By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
For 14 years now, as the head coach, Tony Carratura has dedicated his entire life to the Kearny High School wrestling program. Take that one step better, Carratura lives for the sport of wrestling in Kearny. It doesn’t stop with just the Kardinals’ varsity program.
“I want the kids to love the sport as much as I do,” Carratura said. However, it’s not easy. Participation numbers are way down. Not just in Kearny, but all over New Jersey.
“The numbers the last few years have gone down,” Carratura admits. “It’s an uphill battle. We’re starting from scratch again.” That’s why Carratura has enlisted the help of his son, Tony Jr., a counselor at Lincoln School, to help with the seventh and eighth grade programs.
“I think we have an excellent area for wrestling,” Carratura said. “This is just a start.” So having an inexperienced varsity team is something Carratura is not accustomed to.
“It makes you a better coach,” Carratura said. “I’ve been plucking kids out of the hallways and the weight room and trying to turn them into wrestlers. The majority of our team has only two years of experience. We have only four seniors. We’re up against a lot of obstacles. We’re trying to build up the program again.”
It doesn’t mean that Carratura is taking his team this season and hiding in a corner somewhere. Carratura firmly believes that inexperienced wrestlers become better wrestlers when they compete. And Carratura certainly lets the Kardinals compete, taking them on a grappling sojourn all over the state, match after grueling match.
For the last several years, Carratura has booked some of the top wrestling teams in the state – and this year is no exception, even with the inexperience and the lack of quality numbers.
“We’re still going to go after it,” Carratura said. “We want to stay as competitive as we’ve always been. It’s hard to do with the numbers, but we have about 25 kids who are there every day, busting their tail to get better. It’s a dedication sport and you have to be dedicated in order to do it well. We all have to work together to bring all of our sports programs back at Kearny, not just wrestling.”
Carratura believes that the Kardinals are about to turn the corner.
“We want to have kids who love the sport,” Carratura said. “No doubt about it, the kids are working hard. They want to be there.”
Carratura always has the assistance of dedicated coach Rich Stacey, who has been with Carratura for over a decade. But this year, former Kardinal standout wrestler and cross country runner Brian McDonnell (a recent inductee into the Kearny High School Athletic Hall of Fame) has joined the coaching staff.
“Brian is a great addition, because he’s been wrestling with me since he was eight years old,” Carratura said. “Rich has been with me for 12 years. We have a good staff and absolutely, that’s the first step.”
Senior Wilker Villacorta is the Kardinals’ 106-pound wrestler.
“It’s only his second year of varsity wrestling, but he won 18 matches last year,” Carratura said. “He was a soccer player, so he’s a good athlete. When he first came out, he didn’t know what to do, but he’s come a long way. I expect big things from him this season.”
Villacorta has won five matches already this season and placed fifth in his weight class at the recent Bloomfield Invitational tournament.
Junior Diego Poma and senior Angel Rodriguez share the 113 and 120-pound classes. The two are interchangeable, depending upon the opponent and their weight loss before the match.
“They flip back and forth,” Carratura said. “It’s a good option to have there. Poma is long and lanky and good with his legs. Rodriguez is more of a brawler. But they’re both doing a good job.”
At 126 pounds, the Kardinals welcome a newcomer in junior Josh Guerrero, who transferred to Kearny from New York earlier this year.
“He wrestled before, so that’s a help,” Carratura said. “He has good technique. He’s the most technical kid we have. He’s well on his way and I think he’s going to be a big surprise for us.”
Guerrero took third in the recent Kearny Holiday Invitational tourney.
Senior James Hodnet is the 132-pounder. Hodnet is perhaps the Kardinals’ most experienced wrestler, having been part of the team for the last three years. Hodnet finished fourth at the NJSIAA District 16 tournament last February and was fifth in the recent Bloomfield tourney.
At 138 pounds, junior Juan Lamboy returns. Lamboy was a newcomer last year, but he’s made strides already this season, finishing third in the Kearny tourney and fifth at Bloomfield.
“Last year, he was still green and learning the sport,” Carratura said. “This year, he’s improved and doing well.”
At 145 and 152 pounds, Carratura is using freshmen Cesar Fernandez and Justin Baeza are bouncing back and forth, depending on who makes weight.
“They both did well in the Bloomfield tournament and they show a lot of promise,” Carratura said.
Senior Luis Cornejo is the team’s 160-pounder. Cornejo is a complete novice to the sport.
“He’s just coming out for the team for the first time,” Carratura said. “He’s been there every day, as dedicated as the rest. He’s doing well.”
The Kardinals have two youngsters filling the slots at 171 and 182 pounds in sophomores Chase McMillan and Thomas Presblyski.
Senior Gio Diaz returns at 195 pounds. Diaz was a newcomer to the sport last year.
“He told me that he should have come out earlier and he could have been better,” Carratura said.
Junior Piero Ugaza is the team’s 220-pounder. Ugaza is also wrestling for the very first time.
The Kardinals have a busy slate, with more than 30 dual meet dates already set. Carratura always looks to add more as the season moves on.
“We’re competing all the time,” Carratura said. “We have quads (quadrangular meets with four teams participating) every Saturday. It’s a complete schedule. But we’re going to be well prepared for the (NJSIAA) Districts (16, in late February). We’re going to be ready. I just want to see them keep moving forward, keep making progress. We have kids who are there every day, dedicated to the sport, doing what they need to do”
And keep the sport of wrestling alive in a town where wrestling has always been a staple of the community.