By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
A year ago, Joe Ferinde had to face the reality that he lost in the NJSIAA Region 4 wrestling finals.
At the same time, Jeff Velez was at another venue altogether, winning the Region 3 championship.
Last Saturday, Ferinde, the Nutley senior, and Velez, the Queen of Peace senior, were crowned as Region 4 champs at West Orange High School.
Ferinde, the top seed in the 126-pound class, defeated Kareem Askew of Clifton, 8-4, to earn his first Region championship. Ferinde also defeated former teammate Anthony DeLorenzo, now wrestling for Queen of Peace, 3-1, in the semifinals.
“I was the runner-up last year, so I really wanted to win this year,” said Ferinde, who improved to a stellar 35-2 after winning three matches in the Region 4 tourney. “Going into the tournament, I knew I was in one of the toughest weight classes. I knew I was going to have to battle.”
Velez, who won the Region 3 title last year wrestling for Brearley Regional, transferred to Queen of Peace this year to be with coach Scot Weaver.
Weaver formerly coached at Brearley, but decided to come back and restore the QP program that he initiated several years ago.
“Coach Weaver has helped me so much,” said Velez, who defeated Mauro Altamura of Hasbrouck Heights, 6-2, to claim the 195-pound championship. “I don’t know what I would do without him. I’m just blessed to have him as a coach.”
Velez spoke of the difficulty of leaving Brearley for QP in his senior year.
“It was very tough, leaving all my best friends behind and coming to a new school,” Velez said. “But it was the best decision for me down the road. It’s going to help me get back to Atlantic City.”
Both Ferinde and Velez are now headed to the NJSIAA state championships this weekend, along with the others who finished either second or third in their respective regions.
For Ferinde, it will be his third sojourn down the Garden State Parkway to compete with the state’s best grapplers. He qualified as a sophomore two years ago, but last year, he won three matches in Boardwalk Hall to finish eighth overall in the state at the same weight class (126).
Needless to say, Ferinde is pumped to get another chance at winning the elusive state championship.
“I feel better than I have all year,” Ferinde said. “Both mentally and physically, I feel great. It’s the end of the year for me and that’s when I really shine. I start getting better and better. That’s when I usually shine.”
Ferinde knows that winning a Region gold medal gives him a first-round bye Friday night in Boardwalk Hall.
“But I can’t look at it any differently,” Ferinde said. “I can’t be too relaxed. I have to be sharp, both physically and mentally. The goal all year was to get back to the podium in Atlantic City. I wanted to do better than I did last year. That’s my main goal, to keep getting better than I was the previous year. I’m really comfortable wrestling in Atlantic City. The atmosphere is amazing. I’m just going to let it fly.”
Ferinde hopes that a good performance this weekend could lead to a college offer. Right now, Ferinde is totally undecided about college. A few wins with the entire state watching might force a college coach to take notice.
Velez said that winning Region 4 was nothing different than winning Region 3, except for the competition being a little tougher.
“I had the same spirit and the same goals,” Velez said. “I just want to win every period, win every match and win the tournament. It really didn’t matter to me what Region I was in. I knew what I had to do. My weight class was pretty tough. Altamura gave me a tough match. I just had to go out there, wrestle and do my thing.”
Unlike Ferinde, Velez has some schools already chomping at the bit, namely Rider and Newberry, both with excellent wrestling programs.
“I have a couple of others, but I want to see what happens this weekend,” Velez said. “Going down there, I’m still going to be a little nervous. But I’m going to be me. I’m going to do what I have to do to win. I’m not going to be as nervous as I was last year. I’m just going to do my thing and make my mark.”
Velez was asked if he was totally healthy for the state tournament.
“I feel very strong right now and I feel good about the way I’ve been wrestling,” Velez said. “I keep getting better each and every week. I’m really excited for this week. I’ve been preparing myself all year for this weekend. I’m going to let it all go on the mat.”
Ferinde and Velez might have been the area’s only champions, but they are not the only local wrestlers to be headed to Atlantic City.
Nutley, led by Region 4 Coach of the Year Frank DiPiano, will have two wrestlers competing this weekend in Ferinde and Darwin Pena, who lost in the finals at 145 pounds.
Queen of Peace, headed by the aforementioned Weaver (a Lyndhurst native), will have four wrestlers on the mats in Atlantic City.
Besides Velez, the Golden Griffins will be represented by Mike Scaravelli, who lost in the finals at 132 pounds by a tough 6-4 decision to Matthew Rose of Hasbrouck Heights/ Wood-Ridge.
The Golden Griffins also have Ray Wetzel, the third place finisher at 120 pounds, and Joe Rocca, who was third at 152 pounds. The Golden Griffins just missed having another state qualifier, when Garrett Beam dropped his consolation round match at 138 pounds.
Three other locals just missed going to Atlantic City. Nutley’s Andrew Aiello lost in the consolation final at 160 pounds. Lyndhurst/North Arlington’s Devin Yunis lost in the semifinals at 120 pounds and Belleville’s Jordan Greene suffered a tough loss in the semifinals at 160.
So the local title hopes rest on the shoulders of Ferinde and Velez, two very capable wrestlers and two Region 4 champions.