As an eighth seeded at 138 pounds in Region 3, few people envisioned Kearny senior Joey Rocco finishing in the top four to earn a trip to Atlantic City for next weekend’s NJSIAA State Championships.
Instead, in one of the bigger surprises from the region, Rocco indeed punched his ticket to Atlantic City. Rocco bounced back from a quarterfinals loss to win his next two matches in wrestlebacks to earn his spot in the top four.
Rocco is one of four Observer area wrestlers to have finished in the top four in their respective weight classes at Region 4, which was held at West Orange. Lyndhurst-North Arlington’s Damian Weaver and Kieran McNeil as well as Gabriel McCulloch of Bloomfield also qualified for the State Championships, which begins on Thursday and goes through Saturday.
“My goal from the start of the season was to make it down to AC,” said Rocco, who qualified for regions last year, but lost in his first match. “When I saw my bracket, I knew it would be tough. I beat a couple of kids that I wasn’t really supposed to beat, but I fought through it and I beat them.”
Rocco first pinned Seton Hall Prep standout and Essex County runner-up Brandon Bauer at 4:04. Then in the wrestleback semifinals, which determines who qualifies for states, Rocco defeated Essex County champion Jason Quirk of Livingston, who he pinned in the first period due to an injury. Rocco said it was unfortunate that the injury occurred, preventing Quirk from completing the match
“(Against Bauer) It was one of those matches where I went into it feeling like I had nothing to lose so I decided I’m just going to let it all fly out there,” Rooco said. “It was the mindset for the whole weekend, but that match in particular.”
Rocco dropped the third place to Warren Hills’ Tyler Redford by tech fall to finish in fourth place match, but that didn’t dampen his mood heading into the weekend.
McNeil was another local who had to bounce back from a loss in the quarterfinals in order to qualify for the state championships.The junior, seeded fifth at 126 pounds, defeated Becton’s Luis Salomon by decision in the wrestleback quarterfinals. McNeil then delivered an upset of his when he pinned second-seeded and reigning Essex County champion Carlo VanVolkenburgh to advance. McNeil carried that momentum to a third place finish, defeating Jose Lee of Warren Hills in the third place match.
For McNeil, the wins were especially meaningful after losing in the blood round of regions last year.
“It’s been on my mind every single day. You just think back on the moment and you’re like I don’t want to feel like that again,” said McNeil, adding those thoughts were especially prevalent during the regions this year. “I came back stronger this year and was ready to wrestle and I got my goal and made it to Atlantic City.”
While McNeil and Rocco are heading down there for the first time, for Weaver, this marks his third Atlantic City appearance
“It’s definitely an advantage,” Weaver said. “There’s no way to explain to someone what it’s like wrestling down there until you get down there and actually get on the mat so I feel like that helps me because I already know what it’s like.”
Weaver, seeded second at 157 pounds, earned a first round bye then recorded consecutive pins over Becton’s Jordan Stallone and Cody Miller of Warren Hills to reach the final. Weaver’s day ended with a 5-0 loss by decision to Alessio Perentin of Delbarton in the title match.
While the final was disappointing for Weaver, it only serves as further motivation heading into the final.
“I’m definitely disappointed, but I’m going to learn and grow from that,” said Weaver, who won Bergen County and District titles this season. “It adds an extra little chip on my shoulder as now I feel like I’ve got something to prove to people.”
While Weaver will have a chance to rewrite the ending after falling short of a region title, the same unfortunately can’t be said for Nutley star heavyweight Brandon Toranzo.
Toranzo, who entered Region 3 with a perfect 39-0 record, saw his season come to a sudden, heartbreaking end in the semifinals against Phillipsburg’s John Wargo. Toranzo suffered an injury to his left leg during a takedown of Wargo early in the third period of the match. After being down for a couple minutes Toranzo tried to continue, but was unable to put pressure on the leg seconds after the match resumed.
Due to the injury, Toranzo had to injury default to Wargo as well as to McCullough in the wrestleback semifinal to determine a spot in Atlantic City. Toranzo finished in sixth place overall, having to forfeit his fifth place match as well, a sad conclusion to a season that saw him earn Most Outstanding Wrestler at both the Essex County and District 9 championships.
McCulloch finished fourth at 285 pounds to earn a spot in Atlantic City. The Bloomfield sophomore, seeded ninth, almost didn’t even make it to the second day of Region 3, as he went to overtime with Seton Hall Prep’s Jack Tierney before winning by ultimate tie-breaker.
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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.)