December 20, 2023

With Junior Standouts Mele, Rose Leading the Way, PHS Wrestling Makes Strong Showing at Del Val Event

COLE POWER: Princeton High wrestler Cole Rose, top, controls a foe in a 2022 bout. Last Saturday, junior star Rose took second at 126 pounds in the Wendy Pandy-Leh Wrestling Invitational at Delaware Valley. Fellow junior Blase Mele placed first at 138 as the Tigers took sixth in the team standings of the event won by host Del Val. PHS hosts WW/P-South on December 20 in its first dual of the season. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

The Princeton High wrestling team is testing its strength early with several difficult challenges.

The Tigers wrestled in the Wendy Pandy-Leh Wrestling Invitational at Delaware Valley on Saturday. PHS placed sixth among a strong contingent of statewide teams, and the opportunity was just what the Tigers were looking for in the first month of a season in which there are big expectations for PHS.

“There were some very good quality teams from across the state of New Jersey,” said PHS head coach Jess Monzo. “There were teams from up north in Bergen County, teams from down south like Williamstown and Woodstown, Del Val is terrific, and some schools from the shore. You saw a little bit of everything, each kind of New Jersey’s style, which was great. You can’t get that a lot and it’s good to expose your kids to it early and then correct what they might have done wrong or got beat up with before we see that later on in the season.”

PHS is looking to repeat as Colonial Division champions in the Colonial Valley Conference. The Tigers graduated six seniors from the team that went 20-6 last year, took second in the Mercer County Tournament, and qualified for sectionals. The lineup looks different, but it’s capable of capturing the division with a lineup that will only improve as the season continues.

“We had new guys in our lineup throughout,” said Monzo. “We had some freshmen and some upperclassmen that are new to the sport. We are still waiting on a heavyweight (Kwabena Afrifah) that transferred in and has to sit. So for a couple weeks we’ll be without him. We have upper weights this year which we haven’t had a lot of in the past. We’re excited. We’re just trying to get them ready. They came off football season and they’re a little raw, a little young, so we’re not going to put them out right away. But when we get into our dual meet season they’ll start to show up for us. We’re excited for what the year is going to bring.”

PHS will jump into CVC action when it hosts WW/P-South on December 20 before its get into some tougher tests. (Last year, PHS beat the Pirates, 71-6.) Following their first look at a CVC team, PHS will send stars Blasé Mele and Cole Rose to the exclusive Sam Cali Invitational at Fairleigh Dickinson on December 27 before a strong quad meet at Hillsborough gives them some out-of-conference looks.

“We’ll get tested early,” said Monzo. “The earlier you can get your guys battle- tested, the better. The earlier they see that little wake-up, they understand what it means, they understand what they have to do, how they have to do it. And at the end of the day, they watch the matches and come back and ask questions. The pretty cool thing about coaching in Princeton is these kids are really smart. And they ask a lot about what happened, how did that happen, and they remember — way more than I remember when I was wrestling.”

Mele and Rose were the top two finishers for the Tigers at the Pandy-Leh tournament. Mele impressed by taking the 138-pound crown. The junior opened the tournament with a bye before stringing together three straight convincing wins. He pinned Wall’s Joseph Matri in 2:21, scored a 22-7 technical fall over Woodstown’s Will Groom in the semifinals, and pinned Dominic Volek of Ocean Township in 1:01 in the final.

“They wrestled great,” said Monzo. “Blasé had a really good day. He looked really good. I was getting compliments from other coaches. They were asking what grade is he, where’s he going, what’s he thinking about? People liked the way he was wrestling. They thought he was exciting, he was scoring a lot of points, he looked great. He put in a lot of offseason work this year. Last year, after finishing top 12 (in the state) and the way he finished top 12 — the last couple losses were to the same kid — so that lit a little fire. He looked great.”

Rose, also a junior, put on a strong showing as well when he finished second at 126 pounds. After a first-round bye, he won a major decision, 12-0, over Tye Falkenstein of Delaware Valley. Rose won a closer match, 7-3, over Steven Perez of Ocean Township in the semifinals before falling to Jaden Perez of Delaware Valley in the final.

“Cole went up a couple weight classes and wrestled a really tough kid from Del Val in the finals,” said Monzo.

“We’re OK with that. We’re happy with the way he finished. He’s up at 126. We spoke a couple times during the season already. He said he feels better, he feels stronger, he doesn’t want to cut weight. He’s not draining himself to make a weight class and that’ll do a little something for his head. He comes in the room and he only has to worry about wrestling. He doesn’t have to worry about cutting and I think that’ll help him in the long run.”

Another junior, Josh Hanan, got his year off to a promising start with a third-place finish at 106 pounds. Hanan beat Tyler Ondovik of Voorhees, 7-0, to open his tournament. He fell in a close match, 9-7, to Ocean Township’s Michael Apicelli in the semifinals, but came back to pin Christian LaViscount of Cherokee in the third-place match in 2:00.

