Nutley’s Pena finishes fourth in NJSIAA state championships

When Darwin Pena arrived in the United States in Nutley from his native Dominican Republic five years ago, he was intrigued in becoming a wrestler.

“I knew a little bit about wrestling because my cousin (Kenny) started a year before I got here,” Pena said. “I knew about it coming into this country. Kenny told me about wrestling. I was always athletic and loved competing. I figured it was something I could do together with Kenny.”

Pena said that he liked contact sports like mixed martial arts.

“I liked tae kwon do and boxing,” Pena said. “I like combat sports. But I had to learn a lot about wrestling.”

Amazingly, almost astonishingly, the kid who knew nothing about wrestling five years ago is now Nutley High School’s most decorated wrestler in 35 years.

Last Sunday at the NJSIAA state championships in Atlantic City, Pena finished fourth in the 152-pound classification, needing to win four matches on Saturday just to get to Sunday.

Pena became the first Nutley wrestler to stand that high on the podium since John Monaco won the state championship in 1981 before transferring to Clifton High.

In recent years, wrestlers like Bobby Trombetta, Joe Ferinde and Dante Montes enjoyed fine runs in Atlantic City, but only finished as high as sixth. Pena’s fourth place finish is the best since Monaco.

One of those four wins on Saturday came against Steve Bonsall of Newark Academy, who defeated Pena in the Essex County championships, the NJSIAA District 14 championship and the Region 4 championships.

“I really wanted to win that match,” Pena said of defeating Bonsall, 8-6, in the quarterfinals of the wrestleback round to move on in the tournament. “I heard the fourth time is a charm.”

“He avenged all three of those losses,” Nutley head coach Mike DiPiano said. “He needed that win to keep advancing up the podium. He had a great run on Saturday, winning four matches. When you lose early, it’s very hard to wrestle back. But that didn’t deter him.”

Pena got dropped down to the consolation wrestlebacks after losing in the quarterfinals to Lorenzo Ruggiero of Delsea by a 3-2 score.

Pena then started his ascent to the fourth place finish by defeating Colin Lex of Collingswood in a technical fall.

“He didn’t sit and sulk,” DiPiano said. “He just came back one match at a time. He was marching up the podium. He just got into a zone. After that first match, I noticed he was sharp and nailing his shots. I figured he was ready to go for it.”

Pena then defeated Aidan Monteverdi of Seton Hall Prep by a 5-3 score, then took care of Daniel Hedden of South Plainfield by a 5-2 score.

It set up the fateful showdown with Bonsall.

“I was really disappointed each time I lost to him,” Pena said. “In the district, he got a reversal in on me because I wasn’t listening to my coaches. Losing in the regions was just as bad, just like the other two times I lost to him. I really wanted to win this match.”
Sure enough, Pena earned the hard fought 8-6 decision to move up the ladder.

“I could see it in his eyes,” DiPiano said. “It was a huge win for him.”

Pena then defeated Avery DiNardi of Holy Cross by a 9-4 decision to get the right to wrestle for third place.

But Pena couldn’t find enough miracles to get third place, falling to Dominick Mandarino of Don Bosco Prep, 7-5, in the third place match.

Still, it was a great run for Pena to come all the way back. Second in the county, district and region and fourth in the entire state.

In the process, Pena earned the 100th win of his career. Not bad for someone who only wrestled varsity for three years.

“I knew I was going to feel it the next day,” Pena said of his exhausting climb up the podium. “I had my family and friends all there. When you’re wrestling, you just forget about being tired. You just keep wrestling.”

DiPiano, who took over coaching at Nutley this season, replacing his brother, Frank, who helped build the program, said that he was excited while watching Pena perform.

“For him to come to the country and pick up the sport like that is amazing,” DiPiano said. “He came to Frankie, not knowing anything. It was like a blank slate for Darwin. It was nice that he was able to put it all together. It really was a special weekend for him. He gets his 100th and he finishes fourth. You think of all the time and effort he put in. It’s really special. It’s really unbelievable and I’m extremely proud of him.”

Pena plans on wrestling in college.

“I want to continue wrestling,” Pena said. “I’ve come a long way. I don’t know how to answer, whether I saw myself here getting a medal on Medal Day. It means a lot to me.”
Queen of Peace had a good weekend at Boardwalk Hall as well, with three Golden Griffins coming home with medals for finishing among the top eight in their respective weight bracket.

Garrett Beam finished eighth in the same bracket as Pena, although the two never met.

Ray Wetzel also finished eighth, coming in the 120-pound bracket.

And Dominic Maniero was seventh in the 182-pound bracket, winning his final consolation round match.

For the Golden Griffins, who have come from the depths of extinction to making a mark on the state level, the three medal winners was huge for head coach Scot Weaver, who made a return to the sidelines after missing the district and region tournaments with a serious ailment.


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Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer

Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.

It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.

In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.

In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.

He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.

During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.

Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.

Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”