With 10 underclassmen in the lineup, it is almost certainly the youngest roster Mike DiPiano has had as Nutley’s head wrestling coach. But in the case of these Maroon Raiders, don’t confuse youth with inexperience, especially after a busy early-season schedule to accelerate their development.
“The freshmen aren’t freshmen anymore. Once you have 14, 15 matches, we don’t treat them like freshmen anymore. We don’t treat the sophomores like sophomores,” said DiPiano. “We’re trying to wrestle as much as we can and speed up the process.”
In addition to tournaments at Garfield and Rahway, Nutley has posted a 4-4 record in dual meets, highlighted by a 37-33 victory at Bloomfield this past Friday. It marked Nutley’s first win over its neighboring rival in six years.
“We lost to West Orange in the last match, 36-33, on Wednesday night and then you’re going into ‘The Pit’ on Friday and you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen,” DiPiano said. “But they handled the environment very well, we had some big wins and it changed the trajectory of the season a little bit.
“It was a really good result for a young team, something that we can build on.”
Among the headliners of this talented group of underclassmen is sophomore Chris Cifelli at 106 pounds. Cifelli, a regional qualifier last season, won the Garfield Tournament during the Christmas break and is poised for a big year. Freshman Valen DeLaney has also seen time at the spot.
Another freshman, Jack Finkelstein, has been on a seven-match winning streak at 113 pounds. Sophomore Jacob Harlow is at 120 pounds and was a regional qualifier as a freshman.
At 126 is sophomore Patrick Chell, who delivered the biggest win of Friday’s dual at Bloomfield as he was trailing 8-1 before rallying for a third period pin of Anthony Lizama.
Perhaps the highest upside of the talented group of underclassmen belongs to freshman Antonio Maiden at 132 pounds, who took first place at the Garfield Tournament.
“He’s a very good wrestler,” DiPiano said.”He’s somebody that we really feel can be in Atlantic City a couple times in his career.”
Sophomore Mike Koster is at 138 pounds for Nutley and junior Clark St. Amant, who DiPiano called the biggest surprise this season, is at 144.
At 150 is another heralded freshman in Aidan Rotbaum. A two-sport standout, Rotbaum won the Garfield Holiday Tournament and has already had several eye-opening wins.
“He’s just a freshman, but he’s one of the toughest kids on the team,” said DiPiano. “He’s had some big wins so far this year, but a couple of region (qualifiers) from last year. The sky’s the limit for him on the football field and the wrestling mat.”
Freshman Trace Castellanos and junior Alejandro Barcellos are among multiple options at 157 pounds. Junior Tyler Vonroth is at 165 pounds and sophomore Sean Vilchez is having a strong season at 175 pounds.
At the upper weights, juniors Justin Bido and Jaiden Perez are two relative newcomers who keep improving at 190 and 215 pounds.
Rounding out the lineup is Nutley’s one senior and one of the state’s top overall wrestlers in senior Brandon Toranzo. Less than 10 months removed from surgery to repair a torn ACL, Toranzo has dominated in his return to action, winning the prestigious Sam Cali Battle for the Belt and is poised to do big things in the state tournament.
“His goal is to win a state title and we think he has a chance to do it,” DiPiano said. “He takes care of his body like no other athlete. He’s very prepared and he believes he can win a state title.”
Nutley is set to start its toughest week of the regular season with a home dual against Seton Hall Prep on Wednesday, followed by a trip to Caldwell two nights later. While sure to be up-hill challenges, they’re just the next step in the development of a group that has high expectations for the Essex County Tournament later this month and has the potential to do big things in the months and years to come.
“With 10 freshmen and sophomores in the lineup every dual meet is a bonus for us,” DiPiano said. “Whatever happens (now) is great and the future’s going to be even brighter with this group of kids.”
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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.)