By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
Tony Carratura Jr. vividly recalls the days when the Kearny Recreation youth wrestling program was a strong and solid commodity.
After all, the younger Carratura was part of a program that his father, Kearny High School head wrestling coach Tony Sr., was an integral part of initiating.
“I wrestled with the Kearny Rec a long time ago,” said Carratura Jr., who went on to wrestle at Kearny High for his father before he became a guidance counselor at Lincoln School.
“We once had more than 100 kids in the program, but wrestling had been down for a couple of years,” the younger Carratura said. “We wanted to boost it back up again.”
Brian McDonnell, a former Kearny High wrestling and cross country standout and current teacher, became involved with coaching wrestling with the younger kids, before he became an assistant with the older Carratura with the Kearny varsity.
“Brian did a great job in getting the youth program going,” Carratura Jr. said. “We just wanted to keep it going.”
Carratura Jr. said that the Kearny Rec program has a solid group of dedicated coaches, like Joe Chew, Andrew Plaugic, Kevin Vega, Charlie Wallentine, Dallas Sanchez, Nick Machado and Miguel Matos, some of whom are products of the Kearny Rec program themselves.
“It’s a close-knit group of coaches,” he said. “They’ve been great, spending a lot of time with the kids. They’ve been a big help.”
The Kearny Rec program embarked on a new challenge this season, joining a highly competitive league.
“We entered the Tri-County League, going up against great wrestling programs like Roxbury and Jefferson,” Carratura said. “We go out as a team and wrestle as a team (not individuals). This league promotes high school wrestling at a younger again and gets the kids prepared to wrestle in high school. We might have taken our lumps a little, but I could see a change in the kids as well as their parents. We’re building a wrestling culture once again and it seems to be working.”
The program has almost 60 kids of grade school age participating and competing.
Of those kids, 14 received medals recently at state qualifying tournaments and six have moved on to the state tournament this weekend in Trenton.
“The future is definitely very bright,” Carratura said. “The kids are definitely into the sport and so are their parents. It’s been a great year.”
Jacob Cardenas, Jimmy Mullen and Travis Witt all won recent regional tournament gold medals in order to move on to the states.
Cardenas, a 136-pound seventh grader, is a skilled wrestler.
“He’s a finesse wrestler,” Carratura said of Cardenas. “He’s one of the most technical wrestlers around.”
Witt is a 146-pound seventh grader.
“He’s a brawler,” Carratura said of Witt, who comes from a strong family of wrestlers. “He’s just a beast. He’s a very physical wrestler.”
Mullen is one of the most impressive stories. He’s only in third grade and weighs 118 pounds, but he constantly competes against kids much older.
“Jimmy is just a big, strong kid,” Carratura said. “He had some tough matches this season, so he had to learn to be more technical and rely on making moves. He can’t just overpower people now. You can see the difference in him as a wrestler.”
Mullen has dominated on the youth level, winning a state title a year ago in his age bracket. He has a very bright future.
Jacob Baeza finished third at the regional tourney in the 85-pound class to punch his ticket to the state tourney. Baeza is in fifth grade.
“He just got better as the year went on,” Carratura said. “He’s best when he’s on his feet.”
David Duran (the 100-pound class) and Adam Chew (105-pound class) earned berths in the state tourney after competing in a qualifier tournament in Fair Lawn on Sunday.
To have six kids competing for the right to be a state champion is an amazing accomplishment for the Kearny Recreation program.
“I’m so happy,” Carratura, said. “They really exceeded any expectations I had. It’s also great that we’re getting the parents involved. We’ve had long practices and matches that take place an hour away, but the parents are there.”
Carratura said that the program will continue through the spring and summer at Lincoln School.
“We want to continue it all year round,” Carratura said. “We’re working on a summer workout schedule right now. We’re also getting younger kids, like 6-and-7-year-old kids involved.”
Needless to say, Carratura has enjoyed the rebirth of the youth program.
“I deal with kids all day long at Lincoln School,” Carratura said. “It’s great to have them in a different environment.”
And getting the chance to expand that environment throughout the state of New Jersey – and quite possibly, beyond.