Before the season, Joe Pizzi told his Belleville wrestling team that it had the talent to be the best group he’s had in his eight years as the program’s head coach. Saturday’s season opener was a major first step towards achieving that.
Competing in the annual Kearny Holiday Tournament, Belleville had its best showing ever, finishing second to only Cranford in the team portion of the event. Individually, four Bucs – Jakob Ferrer at 106 pounds, Leon Tiankee at 120, Rocco Negron at 132 and Fernando Collado at 165 – all took home gold in their respective weight classes, also a record for the program.
“In the Kearny Tournament, it’s definitely the best one we’ve ever had. I think we came in third a couple of times in previous years, I don’t think we’ve ever come in second place,” Pizzi said. “The four champions, that was great. That’s the most we’ve ever had. I’ve told my kids often early on this season that I think we have the potential to be one of my most talented teams, depending on their output in the practice room and their discipline during the season.”
Pizzi has seen a definite uptick and morale now that the team is able to practice at the brand new Belleville Indoor Training Facility that is located a couple of minutes away from the high school. Previously, they had to use the high school cafeteria as a makeshift practice venue.
Unlike other seasons, Pizzi sees a roster deep and balanced enough that they should be able to field a full lineup for dual matches.
Success in those duals will be largely dependent on getting bonus points from those lower weights that are the strength of the team.
“They’re definitely our more experienced, higher caliber wrestlers. I feel like that just goes unspoken,” said Pizzi. “Everybody has their highs and lows through their lineup, but I feel like this is one of our more promising lineups all the way through. We’ve always had great kids, but we never had solid kids all the way through.”
Ferrer, a junior and one of three captains, led the team in wins last year, going 33-5 in a season that took him within one victory of qualifying for the state tournament in Atlantic City at 106 pounds. In a weight class usually dominated by underclassmen, the experience Ferrer has should work in his favor.
“It’s definitely an advantage,” Pizzi said. “He’s strong, he’s aggressive and he’s a very technical wrestler. He’s one of our higher-caliber wrestlers.”
Freshman Rocco Russomanno is set to compete at 113 pounds.
At 120 pounds is Tiankee, who went 22-9 last season and has the ability to make a run in the individual tournaments at the end of the season.
“He doesn’t really say much, he’s not a vocal leader, but he definitely shows it on the mat with how hard he works,” said Pizzi.
Sophomore Aiden Carrasquillo is a first year wrestler competing at 126.
At 132 pounds is Negron, the lone Buc to qualify for the state tournament in Atlantic City last March. The junior, who went 25-6 last season, finished fifth at the Kearny Tournament a year ago, showing just how much he has improved and dedicated he’s been these last 12 months.
“He’s a very technical wrestler. He goes to a lot of different clubs, learns from a lot of different coaches,” Pizzi said. “He’s very coachable, but he’s an extremely tough kid. He really wants it and you can tell from the way he’s approached the season that he’s all in.”
Matias Lopez, a four-year starter who began his career as an upper middle weight, took home second place at 138 pounds on Saturday.
At 144 is junior Franco Russomanno, a returning starter and the older brother of Rocco. Two sophomores handle the next weight classes as Santiago Nunez is at 150 pounds and Demetri Moya’s at 157.
Collado, a senior, returns at 165 after going 18-11 at the spot last year and qualifying for regions.
“(Fernando) is a great kid, hard worker, he truly loves the sport,” said Pizzi. “He’s definitely another kid that’s all in and has a passion for the sport.”
Senior Kanai Martin, who moved from Bayonne, but didn’t wrestle there, has been a surprise at 175 pounds. Martin, who went 3-1 to take fifth place on Saturday, is very strong and has impressed despite his lack of varsity experience.
Junior Mike Sanchez, a first year wrestler, also turned heads at Kearny, going 3-1 to take fifth at 190 pounds.
Another first year wrestler is senior Sterling Fernandez at 215 pounds. Fernandez, who went 3-1 and finished in fifth has a jujitsu background and could also potentially slide down to 190 if needed.
Senior Eduardo Mata is the starter at 285 pounds.
Sophomore Daniel San Martin and Johan Rivas, a first year senior, are among those who could also see action in varsity duals depending on matchups.
Belleville looks to continue its momentum on Wednesday when it hosts neighboring rival Nutley in a dual match. On Jan. 7 the Bucs will host the annual Belleville Tournament, a 12-team event that also includes Nutley, North Bergen, Mountain Lakes, Rutherford, Becton/Wood-Ridge and Secaucus among others.
“I think this team understands their potential. They know what it takes,” said Pizzi. “They understand that we’re going to push the limits and that we’re really going to challenge them every single day. They understand what’s at hand and they know it’s no easy task. But they’re all in and no one’s backing down.”
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Jason Bernstein | Observer Sports Writer
Jason Bernstein joined The Observer as its sports writer in March 2022, following the retirement of Jim Hague. He has a wealth of sports-writing experience, including for NJ Advance Media (nj.com, The Jersey Journal, The Star-Ledger.)