Seeing that made him believe and now it’s going to sting because he knows he can wrestle at that level. But he had a tremendous freshman year, over 20 wins, fourth place in the district, and it’s a good stepping stone as a freshman. There’s plenty to look forward to.”

Overall, the Tigers have enjoyed a good showing. They finished fifth in the districts as a team, and 13th in the regions. Of their region qualifiers, only Brophy, who will run cross country in college, will graduate this year.

“I’m proud of my guys,” said Monzo. “I’m proud of what they did. But if you ask them, I think they want a little more too, which is good. We’ll take what we did and we’ll be excited about it and we’ll look to build on it for the future.”

Mele continues to move forward. He’s been healthy this season and has gotten some tests along the way that helped him prepare for the final weeks of the season. Mele is 34-4 heading into his return trip to states, and he’s not just satisfied with a states berth. He has a notably different outlook in his return.

“My coaches have pushed me all year, telling me you can win at the highest level, you can get on that state podium,” said Mele. “Everybody’s been telling me that. I’m so grateful for coach Monzo, coach [Ron] Dolenti, my parents, they’ve been telling me all year, ‘Blase, you can do this, you can get where you want to be.’”

Rose, too, had confidence that he could finish better than his seeding to reach the state tournament. He is up a weight class from a year ago, and he had to fight through his bracket to advance. He started with a 15-2 major decision over Hopewell Valley’s Dylan Hersh. He came through with an 11-9 sudden victory win over Manalapan’s third-seeded Andrew Mucciolo to reach the semifinals. After a loss, his pin of Raritan’s Aidan Davis in wrestlebacks clinched a berth in the state tournament.

“To wrestle like that, to go into overtime, to have to dig deep and pull out a win showed a little bit of grit and a bit of resilience,” said Monzo. “He wrestled at ’20 all year and we made a decision to cut down to 113 for the postseason looking at the way the regions were and the way the weight classes shook out. It was a better chance to get to Atlantic City. I would never say an easier road because at that level there is no easy road. It put us in a better position to achieve our goal.”

Mele didn’t bat an eye in the 132-pound semifinals when he was paired against DePierro, who was seeded ahead of him. The two hadn’t wrestled each other before, but DePierro had done better at last year’s state tournament than had Mele. Mele won their first head-to-head to reach the region final.

“Regardless of who’s in front of me, I pretty much approach every wrestling match the same,” said Mele. “Of course you can think of technical things you can change kid to kid, but your mentality is always the same. It’s always to go out there and score points and be dominant. If you’re not going out there to be dominant, there’s no point to wrestling then. I think that reflects in my wrestling. I get a lot of tech falls. I like to put points on the board. In that match, I was dominant but there’s always things to improve. Some of those scramble positions could have gone either way.”

Wins like that in the region semifinal have helped reinforce his ability. Mele will bring a greater confidence with him this year, the result of not just his season-long success but also the positivity that has surrounded him. Expectations were raised by last year’s success that catapulted in off his youth experience. It has helped this year to have his coaches and family thinking highly of his chances.

“That’s important because when you hear that every single day, I believe that right now,” said Mele. “I believe I can get on that state podium. That’s just as important. I think that’s the answer. This season, there’s a belief that I can do it. Last year, there was no real belief because I didn’t know if could wrestle. This year, things have gone my way, I’ve been able to compete, I have 30-some matches under my belt, and I believe that I can get where I want to go.”

Mele worked hard after last season to improve himself. His main focus was being better at putting multiple moves together to pick up points.

“At the highest level, to get on that state podium, you can’t just have one thing that works for you,” said Mele. “You have to be able to do one, two, three, four, five things in a row just to get maybe one point, just to get an escape you have to be hitting a sequence of moves. If you’re not training to do them, you’re not going to be able to put it together in a match when it matters. I’ve been working in the offseason with club coaches and training partners in the offseason to improve my chain wrestling and how I can score points.”

Mele used his offseason well, and that focus is a key to his development. While he is in the midst of putting his energy into winning a state medal, he also knows that regardless of this year’s outcome his development won’t end after this season.

“I’m looking forward to getting back to training and improving and seeing where I fell short this year and fixing it,” said Mele. “As much as I love competing, the day in and day out grind is just as fun to me — working to improve and working to get better.”

Monzo has seen improvements in Mele in every facet this year, but the key is in his head. He will go to Atlantic City less nervous about the bright lights on the biggest stage in the state, and he recognizes that he can compete with anyone in his bracket. He has been pushed all year by a host of training partners that include Rose, Brophy, and brothers Harrison and Tyler Ehee among others.

“It just goes back to the atmosphere in the Princeton High wrestling room,” said Mele. “Everybody is supportive of each other. There were kids that showed up to regions that were not wrestling, they did not have to come but they put it out there. They supported their teammates. I think there’s something special going on in the Princeton High room that you’re not going to find at too many other schools.”

Mele’s experience has shown up in the practice room in ways that are bigger than his wrestling. He has taken on leadership duties and set an example for others. He has helped to raise the level of competitiveness, and that has helped him remain sharper.

“Where he improved the most is in his mental preparation,” said Monzo. “We saw it from the beginning. He took a big role, a big responsibility this year in helping everyone else warm up and talking them through situations. He’s been a huge help in the room. I think kids seeing that, and seeing a teammate doing that, other people have started to buy in as well. He’s been a really good leader. Marty Brophy kind of showed him the way to lead and guys in the past like [Alec] Bobchin and [James] Romaine who have done it have left a blueprint and now we’re following it. We’re showing the younger guys behind how it can be done.”

Mele will try to take it another step further at the state tournament. He is looking forward to another chance to compete in Atlantic City, this year with both his expectations and his confidence higher in his return trip.

“Every opportunity can’t be wasted,” said Mele. “I’m already halfway through my high school career. I would never think that it would go this fast, but it’s gone very fast.”