By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
Is there a doubt about what the prominent winter sport is in the area?
There shouldn’t be now, especially after three of the local wrestling teams from The Observer circulation area (out of a possible five) have earned berths into the prestigious and perennially tough NJSIAA state sectionals this week.
That’s right, three local teams, namely Nutley, the Lyndhurst/North Arlington cooperative and Queen of Peace have all punched their respective tickets to the state sectional playoffs with the hope of being crowned a Group team champion by the end of the week, when the championships are held at the Sun National Bank Arena in Trenton.
For now, let’s start with what we know for sure.
Nutley earned the second seed in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III bracket, one of the toughest sectionals in New Jersey. The Maroon Raiders (20-3) earned a bye in the sectional and will play host Wednesday (weather permitting) to the winner of the West Essex match against another of the local qualifiers, Lyndhurst/North Arlington.
The Maroon Raiders have enjoyed a complete metamorphosis this season, going from a 10-17 team a year ago to a 20-3 powerhouse this season.
“It’s a credit to all the hard work the kids put in,” said Nutley head coach Frank DiPiano. “Our goals this year were to win the (Super Essex Conference) American Division title, the county and get to the states. Well, for us to come back from 10-17 and have this kind of year is huge. We’re doing it with a lot of the same guys as well.”
Senior Joe Ferinde has been a major stud for the Maroon Raiders. Ferinde has a 26-2 record thus far, with his lone losses coming against potential state contenders.
“He’s our captain and he wrestles hard all the time,” said DiPiano of Ferinde, who finished eighth in the state last year.
Junior Robert Duxbury owns a 28-2 record, making a huge jump in weight classes from 106 pounds last year to 132 pounds this year.
“I expected him to do well, but I didn’t think this well,” DiPiano said. “He has never let the size thing get in his mind. He’s a hard-nosed kid.”
Senior Kenny Pena represents the improvement more than any other wrestler. Pena was 11-13 overall last year as a junior and now he owns a 27-2 mark.
“His work ethic is second to none,” DiPiano said of Kenny Pena. “He’s become committed to the sport tremendously and spent a lot of his free time on the mat.”
Incredibly, Pena was ready to walk away from wrestling for good two years ago, because he didn’t see improvement.
“He quit, but I told him to take a couple days to think about it,” DiPiano said. “He did and came back more committed.”
Junior Darwin Pena is another vastly improved wrestler. A cousin of Kenny, Darwin Pena has a 28-2 record.
“I don’t think they’re overachieving,” DiPiano said. “I knew they all would be good. These are guys who were proven wrestlers.”
However, there has been some startling improvements from others, like senior Andrew Aiello, who had a 4-22 record last year and this year, he owns a 25-5 mark.
“He’s grown up a lot over the year and it all just finally clicked for him,” DiPiano said.
Two freshmen have also contributed right away in 106-pounder Frank Gabriele, who has come in and learned the system and Frank De- Maio, whose father, Frank Sr. runs the Nutley Recreation wrestling program. The two Franks have pleased the head coach Frank.
“Frankie DeMaio has had a tremendous year,” DiPiano said. “He’s behind two seniors, but he’s found the time to get into the lineup and done well. Frankie Gabriele came through the Recreation program and adjusted real well.”
Lyndhurst/North Arlington was a moribund program without a state sectional playoff berth since 2000. But third-year head coach Mike Goff has turned things around and people in both towns are getting excited about the team’s progress.
“It’s a good thing,” Goff said. “We have things moving in the right direction. The kids are working hard all year and it’s paid off. It’s definitely a good feeling to qualify.”
Goff will take his team to face perennial state sectional participant West Essex.
“One of the goals this year was to make the sectionals,” Goff said. “I thought it was a reasonable goal. I knew that these kids work hard in the classroom and in the wrestling room. They definitely deserve this.”
Junior Devin Yunis has the highest win total among the Lyndhurst/North Arlington wrestlers with a 22-8 mark. Andrew Fernandez and Matt DeMarco both have 20 wins already this season. It’s hard to remember another Lyndhurst team that had three wrestlers with 20 or more wins this early in a season.
“It’s definitely a good first step,” said Goff, whose team prepared for the state sectional with wins last weekend over East Orange Campus and Kinnelon. “Whatever happens with West Essex, we definitely took the first step this year.”
The third local qualifier is Queen of Peace, which returned to competitive wrestling this year after a brief hiatus.
Still, the idea of a basically brand new program qualifying for the NJSIAA Non-Public B bracket is still amazing.
“It’s very gratifying,” said Scot Weaver, who returned to QP this season after a brief stint at Brearley Regional in Kenilworth and guided the Golden Griffins back to the state playoffs in the first year of his return. “The entire school and the community are behind it. The student body is cheering for their classmates. There are a lot of good things going on with the future of the QP wrestling program.”
The Golden Griffins will play host to Pingry in the opening round of the Non- Public B bracket Wednesday night at 7 p.m.
Weaver was asked if he was worried about whether he would field a competitive team this year.
“I really was concerned, but I’m always concerned,” Weaver said. “When I took the job, we had no wrestlers, no roster, no place to practice. All we had were some incoming freshmen.”
The Golden Griffins also secured a host of transfers, including senior Jeff Velez (24-5), who was a region champion last year at Brearley.
“He’s become a good teammate and a very good wrestler for us,” Weaver said.
Another solid competitor is senior Anthony DeLorenzo, who has won 25 and lost just once this season. DeLorenzo is a Nutley native who transferred to QP after a falling out with the Nutley coaches.
Senior Joe Rocca (24-6) transferred in from Saddle Brook.
Junior Mike Scaravelli (21-4) and 106-pound freshman Enrique Sanchez of North Arlington (25-3) have been excellent additions to Weaver’s once-again fledgling program.
Weaver knows that his team will more than likely see state-ranked DePaul in the second round.
“DePaul is as rock solid as they come,” Weaver said. “We’re going to have our hands full with them. But in terms of being competitive, we’re going to be right there. We’re ecstatic about being there. I’m happy to be where I am. We have a new (wrestling) room built and the kids are happy about being there. It’s all just a good thing.”
And it’s good for local high school sports to have three teams competing for a state wrestling team title.
Bloomfield is also a state playoff team, with the Bengals facing Clifton in the opening round of the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV playoffs.