It was the first week of December and the Kearny High School wrestling team was just making preparations for the upcoming season.
That’s when the team learned the devastating news that Tony Carratura, the long-time head varsity coach and father of the Kearny wrestling program on all levels, had lost his battle to throat cancer at the young age of 57.
The idea was that Carratura was eventually going to recover from his illness and would return as head coach. Brian McDonnell, the assistant coach, was just going to keep the seat warm for Carratura and wait for his return.
It didn’t happen.
McDonnell then had to be the permanent head coach. No need for the interim tag that McDonnell held last year.
“That first day of practice was the hardest day for anyone to get on the mat,” McDonnell said. “I have to give the kids credit, because they got out there and did what Tony would have wanted us to do. We knew we had to make it work.”
Coming into the season, McDonnell knew that Carratura’s condition had worsened.
“I spoke to him a lot and I knew he wasn’t going to be able to be out on the mat,” McDonnell said. “But I thought he would be on the sidelines. His health was his priority, no question, but he knew that we had high hopes for this season and he wanted to be a part of it.”
But now, Carratura’s gone and McDonnell has to be the one to pick up the pieces.
“The kids responded well to it,” McDonnell said. “They took responsibility for themselves. The kids who knew Tony well chose to honor him and wrestle in his memory. They wanted to do whatever they could to make him proud.”
McDonnell said that it was an emotional struggle for him having to take over officially.
“We always knew I was being groomed for this role,” said McDonnell, who was a three-sport athlete during his days at Kearny and wrestled for Carratura, winning district and regional titles. “I wrestled for him and coached with him for 12 years with the Kearny Rec (Recreation) program and the high school. He wanted the program to go from him to me, so it worked out well.”
Still, it was emotional.
“He was like a father figure to me,” said McDonnell, whose father, Bob, is the Kearny High School boys’ head basketball coach. “It was incredibly emotional losing Tony. That first practice, we all tried to get the emotions out. I think that set the tone for the season. We knew we had to do all the little things to have a good team. We just needed to get through the emotional times.”
For the last few years, Carratura talked about the promise of the Kearny program, how it was going to be competitive and strong once the younger wrestlers grew into their proper age and weight classes. Carratura bragged of how good Kearny would be. He had an incredible sense of pride in the way the program was turning, both on the high school and recreational levels.
“The goals never changed,” McDonnell said. “We were planning for this for about two or three years now. Tony taught me well. He said, ‘It’s your job now. You have to do it. This is what has to be done.’ I’m only carrying out his wishes.”
The Kardinals had a tough start to the dual meet season, but rebounded well last week to win five straight matches against Fort Lee, Union City, Lyndhurst/North Arlington, Livingston and Orange.
“We hadn’t beaten Union City in years,” McDonnell said. “The kids were doing what they were supposed to do. We knew that we had a big picture planned.”
With the five victories, the Kardinals now own a 6-5 record and have catapulted themselves into the picture for an NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group V playoff berth in a couple of weeks.
“We have about 26 dual meets scheduled, so the kids are going to keep busy,” McDonnell said. “We’re going every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. We want to keep the wrestlers on top and focused our attention on getting in (into the state sectionals) every day.”
Looking at the Kardinals’ lineup, sophomore Steven Silva returns to his spot at 106 pounds.
“He owns an 11-2 record right now,” McDonnell said of Silva. “He’s one of our top guys. We were hoping that he would take a step up this year and he’s done that.”
Freshman Vincent Ruccatana is the team’s 113-pounder.
“He’s doing well,” McDonnell said. “He’s doing what he needs to do. He’s competitive in every match and gives us a chance to win.”
Junior Kevin Rubio is the 120-pounder.
“He had a rough couple of weeks to start the season, but he’s been vastly improved over the last couple of weeks.”
Junior Logan Mallory is a newcomer to the sport, wrestling in only his second year. David Duran is a 132-pound freshman from the Kearny Recreation program.