“He wrestled really well,” said Monzo. “He looked tough. He took third and had two good wins. He lost a tight match in the semis, a match he’s definitely capable of winning. If we see that kid again, I’d feel comfortable in a rematch. It does a lot for him. He was a light guy last year. He wasn’t a full 106. He was light. He’s a solid 106 now, which is good. It’ll be a little different for him. He’s not giving up as much weight and it’s definitely going to help him later on in the year.”

The Tigers were also pleased with the way some of their wrestlers responded to early setbacks. Chase Hamerschlag fell to August Savacool of DelVal in the quarterfinals at 175 pounds, but pinned Nick Wonsala of Wall in 53 seconds and John Rothschild of Pascack Hills in 1:04 to take fifth place.

“He’s a sophomore who had a really good freshman year for us,” said Monzo. “He was winning in his first match. He was wrestling well and just got caught in a headlock, which happens at times. He wound up going to his back. He ended up fighting it off and wrestled the rest of the match, but just couldn’t make up those points. It was a little bit of a young guy mistake — he’s only a sophomore — but for him to come back and win his next two matches to place fifth is great. It shows a lot of what we’re doing in the room is working.”

It was similar for Noah Kassas. A junior who has been in the lineup for two years already, Kassas lost, 8-2, to Paul Banff of Woodstown in the quarterfinals, but pinned Rioghnan Wood of Voorhees and edged Evan Newman of DelVal, 8-6, in the fifth-place match at 190 pounds. The Tigers had a chance for a third fifth-place finisher, but Christian Paul had to settle for sixth at 157 pounds. He pinned Eric Kuhlow in his consolation match in 46 seconds after a 7-5 loss in the quarterfinals to Jeremy Marsella of Wall. Paul lost in the fifth-place match to Keaton Aucello of Williamstown.

“Noah was in a barnburner,” said Monzo. “He came back and takes fifth place and wins his next two. Christian was wrestling for fifth. He lost his first match that was tight, wins his next match, and goes for fifth place and he was in a battle with a kid that was very good too, at a tough weight at 157. Those guys, they’re up for the challenge, they know what they’re capable of. They’re a little upset with their first-round bouts, but the way they came back and won their next one and looked good and pushed forward and did what you expect your seasoned wrestlers to do.”

Monzo is hoping that their example of wrestling back from challenges will motivate his less experienced performers. As the new wrestlers adjust to being in the varsity lineup, they can lean on what they see from those who have been contributing for PHS for years.

“What we really look for with those guys is just some resiliency,” said Monzo. “We knew going in that there were going to be some very good kids at that tournament so if we got beat up, if we got beat in a match, we were looking for those guys to rebound. And when they rebound and wrestle well, it gives a bit of inspiration to the younger guys — this is what you need to do, you have to put your head down and go back to work and [think], ‘I can’t sit and sulk and dwell on the fact that I might have just gotten pinned or lost my first match or think the world is ending and it really isn’t.’ For these guys to see we’re all human, we figure it out, and we work little by little.”

There will be plenty of chances for the Tigers’ new wrestlers to contribute as they get deeper into the season. PHS will also be able to add their transfer heavyweight Afrifah, who was a region qualifier for J.P. Stevens, to shore up the lineup.

“He knows how to wrestle,” said Monzo. “He moves well. He’s a big kid. He’s a strong kid. He’s quick. So we’re excited to see what he can do on the mat. When that time comes, it’s going to be fun.”

His addition will help an area that has traditionally been harder for PHS to fill. Monzo sees a lineup with not only individuals that can stand out in tournaments, but the makeup to win enough weights to take dual meets.

“You have to be excited when you finally look at a lineup and you’re not giving up three or four forfeits,” said Monzo. “That’s really been our Achilles heel the last couple years. We haven’t been able to fill out the lineup so, we’ve relied on moving around kids and weighing kids in at different times and different spots. But this year we could be good. If we stay healthy, barring anything happening that we don’t plan on, we’ll see what happens. It’s going to be fun and it’s going to be exciting. These other teams in our conference and our division we get to see soon, and it’s always fun. The coaches are great, the kids are great, and the fans are great too. In our CVC and Mercer County, it’s exciting.”

The Tigers have garnered some attention as the favorites to repeat as Colonial champions. While they’re thrilled to receive that sort of compliment, they are also aware that nothing is a given in the CVC that looks more competitive this year. The early invitationals and early tests are helping to push them to a higher level to live up to the expectations.

“I know it’s going to be a dogfight in our conference,” said Monzo. “A couple of those teams are getting better, they looked better last year. They had some young guys excelling during the season and it’s going to come down to that one or two matches, those upsets, those young guys that might step in and pull a win off or lose a tight battle, score to stop a major. It’s always going to be something like that with our team. We’re always going to have some good kids and we’re going to have some young guys we have to put in the lineup, some new guys to put in and try to keep them from scoring big points against us.”