Rocco Negron remembers the frustration a year ago of not being able to compete in the Essex County Tournament due to a shoulder injury, which eventually required surgery.
Now fully healthy, Belleville’s 132-pound junior is letting the County know just how good he is capable of being on the mat.
On Thursday, Negron and Nutley heavyweight Brandon Toranzo, left West Orange’s Codey Arena as County champions, winning their respective weight classes while keeping their undefeated seasons intact. Toranzo was also named Outstanding Wrestler of the tournament.
“It meant a lot,” said Negron. “Last year got taken away from me. Last year I probably would have done good (in the ECT). This year meant a lot, winning it for the first time and hopefully not the last time.
“I feel good, I feel confident in it. Last year I wasn’t confident in my shoulder at all. It would always hurt, even in practice, but now it’s smooth sailing.”
Despite the shoulder injury, Negron qualified for the state tournament in Atlantic City. But this season has been different.
As the top seed at 132 pounds, Negron earned a double bye into the round of 16. His tournament run began with first period pins over Caldwell’s Jordan Orland and Newark East Side’s Edwin Cuaresma.
In the semifinals, Negron won an 11-3 major decision over Nick Bastante of West Essex. Then, in the championship match, Negron defeated Matthew Farley Jr. of Seton Hall Prep, in a 5-2 decision, improving his record to 24-0.
“Last year he made a name for himself by beating some very good opponents and making it to Atlantic City,” said Belleville head coach Joe Pizzi. “I think this year, he’s really taken the next step in every facet of his game. He’s really turned it up a notch. He was working hard before, but it’s very evident that he’s fully engaged in everything that he’s doing, all aspects of it.”
“I’m as confident as I’ve ever been in high school,” Negron said. “Every match, it keeps growing bigger and bigger.”
While Negron continues to rack up the wins in the lower weights, Toranzo continues to dominate in his first season at Nutley after transferring home from St. Joseph Regional.
Toranzo, the top seed at 285 pounds, also earned a double bye, then got a forfeit win to advance to the quarterfinals. Once he took the mat, Toranzo showed once again why he is one of the state’s breakout stars, pinning Glen Ridge’s Joshua Schumann in just 27 seconds. Then, after defeating Jack Tierney by a 10-4 decision in the semifinals, Toranzo dominated his final, taking down Verona’s John Stockelberg four times before getting the pin at 1:42.
“He’s a big, strong boy who happens to be an excellent wrestler as well,” said Nutley head coach Mike DiPiano about Toranzo who continues to improve as he’s further removed from a torn ACL that sidelined him last season. “He’s very confident in his abilities right now and the coaches are very confident in his ability. He’s on a mission right now.”
“When I heard my name get called as (Outstanding Wrestler), I was definitely super excited,” said Toranzo, who felt he struggled a bit in the semifinals. “It’s something really cool to add to my resume.”
It is the third OW award that Toranzo (26-0) has earned this season. He also received OW honors at the Kearny and Rahway Tournaments in December.
“I’ve just been going out there, telling myself that there’s no way I can lose,” Toranzo said. “I know right now, I’m definitely one of the top kids in the state, even though I’m not ranked yet. It’s going to happen soon, and I just want to keep this streak going and to keep going out there and keep dominating.”
Torano wasn’t the only Nutley wrestler to earn a medal, which is awarded to the top five finishers in each weight class.
Senior Franco Graffeo took second place at 126 pounds as he continued an impressive turnaround after a rough start to the season.
“He’s starting to peak at the right time. I don’t know if it’s the sense that your career is coming to an end soon, but he’s very at peace with wrestling right now,” said DiPaiano. “He’s focused, he’s not letting anything get into his head. He’s very focused on the task at hand and he had some really nice wins this week.”
In total, eight Maroon Raiders finished in the top eight in their weight classes, allowing Nutley to take seventh place out of 22 schools in the team standings, a dramatic turnaround from last year’s tournament when it had just one top eight finisher and placed 18th as a team.
“That’s really what it’s about,” DiPiano said. “The progression has been nice, the hard work that my staff has put in and the wrestlers have put in, it’s been rewarding.”
Belleville, despite having just eight participants due to a host of injuries, took ninth place as a team. The Buccaneers had a pair of third place finishers in Leo Tiankee (120 pounds) and Fernando Collado (165). Senior Sterling Fernandez finished fourth at 215 pounds.
Bloomfield took eighth place, and was led by a trio of fourth place finishers in Rahjohn Plummer (132 pounds), Michael Marzano (144) and Damian Torres (165). Anthony Lizama (113 pounds) and Leandro Brito finished in fifth for the Bengals, which had seven wrestlers place among the top eight.
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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.)