“He’s going to be one of our building blocks for the next few years,” McDonnell said of Duran.
Artie Smith is a 138-pound junior.
“He has had the toughest schedule of anyone,” McDonnell said. “I’m hoping for big things from him.”
Junior Chris Lopez is the team’s 145-pounder. He’s a transfer from St. Mary’s of Rutherford, which dropped its wrestling program.
“He’s much better than he was last year,” McDonnell said. “It’s like night and day how much he’s improved.”
Sophomore Travis Witt is the team’s 152-pounder. Witt was thrown into contention last year as a freshman.
“He seems to be firing on all cylinders by the start of the season,” McDonnell said of Witt, who was second in District 16 last year. “He’s solid.”
Justin Baeza is a senior captain and the Kards’ 160-pounder.
“I feel like I’ve been coaching him since he was born,” McDonnell said. “He’s an incredibly good defensive wrestler and we’re getting him to be more aggressive on his feet.”
Junior Chris Cruz and senior Alberto Perez are switching back and forth between 170 and 182 pounds, depending upon the opponent.
“Chris doesn’t have an off switch,” McDonnell said. “He just goes and goes and gives 100 percent. Alberto is an aggressive wrestler who once he has something in his head, he goes and does it.”
Senior captain Lukasz Glazewski is the team’s regular 182-pounder and probably is the team’s best wrestler.
“He’s 12-1 right now and looking to pin everyone he faces,” McDonnell said. “He’s doing exactly what we ask of him. He gets out there, does his job and gets off the mat.”
Last Friday, in the win against Fort Lee, Glazewski registered a pin in just seven seconds.
Sebastian Walters is the team’s senior 195-pounder. It’s Walters’ first year as a competitor, so he’s just trying to stay off his back.
“But he’s doing well,” McDonnell said. “He works very hard at it.”
Freshman Andrew Mauricio is the team’s 220-pounder. That’s a tough task to ask a freshman to compete in such a competitive weight class, where the opponents all look like grown men.
“He’s one of the most enjoyable kids to watch,” McDonnell said. “He’s aggressive and he’s just a tough, tough kid. He’s non-stop for six minutes. I think we’re going to be talking a lot about him over the next few years.”
Junior Paul Sadeski is the team’s heavyweight. Sadeski, who plays football as well at Kearny, did not wrestle last year.
“He has a big learning curve,” McDonnell said. “We’re being very patient with his development.”
For the first year in a long time, the Kardinals have a full roster. They will not forfeit any weight classes this season.
“I was just talking to (assistant coach) Rich Stacey about that,” McDonnell said. “We have 35 kids in the program. Our numbers are way up. I think other kids see what we’re doing and want to be a part of our program.”
The Kardinals are fighting hard to make the state playoffs.
“We know what we have to do,” McDonnell said. “We want to qualify the old way, when there were only six in the bracket.”
The NJSIAA changed things this year to add two teams to the state sectionals. They also revamped the districts, putting Kearny in District 11 in Morristown with powerhouse programs like Phillipsburg, Belvidere and nationally ranked Hanover Park. Queen of Peace is also in that same district.
“Still, we have high hopes for this team,” McDonnell said. “We have to see where it all plays out.”
Next week, the Kardinals will head to the Hudson County Duals at Union City with a hope of winning.
“It used to be that the districts were like the county tournament, but no more,” McDonnell said. “It’s not like a warm-up for the Districts anymore.”
But the Kardinals have hopes for the year to come. Carratura wouldn’t want it any other way.
Justin Baeza is a 160-pound senior and captain of the Kearny High School wrestling team. Photo by Jim Hague
Lukasz Glazewski is the Kardinals’ 182-pounder and another captain. Glazewski has just one loss to date. Photo by Jim Hague
Learn more about the writer ...
Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, a place where he has served on and off since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on Facebook Live, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to West Hudson to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.