By Matt Diano
On a magical Sunday afternoon that was as much about 30 selfless student-athletes giving freely of their time to raise money for two incredible organizations (the Adam Frey Foundation and Pinning Down Autism) as it was a battle of interstate rivals, the second annual NY/NJ Charity Challenge ended the only way it could and should, with the outcome being decided in the final bout of the event. It was the hosts from the Empire State shocking the proverbial wrestling world by upending their neighbors by a score of 27-23. Today’s victory marked the second straight win for the Empire State after winning the inaugural event 31-25 last season.
Regarded as significant underdogs heading into the dual, many so-called aficionados were predicting that New York would be fortunate if they managed to win five of the 15 contested bouts. One bold individual even suggested that if the Garden Staters brought their “A” game to Clarkstown South High School that a shutout would not be out of the question. Whether this disrespect served as added motivation or not remains unclear. What is known is that contrary to the forecasts of others, the wrestlers from New York came out with a mission in mind, to prove that they play second fiddle to no foe when it comes to a contest pitting the best of the best against one another. Any previous discussion of a potential blanking was quickly put to bed as the Jason Bross-led NYers jumped out to an early 15-3 lead behind victories at 99, 106, 120, 126, and 132 pounds.
Getting the dual started off on the right note for Team New York was Wantagh freshman Jose Rodriguez, the 2012 NYS Division I runner-up. Pitted against 4x New Jersey Kids State Champion, Kyle Bierdumpfel (NJ does not contest a 99-pound division on the varsity level), it was Rodriguez coming on strong in the third, escaping to tie the bout at six before hitting a cement mixer for 2+3 to take the 11-6 lead. To his credit, the stud 8th-grader Bierdumpfel showed immense perseverance, fighting off his back and eventually getting the escape. However, there would be no coming back as NY grabbed the 3-0 team lead via an 11-7 decision.
106 pounds was another case of New York trailing for a good part of the bout before storming back in the third period to seize victory. Falling behind 4-0 following a first period takedown and second period reversal, things were not looking very good for DI State Champion Nick Piccininni of Ward Melville in Section XI. But alas, known for his heart and non-stop attacking style, the two-time Suffolk County Champion clawed his way into the bout against NJ State runner-up Carl Buttitta, utilizing an escape midway through the middle stanza, followed by a takedown in the last half minute to cut the lead to 4-3 after two periods. The bout was soon tied as Buttitta was called for his third caution from the top position before a single second had ticked off the clock in the third period. With the bout all square at 4-4, rather than risk a late escape to lose, the Iselin-Kennedy product instead elected to cut Piccininni to give the NYer his first lead of the bout. Rather than sit on the lead, Piccininni continued with the aggressive style that had gotten him to this point, remaining on the attack and gradually wearing down his opponent, adding an insurance takedown with 25 seconds left in the match to make the score 7-4. Piccininni rode out the closing seconds to emerge with the “W”.
Following a 5-0 Pat Skinner loss to two-time New Jersey State Champion Brenden Calas (an escape late in the second, accompanied by a pair of two-point nearfalls accounting for the final score), the Empire State returned to its winning ways when Sean McCabe bested two-time NJ State finalist/2012 Champion, Mike Magaldo, 4-2 with a reversal late in the third period. McCabe, a senior from Connetquot High School, tallied the only takedown of the bout in the first period, but found himself in a nail biter after his rideout in the second period was negated by a second stalling warning from bottom in the final period. (Magaldo’s other point came from an escape in the first following the aforementioned takedown). However, as composed as they come, McCabe never panicked, slowly but surely maneuvering himself into an advantageous position, eventually being awarded the reversal in the final half minute to pull off the toss-up bout at 120 pounds.
