Pinelands’ Nielsen, Southern’s O’Connell Place Eighth in State Wrestling Championships
For the 448 wrestlers who competed inside Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall for the NJSIAA individual championship tournament, every match is a battle. Within hours of finishing exactly where he expected himself to be on March 5, Pinelands Regional senior Chris Nielsen felt like he had been part of a war.
“Mentally, I feel great,” said Nielsen, who placed eighth in the state at 182 pounds after losing a 6-4, overtime contest to Mahwah’s Dan Surich in the seventh-place bout Sunday afternoon. “But my body feels like garbage right now. I can’t feel most of it. But I gave everything I had and got onto the podium. I would have liked to finish my career with a win, but being up on the podium was a good way to end it.”
Going 3-3 in Atlantic City, the 10th-seeded Nielsen won his first two bouts on Friday – pinning Cedar Grove senior and 23rd-seeded Dan DiPrenda in 57 seconds in the first round, followed by a 42-second pin of Voorhees junior and 26th-seeded Scott Fernandes in the pre-quarterfinals.
“Winning those first two matches was great,” Nielsen said. “I knew at that point I just needed to get my hand raised one more time and I was on the podium. Still, I went into the quarterfinals with the goal of trying to be a surprise winner and get to the semis.”
Unfortunately, the guy on the other side of the quarterfinals bracket was No. 2 seed George Walton, who also had pinned his previous two opponents and was one of the favorites to reach the final, especially since the withdrawal of original top seed and defending state champ Brandon Kui of DePaul, who had bowed out a few days prior to the tourney due to an injury.
Nielsen scored a pair of takedowns during the bout against Walton, but eventually the Bound Brook senior turned the tables on Nielsen and ultimately put him to his back before pinning him with 50 seconds left in the match.
“My weight class was tough and pretty much any of the top-15 seeds could have placed,” Nielsen said. “Walton was really good and I got him to the mat twice, but he got me and I had to move on. It was nerve-racking but I still knew I only needed to get my hand raised one more time.”
That next time occurred during the fourth round of wrestlebacks Saturday evening, when Nielsen took on 21st-seeded Sean Aston of Kennedy-Iselin and scored a grueling, 6-5 victory. In the wrestleback quarterfinals, Nielsen got pinned by No. 6 Mike Iodice of Hunterdon Central in 1:46.
In the seventh-place contest, Nielsen scored a takedown on Surich late in the first period to take a 2-0 lead into the second, when Surich kept Nielsen in the defensive position for the entire two minutes and then escaped early in the third to trim the deficit to a point, 2-1. Nielsen scored another takedown to make it 4-1, but Surich escaped with 1:10 to go and then took down Nielsen 26 seconds later to knot the match at 4-4. Surich ended the bout 20 seconds into overtime with another takedown.
Interestingly, Walton ended up winning the state title with a 5-4 victory over No. 9 Sam Wustefeld of Scotch Plains-Fanwood, who not only had knocked off top-seeded Shane Sosinsky – the beneficiary of Kui’s withdrawal after originally being seeded second during the Feb. 27 seeding meeting – in the quarterfinals but also had previously beaten Nielsen during the Holmdel Holiday Tournament on Dec. 28. Following a loss to Middletown North’s Tom Anderson, Iodice placed sixth in the state.
“Two of my four losses for the season were against the two state finalists and all my losses were to guys who placed in the top seven in the state, so that’s not bad,” said Nielsen, who finished 37-4 for the season and 107-27 for his career. “All the hard work I put in during the offseason paid off.”
Nielsen summed up his senior year as “something special,” especially since he achieved the goals of not only joining the 100-wins club at Pinelands but also scoring another district title, capturing a region championship and being among the state’s placewinners.
“My career has been an emotional path and sometimes I felt like I could quit,” he said. “But now, after achieving my goals, it’s a wonder how I even had the thought to quit. Really, I had the best time of my life for now, and this is something I’ll cherish for a long time.”
Stands on A.C. Podium
While Nielsen wrapped up his career in Atlantic City over the weekend, Southern Regional sophomore Nick O’Connell made a statement for all the state’s wrestlers at 145 pounds to see, as he, too, reached the Boardwalk Hall podium as the eighth-place finisher.
“I’m not satisfied with it,” said O’Connell, who lost an 8-2 decision in the seventh-place bout against 11th-seeded Andrew Solomon, a Gateway/Woodbury senior who knocked off O’Connell in the Region 8 semifinals. “I wanted to be in the top three, but all the kids I wrestled were really tough and I still came home with a medal despite a torn meniscus.”
Which is the impressive part, considering O’Connell, after losing to Solomon on Feb. 25, opted to rest his damaged knee and forfeited the region tourney’s third-place bout, resulting in O’Connell’s low seed at 25th for his first state individual tournament. Nonetheless, he scored victories in his first two bouts – against eight-seeded senior Nick Lombard of Monroe and ninth-seeded junior Jeff Johnson of Middlesex/Dunellen.
“I didn’t really get caught up in the atmosphere of Boardwalk Hall,” O’Connell said. “I was pretty calm and confident. My coaches kept telling me to focus on my match, that there were eight mats out there and most people in the building really aren’t watching you. Even going into the quarterfinals on Saturday, I was confident.”
After sending Lombard straight to the wrestlebacks with a 6-5, first-round win, then sending Johnson in the same direction with a 7-5, pre-quarterfinals decision, O’Connell went up against top-seeded and undefeated senior Nick Palumbo of Lenape Valley but was in the match until the final seconds before falling short, 7-3. Palumbo (46-0) eventually won the state title.
In the fourth round of wrestlebacks, O’Connell squared off against 14th-seeded sophomore Garrett Bilgrav of Robbinsville and easily won an 11-2 major decision, sending him to the wrestleback quarters to again meet up with Lombard. The second time, Lombard advanced with a 2-1, overtime victory and eventually placed fifth. O’Connell fell behind Solomon, 5-0, in the first period of their seventh-place bout and never recovered, scoring only on escapes during the third period.
“My coaches and I are already talking about next year,” O’Connell said. “I’ve already set my goals and I’m going to work hard. I know I’m right up there with the best guys and I’m barely 16. So, I’ll get stronger and bigger and make a run next year.”
Barnegat’s Foley Bumped Early
The only other two wrestlers from Southern Ocean County in the state championships were knocked off early, as Southern junior Matt Barnett managed to grab a victory during the first round of wrestlebacks at 132 pounds before being ousted by Boonton’s Dan Fongaro in a 4-1 contest, and Barnegat junior Sean Foley was dealt two straight losses at 113 pounds.
Going into the tourney as the 14th seed, Barnett fell short in his first-round bout, 3-2, against 19th-seeded junior Chris Fuschetto of A.L. Johnson. In the first round of wrestlebacks, Barnett bounced Tim Sparks of Gateway/Woodbury – whom Barnett defeated, 6-0, in the Region 8 quarterfinals – with a 6-3 decision.
As the 31st seed, Foley took on defending state champ Joe Manchio of Seneca in the first round and was pinned in 1:02, then got pressed in 1:06 by 18th-seeded Logan Mazzeo of Emerson/Park Ridge during the first round of wrestlebacks.