SCOREBOARD By Jim Hague Historic weekend for North Bergen wrestling
Mar 28, 2006 | 419 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A myriad of emotions were flowing at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City Sunday afternoon for three members of the North Bergen High School wrestling team at the NJSIAA state wrestling championships.

There was joy and sadness, disappointment and euphoria. There were the thoughts of what might have been and what could have been, along with the ideas of what actually took place.

More importantly, there was a sense of history, which should have been the predominant thought. On Friday afternoon, three Bruins headed south with the hope of earning a slice of state wrestling glory. On Sunday afternoon, those same three Bruins headed back home with an impressive piece of hardware in their possession.

For the first time in Hudson County history, three members of the same wrestling team earned medals at the state championships. Sophomore Bobby Dabal finished fifth in the 112-pound weight class. Senior Rico Rodriguez was eighth at 152 pounds. And senior Marquise Johnson was seventh in the 215-pound weight bracket. Three Bruin wrestlers took the mat in Atlantic City, and all three earned medals. Not a bad percentage.

"It was almost a perfect weekend," said head coach Jerry Maietta. "It's a reward for all the hard work that they put in. They deserve it. To walk out of here among the top eight in the state is a major accomplishment. I'm not sure if any other school had all of its wrestlers go home with a medal. It's a great thing for our program.

Everyone who comes down here has the hope and dream of becoming a state champion, and only 14 of them can get that. So for our kids, this is huge."

For a kid like Rodriguez, getting a medal at the state championships was far and beyond anyone's comprehension. A product of the township's proud recreation program, Rodriguez wasn't exactly the most successful wrestler when he was younger. But Rodriguez persevered through some of the tough times and made himself into a Region 4 champion and a state medal winner as a senior.

"I'm really proud of the kid," Maietta said. "He came down here, had nothing to lose, and gave his whole heart out there."

Especially since Rodriguez lost his first match on Friday night, then had to wrestle all the way back in the consolation wrestlebacks to earn a chance at competing on Sunday.

"Sometimes, the road to wrestle all the way back is even tougher than the regular route," Maietta said. "You have to be tougher mentally. You have to be tougher physically, with all the matches involved. Rico's a warrior. He came down here with something to prove and he did."

Rodriguez believed that receiving the medal was a reward for his patience and dedication.

"It's very rewarding to me," Rodriguez said. "It's really a dream come true. When I first started wrestling, my dream was to come here and place. I made it a goal, and now, I've finally fulfilled my goal. I am really happy about that. It's a great feeling to come here, with no one knowing you and then they're saying, 'Who's that?' as I'm going to get my medal. I think it was good for me to make a statement in this tournament. People now know who I am."

Rodriguez won a total of four matches over the three days to earn the eighth place medal. Although he lost his final match of his career to a tough Spencer Kent of Bergen Catholic, 5-3, Rodriguez will forever remember the weekend he solidified his place in North Bergen wrestling history.

"My name will go up on that wall in the gym as a state medal winner," Rodriguez said. "That's an awesome feeling."

Marquise Johnson transferred to North Bergen from Hudson Catholic after the fall semester. He didn't know whether or not he would fit in with his new surroundings, with his new teammates. Johnson just knew one thing - he didn't want to go home early from a state-wrestling tournament like he did his last two years of high school, one in Ohio and another at Hudson Catholic.

"For the last two years, I was 'two and out,'" said Johnson, meaning that he lost two matches in each state tourney appearance and was eliminated from contention. "I had to come away with something this time. I couldn't go home empty-handed. It wasn't an easy time for me, leaving one school and coming to North Bergen. This was my last chance. I had to do something."

So the 215-pound workhorse made sure that he was going to give his all in Atlantic City, especially since he had no room for error, having finished second at the Region 4 tourney the week prior. That meant that Johnson had to wrestle in a preliminary round Friday night, long before his teammates Dabal and Rodriguez even began to warm up.

"He also had a tough road," Maietta said. "But he worked hard all weekend. That was the key with all of our kids. They all worked so hard."

Johnson also won four matches, including a tough overtime victory over Cory Ferguson of Collingswood to take home seventh place.

"I only have one regret," Johnson said. "I kept losing to Fill." Fill is Bryan Fill of Hasbrouck Heights who defeated Johnson four times this season, including the Bergen County Christmas Tournament finals, the Region 4 finals, a regular season dual meet, and in one of the wrestlebacks in Atlantic City. Johnson lost only five times this season, four coming at the hands of Fill.

"I kept getting closer and closer," Johnson said. "I was always close. After I lost to him here [in Atlantic City], I told myself that I was just not going to lose again."

Johnson didn't.

If there was a sense of disappointment to the Bruin medal parade, it came with the performance of Dabal, who is the marquee member of the team and was expected to do well in the state tourney, especially after defeating the previously undefeated Filiberto Colon of Belleville in the 112-pound Region 4 finals a week prior.

Dabal's expectations were raised when he won three straight matches to advance to the tourney's semifinals. Everyone in the North Bergen corner had visions of a state championship dancing in their heads.

But Dabal dropped a heartbreaking 8-7 decision to Dan Kelly of Delaware Valley in the semifinals, sending Dabal to the consolation round. The state title will have to wait.

"My mind was set on winning the state title and when I fell short to a tough kid, a lot went out of me," Dabal said. "I was disappointed. I felt like I should have won."

Dabal then lost again in the semifinals of the consolation wrestlebacks to Jon Gregory of Phillipsburg, dropping him into the fifth place match against familiar foe Colon.

"After I lost the second one [the decision to Gregory], I knew that I had to come back to win," Dabal said. "Fifth is better than sixth. I had to get the last one."

Dabal bounced back to defeat Colon once again, this time by a 9-2 decision to earn fifth place.

"Last year, I came down here and I didn't place and didn't get a medal," Dabal said. "I didn't want the same thing to happen. I fell short of my goals and my dream didn't come true, but I did do better than last year. I know I have to work harder next year. I still have time. The other seniors [Rodriguez and Johnson], this was it for them. But we're all on the wall and that's a nice accomplishment."

"He'll be back next year," Maietta said of Dabal. "He'll be a little hungrier. We'll motivate him the entire off-season. He won his last match, so that's a good sign."

The Bruin wrestlers left Atlantic City with a major sense of accomplishment.

"We had guys who weren't supposed to do well who earned medals," Johnson said. "It says a lot about our coaches and our program."

"I think it's a great feeling for all of us," Rodriguez said. "For us to come back home to North Bergen with three medals means that we showed the entire state what North Bergen is all about."

Sure thing - and they created history in the process, through all the emotions.

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