The winning streak hit three in a row one weight class later when again, it was a more seasoned New York representative finding a way to win a close bout. This time, it was Eastport South Manor senior Maverick Passaro, a 2012 DI State Champion in his only appearance in Albany, breaking a 1-1 tie when he successfully got in deep and converted a double-leg takedown with :25 remaining in the match to take the 3-1 lead. New Jersey State runner-up Gary Dinmore, sensing the urgency of the situation, reacted well, quickly creating a scramble from bottom in an attempt to get the equalizing reversal. Dinmore, who was filling in for 3x State Champion Anthony Ashnault, who had a prior commitment to the Junior National Team, came close to getting the two, but in the end, found himself on the wrong end of the 3-1 decision.
New York deepened the hole Jersey was stuck in when they received a Herculean effort from 2012 DI bronze medalist, Nick Kelley, of two-time NYS Team Champions, Shenendehowa High School. Despite finishing third in NYS this season, anyone who has seen Kelley during his scholastic career knew that coming into the season, he was 1A at the 132-pound weight class, every bit as dangerous as eventual State Champion Jamel Hudson. (Kelley lost a one point decision to Hudson in the state semifinals a few weeks ago). Scoring the only two takedowns of the bout in the first and third periods (including the clincher in the final three seconds) , Kelley emerged with the 5-1 decision over 2012 NJ State champion Scott Delvecchio of perennial powerhouse South Plainfield.
As a testament to the talent and heart possessed on the other side of the G.W. Bridge, New Jersey shook off the early adversity and rallied, winning three of the next four weight classes. Serving as a catalyst at 138 pounds was BJ Clagon, who dominated the action from the feet. Clagon secured two takedowns in the first period and then added an additional TD in the last 20 seconds of the middle stanza to hold a 6-4 lead entering the final two minutes over Canastota’s DII State runner-up, Anthony Finocchiaro. Clagon, who looked about as lights out as one can in the state tournament a few weeks ago, doubled up his opponent by coming behind for a reversal with a little more than 1:00 remaining in the bout to make the score 8-4. Finocchiaro, who will continue his wrestling career next fall at Brown University, worked valiantly to escape from bottom, but simply was unable to free himself as the final seconds ticked away.
Building off the momentum created by Clagon, Alex “Lenny” Richardson did his part in the comeback effort, just missing bonus points in an 11-5 decision over Mike Caputo from the host school at 145 pounds. Many thought this would be a low scoring affair, as the two are teammates at the Apex Wrestling Club and are familiar with each other’s styles. Richardson had a much different idea as he piled on the takedowns one after the other, bringing the total to five by the time the six minute duration had elapsed. One positive for Caputo, who is rumored to have given a verbal commitment to Hofstra University, is that in the closing seconds of the match, with Richardson close to finishing a takedown on the far edge of the mat, Caputo successfully fought off the attack, denying his Jersey opponent of some much needed and desired bonus points.
With the margin having been cut to a much more respectable 15-9 team score and the Jersey boys threatening to go on the kind of run that often leads to victory, if there was ever a time that New York needed a big gun to step to the plate and reassert control, it was now. And, as luck would have it, the Empire State just happened to have a bazooka in their arsenal waiting to take care of business. Ranked in the top-10 nationally at 152 pounds prior to his decision to bump up for the postseason, Long Beach senior Dylan Palacio, who remains among the most coveted recruits on the free agent market, knew what was expected of him and did not fail to deliver. The aggressor every second of the bout, Palacio actually found himself trailing 2-1 at the end of the second period, having surrendered a takedown via power-double in the first period, and mustering only an escape in the middle frame. But, like any blue chipper, Palacio saved his best for last as the narrow deficit was quickly transformed into a 4-2 lead when he utilized a bar to tilt fellow State Champion, Raamiah Bethea, early in the third period to take his first lead of the match. The bout remained at 4-2 until Bethea made the mistake of putting himself in bad position while attempting to get free from bottom. Seeing his opportunity, Palacio locked up a cradle and got the fall with :48 remaining to bring the crowd to its feet and add a little cushion to the New York lead, 21-9. The loss was the first of the season for Bethea as both student-athletes came into the match unblemished in 2012. The win for Palacio proved invaluable to the team effort as again, New Jersey refused to “go gentle into that good night” (to quote Dylan Thomas), claiming victory at 160, 182, 195, and 220 to bring the score within a single point, 24-23.
