February 21, 2024

PHS Junior Monga Earns Trip to Region 5 Wrestling, Making Great Strides After Nearly Quitting the Sport

GETTING A LEG UP: Princeton High wrestler Danny Monga, right, battles a foe in a bout earlier this season. Last Saturday, junior Monga took third at 120 pounds at the District 17 tourney at Middletown South to earn a berth to the Region 5 tournament this coming weekend at Franklin High. Monga will be joined at the Region competition by teammates Cole Rose (126), Blasé Mele (138), Christian Paul (157), and Kwabena Afrifah (285). (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

Danny Monga made the podium at the District 17 wrestling tournament on Saturday to earn a berth to the Region 5 tournament.

The Princeton High junior thought about quitting at times last season, his first year back on the mats since wrestling in sixth and seventh grade. He’s glad that he stuck with it to be among the five PHS wrestlers to reach regions that begin Friday with first round and quarterfinals and continue Saturday with the remainder of the tournament at Franklin High.

“It feels amazing,” said Monga after placing third at 120 pounds. “I feel like I got a lot better since last season. It was a goal I’ve had since last year. I’m excited to hit it before senior year.”

A reshuffle of the bracket gave Monga the third seed. He had been confident even as the original fourth seed that he’d have a chance in the consolation match. Monga opened with a first-period pin of Pratham Satti of West Windsor-Plainsboro High South.

“It was somebody I’ve wrestled two or three times before,” said Monga. “I beat him all three times, so I knew I could beat him. I had a lot of confidence going in. I knew as long as I didn’t get sloppy I knew could win.”

Monga fell to Anthony Drake of Manville in the semifinals, and that forced him to the win-or-go-home consolation. Monga got some unexpected support.

“What actually helped me,” said Monga, “was the kid who beat me. After the match he came up to me and said, ‘The kid you have next, he’s not that good and I know you can beat him. You’re better than him.’ That definitely helped me. I just really wanted it. I really wanted to place.”

Facing Carter Arias of Bound Brook in the consolation match, Monga picked up two points with a takedown midway through the first period. Arias chose bottom to start the second period and Monga rode him out, but two stall calls gave Arias a point. Monga got another takedown in the third period and surrendered a meaningless escape in the closing seconds for a 4-2 win.

“Right after I beat the kid, when I was still on the mat, I don’t know what was going through my head,” said Monga. “I just ended like it was a normal match. Then as I was walking off, I realized, ‘Oh shoot, I just qualified.’ That’s when I got excited.”

Five PHS wrestlers qualified for regions by placing in the top three at districts. It was as strong a showing as the Tigers have had in recent years.

“The crazy thing about that is we were missing two of our best guys due to injury,” said Monga. “I think if they were there, we might have had seven. It’s really cool to see all my teammates making it in such a hard district. I got a little lucky with my bracket, but the rest of my teammates had super difficult brackets. We had the No. 1 team in the state (Delbarton) in our district, and we still had four other guys qualify, even after a bit of a down season — we didn’t have a winning record, although we had some people missing for some matches.”

PHS went into districts without Chase Hamerschlag and Noah Kassas after both suffered injuries in the last two weeks. The Tigers made the most of their healthy contingent to place fourth in there team standings at districts as they scored 90 pints with Delbarton taking first with 329.

“I don’t know the last time Princeton has brought five, we haven’t brought five to the regions since I’ve been here.” said PHS coach Jess Monzo. “We’re moving in the right direction. Every year we’re getting a little better, we’re getting a little more competitive. Our younger guys are really starting to like it and wrestle more. When some of these guys first came in, they weren’t doing any offseason wrestling and offseason training. Now they’re looking for the next time to get back on the mat, which is tremendous. It says a lot about who they are as people too. They’re not just doing it to put it on their resume. They’re doing it because they’re starting to like it, they’re starting to love it, they’re starting to live it. It’s tremendous.”

Monga was the least experienced of the PHS wrestlers to qualify. Junior Blasé Mele, who reached the state championships last year, finished second at 138 pounds. Mele cruised into the finals on back-to-back pins in under a minute each before falling to top-seeded Jayden James of Delbarton, 9-4.

“We had a really good day on the mat, not too many matches, not too long on the mat before we wrestled in the finals,” said Monzo. “Unfortunately it didn’t go our way. There’s been a lot of talk about the kid from Delbarton, as he took third in the state last year and he’s currently ranked very high in the nation and ranked No. 1 in the state tournament. He’s probably one if not the best kid we’ve seen all year. We wrestled to a 4-5 point match and we were in it until the end. Coming off the mat, he was upset but we kind of said, you felt it, you felt him, and you know what he does and we have to go back to the drawing board and figure a way to reverse this decision.”

Senior transfer Kwabena Afrifah, competing at 285, also finished second. Afrifah was seeded third, and after a pin he won a 6-5 decision over Daniel Steller of Bound Brook to reach the finals where he lost to top-seeded Connor Martin of Delbarton.

