Wrestling season officially begins with practice

Believe it or not, the high school wrestling season officially began with the first day of practice on Monday.

The season will be truncated much like the basketball seasons that will end this week. There will be a host of dual meets (no tri-meets or quads), then there will be four region tournaments that will be invitation only to the top 16 qualifiers, then move on to the state tournament.

Unfortunately, there will be no district tournaments this season. The pandemic has eliminated the chances for the middle-of-the-road .500 or so wrestler who gets hot at the right time.

There will also be no team state playoffs this year, so the squads that hang their collective hats on a state tourney berth will have to wait until 2022.

Still, it’s almost miraculous that there will be such a thing as a wrestling season, considering the close contact the wrestlers are with each other and the safety regulations that the NJSIAA has placed on all sports because of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.

Needless to say, it’s been a confusing time for the local coaches and teams.

“I did my schedule three different times,” said Kearny head coach Tony Carratura, Jr. “Then we switched to another format, so I changed the schedule again.”

“It’s definitely an odd feeling,” said Belleville head coach Joe Pizzi. “We’re used to doing things one way for so long.”

But both local coaches feel fortunate to have a season to coach.

“I think it’s a great thing that they’re trying to get a season in,” Pizzi said. “Everything is different and it’s a quick season. There are all the different guidelines we have to follow. I try to teach my kids to look at the positive. They’re going to get something out of it.”

Especially for someone like Alisa Safforld, who is among the top girl wrestlers in the state and should contend for a state title among the girls.

“This is Alisa’s senior year,” Pizzi said. “She lost last year by three points to the girl that won the state championship. She needed shoulder surgery after the season.  She recently went to get it checked out and had the surgery. But it’s nice for her to get back in action to prepare for college. It’s especially important for someone like her who is in her senior year.”

Both Belleville and Kearny were decimated by graduation.

“We graduated 15 seniors,” Pizzi said. “We’re looking to rebuild a little. It’s impossible to find new wrestlers when we’re not in school. With newer kids in the program, we don’t have the time to go over details. There’s not a lot of time to prepare them.”

The first match is scheduled for March 15. It means that the teams have two weeks of practice before they will compete.

“It’s almost a disservice to the kids,” Pizzi said. “It’s going to be hectic. It’s a little disheartening, because it’s hard to get kids interested in the sport. We have three matches a week beginning March 15. It’s going to be tough. There won’t be much teaching.”

Sophomore Diego Viera has a chance to be one of the Buccaneers’ top performers. Viera will wrestle either at 152 or 160 pounds.

“We will make the most of it,” Pizzi said. “We’re not going to make excuses. We’ll be ready to roll.”

Carratura is also working with basically a new lineup.

“We lost 10 seniors, eight of whom were starters,” Carratura said. “Those seniors were special kids, because I got to see them grow up from the (Kearny) Rec program. Now, they’re gone. I’m looking forward to this year to see how this team pans out. I told these kids that it is their time to shine with all the spots up for grabs.”

Carratura said that Kearny has an excellent feeder program.

“We have a good booster club,” Carratura said.

But the Booster Club took a hit when there was no Kearny Christmas Tournament this year, a tourney that used to bring as many as 12 different teams to Kearny.

Carratura said that he will not bemoan the change of the season or the lack of a full campaign.

“We always try to stay positive,” Carratura said. “We’re preparing for the worst, knowing we can get shut down in an instant.”

Carratura has an inkling of who will be in his lineup come March 15.

“I have a good idea,” Carratura said. “We know what kids have been growing and getting better. It’s up to them to come into their own. Hopefully, things will go well for us.”

One of the key Kardinal grapplers is senior Jacob Baeza, who had to undergo knee surgery after last season.

“He’s coming along nicely,” Carratura said of Baeza. “He’s been able to compete a little bit. We want him to get to 100 wins. But we’re going in as one big uncertainty. We will hope for the best, but we just don’t know. I’m worried about them shutting us down.”

Carratura is poised to start the season.

“The kids have the excitement, so that gets me excited,” Carratura said. “We have an excellent coaching staff and a good group of kids.”

Can’t ask for more than that. So roll out the mats and get out the disinfectant to clean the mats rigorously. It’s wrestling season.




Belleville senior Alisa Safforld. Photo by Jim Hague


Kearny senior Jacob Baeza. Photo by Jim Hague

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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.”