By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
After finishing second at the 2012 NJSIAA Region 4 wrestling championships, Brandon Keena wanted to get a taste of what it was like to be a champion.
“I realized I was lazy and careless,” Keena said. “I would always make an excuse.”
So Keena decided to take the next step and join a wrestling club, where he could work out regularly with some of the best wrestlers in the state. The Nutley High School senior signed up with the APEX Wrestling Club in Kenilworth.
“It was the best thing I could have done for myself,” Keena said. “I had signed up for APEX before, but I hardly went. After what happened last year, losing in the Region, then losing in the first round of the state tournament, I didn’t want that to happen again. I knew I had to be more dedicated to the sport. I knew I had to get better.”
Keena certainly dedicated himself, because he would somehow find the time with football and wrestling practices at Nutley, and his school work, to be able to go to Kenilworth four times a week.
“It was tough, but I knew it was something I had to do,” said Keena, who was a starting middle linebacker in football. “I absolutely became more serious in the sport. That helped.”
Nutley wrestling coach Frank DiPiano saw the difference in Keena.
“I was very impressed,” DiPiano said. “He was definitely taking an all-out approach and doing everything he had to do to win. That’s his dedication to the sport.”
That dedication paid major dividends last weekend, when Keena won the 160-pound championship at the Region 4 tournament in West Orange.
Keena pinned Sean Roesing of Secaucus in 1:04 to earn the gold medal and a bye in the opening round of the NJSIAA state championships in Atlantic City this weekend.
“I went into the Region as the No. 1 seed and I didn’t want to get upset,” Keena said. “I finished second last year, so there was definitely a motivation to pull this one out and finally win.”
For his efforts, Keena has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week.
“I wanted to win because I wanted a better seed at the states,” said Keena, who received the No. 4 seed in the 160-pound weight class for this weekend at Boardwalk Hall.
Keena said that playing football in the fall helped him to prepare for the wrestling season.
“Competing and getting in shape always helps,” Keena said. “I think it translates well from football to wrestling.”
Teammates Vin Mainiero and Pete Burbank are also football players who wrestle.
“We talk about that at times, going from sport to sport,” Keena said. “Football is a different sport than wrestling and it’s a different season, but I think it gets me ready.”
However, Keena weighed 185 during the football season. It had to be hard to cut the weight to get down to 160.
“Actually, it wasn’t that bad,” Keena said. “I met with a nutritionist at APEX and they put me on a meal plan. I was able to cut the weight through practices and working out. I was able to handle it.”
Keena began the season wrestling at 170 pounds and suffered two losses at that weight.
“But I think that made him tougher and made him a better wrestler,” DiPiano said. “We were all doing it to get ready for the end of the year. It was all part of the plan. Now that he’s won, he just has to stay on the path.”
And Keena is a no-nonsense wrestler. He just does his thing, without much style or substance. He’s like a bluecollar worker who comes onto the mat, only missing his metal lunch box and hard hat. He doesn’t mess around.
“He just does what he has to do,” DiPiano said. “It might not be pretty, but you can’t complain about the results.”
Keena is also an excellent student, carrying a 3.7 grade point average and a score of 1410 on the Scholastic Aptitude Tests. He has already been accepted by West Virginia, East Stroudsburg and Johnson & Wales, but he’s waiting to see what his future holds.
“I don’t know yet if I want to wrestle in college,” Keena said. “I’m still undecided about a lot of things. I’m not sure right now.”
Keena definitely wants to major in business and real estate in college. His mother, Donna, is a real estate agent.
“She always tells me about the market and that got me interested,” Keena said.
Keena is pleased with being a region champ.
“I’m definitely happy and it feels real good,” Keena said. “Thank God, I feel pretty good. The goal is for me to be on the podium in Atlantic City Sunday. The beginning of the year, I was ranked No. 5 in the state, but I lost a few matches when I went up a weight. Now, there will be two guys in Atlantic City who beat me. Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to see them. But this feels great and I’m ready, even though I’m in a tough weight class. I got what I wanted in winning the region.”
But now, Keena wants more – like a state championship.
Three of Keena’s teammates are headed to Atlantic City as well, namely 120-pounder Bobby Trombetta, who finished second in the Region 4 tourney, 182-pounder Mainiero, who also finished second and 113-pounder Joe Ferinde, who finished third.
There was no official team score at the Region 4 tournament, but if there was, Nutley would have finished second behind St. Peter’s Prep.
“It’s good to know that,” DiPiano said. “It’s a good feeling we’re sending four to Atlantic City. Keena right now is an absolutely focused wrestler.”
And Keena is determined to get a chance to be on that podium with the state medal winners come Sunday afternoon.