Pinelands’ Nielsen Captures Region 8 Crown as Four Locals Head to Atlantic City
Upon scoring a 4-2 victory over Delsea’s Vince DeGeorge on Feb. 25, Pinelands Regional wrestler Chris Nielsen flexed his arms, pumped his fists and let out a series of celebratory shouts that filled the Egg Harbor Township High School gymnasium. The monkey had been tossed off the collective back of the Pinelands wrestling program.
“I’m just the second wrestler from Pinelands in 15 years to win a region title, so this feels really awesome right now,” the senior said moments after climbing to the top of the medals podium. “After I won the final at the district tournament last week, my mentality was that I was going to be at the top of the podium again this week. And here I am.”
By winning the NJSIAA Region 8 crown at 182 pounds, Nielsen became the Wildcats’ first region champ since Mike Molosky did so in 2002. And he had to beat the same wrestler he knocked off in the Feb. 18 District 31 final.
“I kept telling Chris all week that all the pressure was on the other guys,” said head coach Neil Saunders. “He beat DeGeorge last week, so this week in practice we just kept going over all the things Chris does well. We kept things positive and made sure Chris knew he was the best 182-pounder in this region.”
Following a scoreless first period, Nielsen took the defensive position to start the second period and scored a reversal just 13 seconds into the period. DeGeorge escaped soon after to trim the lead to 2-1, but Nielsen (32-1) shot in for a solid double-leg takedown with 20 seconds to go for a 4-1 advantage going into the third period.
DeGeorge chose defense to start the period but didn’t get up to a standing position for most of the two-minute stint, as Nielsen mostly kept him face-down or spread out for long stretches of time. Eventually, DeGeorge escaped with four seconds left in the bout.
“This was a good match,” Nielsen said. “In the second period last week, I was a little flat-footed and he caught me a couple of times to get a lead, and I had to come back in the third period. But today, I made sure I kept up my attacks from neutral and didn’t let him get to my legs.”
Heading into the District 31 tournament, there was some concern about whether Nielsen would be ready for the longer, grind-it-out-type matches typical of late February. During the regular season, Nielsen was awarded forfeits in 10 of 19 team duals. Excluding the Colt Classic, Holmdel Holiday and Buc Classic tournaments, Nielsen only went the distance in two bouts during the season.
“It sucked getting so many forfeits,” said Nielsen, who won the District 24 title and was the Region 6 runner-up at 182 last year. “It was tough getting mentally ready for the district tournament and I was a little timid. But after I won the district final, everything got back to normal. I definitely was better prepared for the region tournament.”
Now Nielsen has to be even better prepared for this weekend, when he makes his second straight trip to Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City, for the state individual championship tournament, which begins Friday, March 3, and runs through Sunday, March 5.
Nielsen, who heads to Boardwalk Hall with a career record of 104-24, drew the 11th seed in the Feb. 27 seeding meeting at NJSIAA headquarters in Robbinsville. His preliminary-round bout will be against 22nd-seeded Sean Aston of Kennedy-Iselin. The winner will meet either sixth-seeded L.J. Castellano of Delbarton or 27th-seeded Justin Ramirez of Wayne Hills.
Unlike previous years, during which only the top three wrestlers in each weight class from the eight regions qualified for the individual state tournament, this year the top four at each weight qualified to create 32-wrestler brackets rather than pig-tailing in preliminary-round winners to face higher seeds in the pre-quarterfinals.
This year, all 32 wrestlers will compete in the opening round, which begins at 2:30 p.m. on Friday. The pre-quarterfinals round will take place later on Friday. Saturday’s sessions begin with the first three rounds of wrestlebacks beginning at 9 a.m., with the quarterfinals slated for noon. The fourth and fifth rounds of wrestlebacks and the semifinals will get under way at 6 p.m. on Saturday.
On Sunday, beginning at 10 a.m., the wrestleback semifinals will be followed by the third-, fifth- and seventh-place consolation finals, and the championship bouts are scheduled for 3 p.m.
To get to the semifinals, Nielsen may have to go through Castellano and then possibly third-seeded George Walton of Bound Brook. Second-seeded Shane Sosinsky of Northern Highlands or seventh-seeded Michael Iodice of Hunterdon Central could be waiting on the other side of the semifinal should Nielsen get that far. Defending state champ Brandon Kui of DePaul is a favorite to be in the final.
“My goal is to get on the medals podium,” Nielsen said. “I’m expecting to see some of the top seeds, so I’m going to go out there and do all I can to win. I’m not ranked among the top-eight in the state right now, but I’m going there to change that. I’m going to bring my best for every six minutes I’m out on those mats.”
Joining Nielsen in Atlantic City for this weekend will be Southern Regional’s Matt Barnett and Nick O’Connell, along with Barnegat’s Sean Foley. Barnett finished as the 132-pound runner-up in Region 8, while Foley (113) and O’Connell (145) each placed fourth.
After scoring a 4-3 decision over St. Augustine Prep’s Steven Schwab in the semifinals, Barnett took on Kingsway’s Quinn Kinner in a rematch of the District 29 final. Barnett started off strong, taking down Kinner about 30 seconds into the bout, but Kinner scored a reversal to tie the score at 2-2, then took control in the second period en route to a 17-8 major decision.
“I was a little more aggressive than last week,” Barnett said. “I was hoping to manage the match and control the pace, but he did that better than I did. There’s a reason he’s ranked so high, and it’s because almost everything he does is near perfect. He’s really technically sound.”
For the state championship tourney at Boardwalk Hall, Barnett (23-8) was given the 14th seed and in the preliminary round will take on Johnson’s Chris Fuschetto, the 19th seed. The winner will square off against either No. 3 Robert Garcia of Pope John or No. 30 Tim Sparks of Gateway, who Barnett defeated, 6-0, in the region quarterfinals. If Barnett can win a few bouts and get to the semifinals, he may face the second-seeded Kinner again.
“The plan is to let it fly and win the first few bouts,” Barnett said. “I was there last year as a sophomore, so that experience will help me out. The key will be to get some momentum in those first couple of matches and go from there.”
In the 113-pound Region 8 third-place bout, Foley (31-6) fell short, 9-5, against Highland’s Seth Henry, but was pleased to be representing Barnegat in Atlantic City. He’s the school’s first to go to Boardwalk Hall since Matt Schofield in 2012.
“I feel great,” said the junior. “I’m only the second wrestler from Barnegat to qualify for Atlantic City, and I’m hoping I can make history by getting to the medals podium. It’s going to be tough, but I believe in myself. Getting to Atlantic City was one of my goals for this season, so I’m happy to go and represent my school and town.”
Unfortunately for Foley, the path to the podium is going to run through a defending state champion right off the bat. In the preliminary round, the 31st-seeded Foley is scheduled to meet Seneca’s Joe Manchio, the No. 2 seed who last year won the 106-pound state title.
O’Connell, who ended up forfeiting the 145-pound third-place bout at the Region 8 tourney so he could rest a nagging knee injury, also will not have an easy road out of the preliminary round. The Southern sophomore was given the 32nd seed and is slated to meet top-seeded Nick Palumbo of Lenape Valley.