In 2006, three members of the North Bergen High School wrestling team earned medals at the NJSIAA state tournament, creating a slice of Hudson County history in the process.
Bobby Dabal, Rico Rodriguez, and Marquise Johnson all won a medal at the NJSIAA state wrestling championships, the first time that any Hudson County school had three medalists at the state championships. Dabal finished fifth, Johnson finished seventh and Rodriguez was eighth.
Now there’s an excitement and buzz surrounding the Bruins’ wrestling program once again, as they currently have three wrestlers, Luis Gonzalez, Anthony Giraldo and Eric McMullen, who are ranked among the state’s best at their respective weight classes and all have solid chances of winning medals – if not winning the whole shebang – come March at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City.
All three recently won their respective weight class championships at the George Jockish Bergen County Holiday Tournament, named after the retired long-time North Bergen teacher.
“It’s exciting, because these guys could all be wrestling in Atlantic City with a chance to have a high placement in the state tournament,” veteran North Bergen head wrestling coach and athletic director Jerry Maietta said. “They’re all hard workers and they’re all very talented. They deserve everything they get through hard work. I know they’re all state-caliber kids, but we need our 11 other kids to step up and do the job with them. But having these three brings a lot of enthusiasm to our program and it makes everyone want to work hard. They’ve been a motivation for everyone.”
Sophomore Gonzalez is the Bruins’ big hope at 113 pounds. Gonzalez opened a ton of eyes a year ago, when he made it all the way to the state championship match at 103 pounds and was just eight seconds away from a state championship, before suffering a tough loss to Brenden Calas of Seton Hall Prep in the title round in overtime.
“I think about that loss all the time,” Gonzalez said. “It does motivate me for this year. It was a tough match and it hurt being that close to winning, because I could have won it. But that just makes me work harder for this year. I’m going after the state title this year.”
Fellow sophomore Giraldo is a solid performer at 120 pounds. Giraldo finished fourth in the state at 112 pounds last year. Giraldo drills on a regular basis with Gonzalez and the two help each other constantly.
“Luis and I definitely push each other all the time,” Giraldo said. “We’re basically the same size and we’re both very competitive.”
“We go at each other pretty hard,” Gonzalez said. “It really helps having him in the room every day. Even outside of high school practice, we train together. We’ve known each other since sixth grade and we’re really good friends.”
Both Gonzalez and Giraldo are totally dedicated wrestlers, training and competing in the sport 12 months a year.
“It’s hard for me to call wrestling season a season, because I wrestle and train all year round,” Giraldo said. “I love the sport and I don’t have a problem training six, seven hours a day. I love running. I love wrestling. I just hate losing.”
In fact, for the last two summers, Giraldo has traveled with his club team, the Scorpions, based out of Fairfield, to the Ukraine to train and compete with some skilled wrestlers who might be headed to the Olympic Games in London this summer.
“It was awesome,” Giraldo said. “They’re definitely different wrestlers than what we’re used to here. It really helped me a lot. I gained a lot of experience. It opened up my mind to different styles.”
Giraldo said that he learned a lot about training and preparing in the Ukraine.
“They go for long runs early in the morning and train two times a day,” Giraldo said. “While most of us are tired, they’re still going hard. I liked that. Working hard never bothers me. It’s motivation. Going there gave me a lot of confidence coming into this year.”
The two friends were invited to participate in the prestigious Beast of the East tournament in Wilmington, Delaware to begin this season.
“Those two had like 70 matches in the offseason,” Maietta said. “They’ve set high goals for themselves and they know now what it takes to get there.”
The Bruins were bolstered by the addition of another state-ranked wrestler in 195-pound senior Eric McMullen, who is coming off a solid football season after transferring to North Bergen from Paulsboro.
McMullen helped to lead the Bruins to the NJSIAA North 1, Group IV state championship in football and now he’s taken his talents to the mats, where he was a Region 8 champion last year for Paulsboro.
“What we did in football helped me a lot to get ready for wrestling,” McMullen said. “I am used to pushing myself hard in both football and wrestling.”
The three Bruin grapplers showed their true potential recently at the Jockish Tournament when they won their respective weight championships. Gonzalez took home the gold medal at 113 pounds, defeating Marc Mastropietro of Hasbrouck Heights/Wood-Ridge, 11-3. Giraldo won the 120-pound class with a 6-0 win over Dean Piterski of Pascack Valley. Both won tourney gold medals in Bergen County for the second straight year.
McMullen defeated defending county champ Razohn Gross of Don Bosco Prep, 5-3, and captured the tourney’s Most Outstanding Wrestler award.
“Seeing Luis and Anthony win was nice,” McMullen said. “It pushed me a lot harder to win. Coming into the tournament, I really didn’t know what we had, but we have a good team and it has to be a team thing. It was a good early test for me.”
“I think we’ll always be looked at as outsiders there,” Maietta said. “But it was good to come home with three champions. These three kids are being mentioned all over the state. The rest of the team and the program have some work to do.”
However, North Bergen has three standout wrestlers, three state-ranked and proven grapplers, who can certainly make a lot of noise the rest of this season, all the way to the state championships in Atlantic City, maybe even more noise that the trio of Bruin wrestlers did six years ago.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.