“Kwabena wrestled a really good tournament,” said Monzo. “We wrestled some big guys that were close to our size. I still think he’s been the heaviest person on the mat at all times when he’s wrestled this year. He did exactly what he needed to do. He won the matches he needed to win, he didn’t put too much pressure on himself throughout the day. And unfortunately we ended up taking second when we ran into a talented kid from Delbarton.”

Cole Rose placed third at 126 pounds. The junior earned a quick pin before a hard-fought 2-0 loss to Ethan Delacruz of Bound Brook in the semifinals. A state qualifier a year ago, Rose showed his mental resilience by coming back to pin Rex Peters to earn a return trip to regions.

“You let it go because if you sit and dwell on a loss in a sport like wrestling, it’s tough to execute the next thing if you’re still focused on what happened a half-hour ago,” said Monzo. “You can’t figure out the puzzle in front of you if you’re worried about the last puzzle that just passed. We had to sit back, refocus and get the next best thing. We went into the tournament looking to win it. We had a setback and when that happens you have to do the next best thing. The next best thing was to take third. At this time of the game, in order to get to the state tournament, I’ve got to advance and the only way to advance is to come back from sometimes that loss that’s going to haunt me a bit.”

In addition, Christian Paul fought to place third place at 157. The senior won by major decision before losing the semifinal to Carl Betz of Delbarton. Paul bounced back with a 10-4 decision over West Windsor-Plainsboro High North’s Evan de Jong in the consolation match.

“He went after the Delbarton kid, he wrestled well,” said Monzo. “We got hung up and then we had to do what Cole did. We had do the next best thing, we had to take third. We had a kid that we had wrestled earlier in the year that we had beat so I think it gave us confidence going into that match knowing I wrestled him before and I was able to score when I wanted to, I was able to do the things I wanted to do. I’m going to feel good and I’m going to do the things I wanted to do in order to advance.”

The PHS quintet is looking to extend their promising seasons. Mele is 33-3 and looking for a medal at states. Rose is 29-8 and in the same boat at a higher weight class this year. Paul is 25-9 and looking for his first trip to the state tournament at Atlantic City, and Afrifah is also hoping to make his first trip to AC after a 20-3 season. Monga is 18-15 and looking to add to his strong finish.

“I’m pretty excited,” said Monga. “I know it’s definitely going to be some very tough competition. I’m going to try as hard as I possibly can, push the pace, try to stay fast and stay sharp.”

Monga has been on a steady rise over the last two years. He did not wrestle while focusing on his academics his eighth grade and freshman year, taking accelerated AP courses. The next year, he began considering a return to wrestling.

“Sophomore year I started getting to the gym and lifting more,” said Monga. “I noticed I had more free time on my hands and during the winter I thought I should join the wrestling team.”

Monga wrestled on the JV team all year. As such, he did not compete in last year’s district tournament. The return to the intense training required of wrestlers after so much time off was challenging.

“I definitely did think about quitting a couple times,” said Monga.

It wasn’t all roses this year for Monga either. He didn’t place at the Mercer County Tournament, falling just short in a wrestleback semifinals. But some of the setbacks only pushed him to work harder over the last few weeks.

“I guess I really hated losing,” said Monga. “One recent match we had, I lost at the very end of the meet and we lost the meet by one point. That one motivated me to just get as good as I possibly could and push harder.”

Monga started to see some positive changes down the stretch. He’d been doing more cardio workouts for this season, and eating better than usual, and he enjoyed some of his greatest success over the final weeks.

“I think towards the last five or six matches, it really kicked into gear,” said Monga. “I started trying as hard as I possibly can in the practice room. I noticed my stamina gradually getting better. I can last longer. In the beginning of the season, I didn’t have super high expectations but I started off decently. I gradually got better and got more dialed in.”

Now Monga is a success story to share with less experienced PHS wrestlers. He is proving that hard work pays off, even if it comes a little later.

“Every day he’s getting better, we’re thoroughly impressed,” said Monzo. “He’s one of the guys in the room that’s starting to step up as well, not just show up on the mat. He’s doing the right thing, leading by example, some of the younger guys that he’s mentoring are following his footsteps. There’s a neat little front head stuff that he does that we pointed out that he’s been doing and working on and exceeding on, and more guys are jumping on the bandwagon of doing what Danny’s doing because it’s working for him. Now it’s working for others.”

The district success is also motivating Monga to push harder. He will do the best he can at regions, and he is ready for the chance to build on his third-place district finish when the season does finally end.

“This year I plan to work much, much harder in the offseason, be one of the top wrestlers on our team next year,” said Monga. “Last year I did a wrestling club twice a week, but sometimes I didn’t go. It wasn’t that consistent. This offseason I plan to be super consistent and try to get as much work in as possible.”