At 160, it was super sophomore Johnny Sebastian of Bergen Catholic exploding for two takedowns in the first period to lead 4-2 after the first two minutes against Monsignor Farrell senior Rrok Ndokaj (who finished fourth at the DI tournament @170, but willingly dropped to allow DII State Champion, Zach Zupan to participate). An Ndokaj escape in the second was the only scoring there would be in the middle frame, sending the bout to the final two minutes with the NJ youngster still holding the lead, 4-3. In the third, Ndokaj did a solid job riding, preventing his opponent from getting his escape. However, with the clock as big an enemy as Sebastian, Ndokaj did the only thing he could do, going for broke with a tilt attempt in the last 15 seconds of the match. Sebastian, obviously expecting the last ditch attempt, easily countered and earned a reversal to pull off the 6-3 decision.
The previously cited Zupan came up clutch for the Empire State at 170, winning a war of State Champions over Ryan Harrington, a two-timer, who came into the All-Star Challenge unbeaten in the last two years. While Harrington was the more aggressive of the two in the first period, getting in deep on multiple occasions, it was Zupan scoring the only point of the first two minutes when Harrington was called for grabbing the headgear in the last five seconds of the period while trying to pull the NYS DII champion back onto the mat for a takedown attempt. A quick Harrington escape to begin the second evened the score at 1-1. The bout stayed all squared up until Zupan was able to finish a single-leg TD with 14 seconds remaining in the second period. He went on to ride out the last few seconds to keep the 3-1 lead entering the third period. There would be some fireworks in the closing minute of action as Harrington worked furiously to fight his way back from a 4-1 deficit following a Zupan escape earlier in the period. Securing two takedowns within 20 seconds of each other, Harrington eventually tied the match at 5-5. However, his gamble of trying to play for the win, cutting Zupan in the last 30 seconds of the match, ended up being the difference as he was unable to get the winning takedown, dropping the narrow 6-5 decision.
182 and 195 witnessed back-to-back bonus wins for Jersey as Jackson Memorial’s Dallas Winston and North Bergen’s Eric McMullen toyed with their opponents, dominating from every position on the mat en route to 10-2 and 14-2 victories respectively. The New Jersey State Champion at 182 pounds led his bout 5-0 after the first period, using a quick takedown and a three-point nearfall to quickly gain control over fellow senior, Jacob Berkowitz (the 2012 DI runner-up) of Scarsdale. Winston would not take his foot off of the gas pedal, escaping in the second period and then adding a pair of third period takedowns (the last one coming with just under :20 remaining in the match) to pull his state within eight points, 24-16.
McMullen was a master of the big move in his bout against NYS DI runner-up, Reggie Williams of Johnson City. Leading 2-1 following a quick takedown (and escape by Williams), McMullen blew the match open in the blink of an eye, hitting an inside trip to the back for the takedown and two additional nearfall points to conclude the opening period with a healthy 6-1 lead. Williams came out determined in the second, earning the quick escape and moving forward. However, any thoughts he may have had of getting himself back into the match soon faded away as McMullen lit up the scoreboard with a five-point lateral drop to increase the lead to 11-2 after the second. In the third, Williams attempted to set up for a cradle, but McMullen, mindful of his insurmountable lead, remained conservative from bottom, not allowing himself to get caught in any game changing moves. Still trailing 11-2 and unable to turn McMullen, Williams made the decision to cut his Jersey opponent. With the match all but already over, McMullen put an emphatic cap on his win by adding one final takedown in the last 25 seconds of the bout to account for the final tally.
