One year after devastating injury, Toranzo takes OW at Region 3 Championships

When Brandon Toranzo walked into West Orange High School for the NJSIAA Region 3 Wrestling Championships, he was understandably reminded with painful memories.

It was here, 12 months ago, when Nutley’s star heavyweight saw his dreams of making it to Atlantic City shattered by a torn ACL in his left knee, bringing a sudden and premature end to what had been an undefeated junior season.

“I walked in there and I was like, I remember this gym,” said Toranzo. “I feel like it was just yesterday when I got hurt. I feel like it’s all been a really fast process, getting back these last 12 months. A year went by so fast for me.”

A year later, Toranzo can replace those feelings of despair with ones of elation.

Thanks to a 4-2 decision over Bergen Catholic’s Benji Shue in the 285 pound final, Toranzo was able to leave West Orange as a regional champion. Toranzo, who improved to 41-0 on the season, was named Outstanding Wrestler for the region.

Toranzo becomes Nutley’s 18th regional champ in the program history and the first since Joe Ferinde in 2015.

“It was a bad bad feeling walking in the gym, but I knew this year was different,” said Toranzo, who admitted getting a weird feeling in the semifinal against Bloomfield’s Gabriel McCulloch on the exact same mat he got hurt on in the semifinals last year. “I’m way more prepared than I was last year. Obviously I couldn’t control what happened last year, but I was not leaving this gym with the same feeling I had last year.”

Shue, who took fourth place at 285 pounds in Atlantic City last year, entered regions as the No. 2 ranked heavyweight in the state by But Toranzo, ranked No. 4, was unfazed by the challenge.

“He was definitely the hardest competition I wrestled this season,” Toranzo said. “He had a good pace to him, but I felt like I was able to control the center of the mat really well against him.”

Toranzo came out as the aggressor in the first period. Then, in the second when Shue attempted a standing headlock and Toranzo lifted him up brought Shue down for a takedown that sent a roar through the crowd.

“There was a lot of pure willpower in that move,” Toranzo said. “At that moment I knew I couldn’t give up two (points) and there was a lot of willpower, just using every single bit of strength I had just to pick him. It was definitely a momentum change at that point in the match.”

It was a takedown that Toranzo credited to the upper-body strength training he did last spring following the ACL surgery that prevented him from doing any lower-body work.

“I trained really hard this off season. Both my legs weren’t really in use because of my ACL, so I just trained my upper body to be as strong as I could,” said Toranzo. “When I was able to start training my legs, I trained legs three days a week for months.”

The combination of weights and functional strength training has made Toranzo, in his opinion, the strongest heavyweight in the state.

“I think it’s definitely a little bit of an intimidation factor,” said Toranzo. “I look a lot bigger this year in the upper section of myself and a lot of the wrestlers, they don’t look like me. So when they see me, I can see fear in their eyes.”

Toranzo has twice gone to the state wrestling championships as a fan – first as an eighth grader to support his older brother Michael, then as a sophomore in support of his friend and then-teammate Jimmy Mullen at St. Joseph Regional. This time, however, it will be as a competitor.

“It’s a great feeling. I just feel like at that point I’ll know that it’s all said and done,” Toranzo said. “I put in all the hard work. I’m just going to leave it in God’s hands and just go out there and wrestle. Just do what I’ve been doing all season.”

While this will be Toranzo’s first Atlantic City appearance, three Observer-area wrestlers – McCulloch, Kieran McNeil and Rocco Negron – are making return trips to the state tournament, which begins on Thursday.

McCulloch shook off the semifinals loss to Toranzo to take third place in Region 3 at 285 pounds. McNeil, a senior for Lyndhurst-North Arlington is going for the second-straight year after taking fourth place at 138 pounds. Belleville’s Negron, who was named OW at District 10 last week, took third place at 144 pounds to qualify for the second time in three years.

Joining Negron will be teammate Jakob Ferrer who finished second at 113 pounds. Also heading to Atlantic City will be Kearny’s Joshua Baeza, who despite seeing his undefeated streak come to an end in the semifinals, rallied to take fourth place at 138 pounds.

After spending the last few years in Phillipsburg, the NJSIAA’s Girls Wrestling State Tournament returns to Atlantic City this upcoming weekend as well and The Observer-area will be well represented.

In the North 1 Regional Tournament which was held at Vernon, Nutley had two qualifiers as Isabella Bobadilla took third place at 126 pounds and Carina Rivera finished third at 165 pounds.

In the North 2 Regional Tournament at Union, Bloomfield once again had another major performance, sending four to Atlantic City. Madelyn McLaughlin won the regional title at 132 pounds after defeating Bayonne’s Mariana Puzycki, 6-2. Joining McLaughlin will be teammates Alexha Montalvo (second at 120 pounds), Saharia Quamina (second at 235) and Leanna Noel (third at 145).

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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 (, The Jersey Journal, The Star-Ledger.)