The quest for the come-from-behind team win remained intact at 220 pounds as Lex Knapp scored the only point of the match via a second period escape. Despite what the scoreboard might indicate, this battle of the big boys was not without its share of activity as on two occasions, Brooklyn Tech senior Patryk Kopczynski, who finished fourth in the DI State tournament this season, appeared to have secured takedowns to take a lead in the bout. With :05 remaining in the first period, the Hunter College signee looked to have established control on the edge of the mat to take the 2-0 lead. In fact, initially, this was the call that the officials made before eventually waving it off after a quick meeting of the minds. After surrendering the escape to Knapp in the second period, Kopczysnki hit a nice low single after a stalemate to seemingly move in front. Again, there were no points for the Team NY representative as the officials ruled that he was guilty of a false start. These two “no calls” (the first more controversial than the latter) would prove to be the difference as Knapp did a fine job working from the top position, controlling the PSAL wrestler for the full two minutes to win by the slimmest of margins. The win set the stage for a winner take all final bout of the afternoon.
Scoreless after the first two minutes (certainly not uncommon for the 285 pound weight class), Cole Lampman and his Garden State opponent, 2012 runner-up, Jermaine Eleumunor, exchanged escapes early in the second and third periods to knot the score at 1-1. The score remained unchanged through the rest of regulation and after the 1:00 sudden victory period. Having scored first, Eleumenor had his choice first in the alternating :30 rideout periods. Electing to start on top, the NJ wrestler was not able to do much, quickly surrendering the escape to trail 2-1 with his turn on bottom still awaiting him. For Lampman, who could have easily made 220 this season, but preferred to stay at heavyweight as preparation for his plans to wrestle at 285 collegiately for Princeton University, the stage was set to play hero. All that separated him from glory was 30 seconds of hard wrestling from top. To say that he made the most of the opportunity would be an understatement. So in control was Lampman that despite being undersized, he never gave his opponent any hope of an escape, keeping him on his stomach for the full half minute…MATCH OVER; NEW YORK VICTORY !!!
Bross, who in addition to serving as the Team NY coach, is the founder of the Pinning Down Autism organization and also one of the organizers of the dual, was excited by the success of the event.
“There were nothing but winners today,” Bross said. “Every match was a thriller. It all came down to the last match. The fans saw the best wrestling you ever can. We packed the house and our charities had an amazing fundraiser.”
In addition, the victorious coach had the highest level of praise for the members of his team.
“They were amazing,” he said. “All of them came out with a chip on their shoulder and set a hard pace, pushing the action for the full six minutes. That was the difference. It was great to see the kids bond and pull for their teammates, who were their competition during the season.”
New York-27; New Jersey-23 (FINAL)
99- Jose Rodriguez (NY) dec. Kyle Bierdumpfel (NJ), 11-7
106- Nick Piccininni (NY) dec. Carl Buttitta (NJ), 7-4
113- Brenden Calas (NJ) dec. Patrick Skinner (NY), 5-0
120- Sean McCabe (NY) dec. Mike Magaldo (NJ), 4-2
126- Maverick Passaro (NY) dec. Gary Dinmore (NJ), 3-1
132- Nick Kelley (NY) dec. Scott Delvecchio (NJ), 5-1
138- BJ Clagon (NJ) dec. Anthony Finocchiaro (NY), 8-4
145- Lenny Richardson (NJ) dec. Mike Caputo (NY), 11-5
152- Dylan Palacio (NY) pinned Raamiah Bethea (NJ) 5:12
160- Johnny Sebastian (NJ) dec. Rrok Ndokaj (NY), 6-3
170- Zach Zupan (NY) dec. Ryan Harrington (NJ), 6-5
182- Dallas Winston (NJ) MD Jacob Berkowitz (NY), 10-2
195- Eric McMullen (NJ) MD Reggie Williams (NY), 14-2
220- Lex Knapp (NJ) dec. Patryk Kopczynski (NY), 1-0
285- Cole Lampman (NY) dec. Jermaine Eleumenor (NJ), 2-1 (ot)