Justin Cantor was all of seven years old when he was introduced to the sport of wrestling.
Cantor’s older brother, Jeff Rivera, was a member of the North Bergen High School wrestling team, so it was a natural progression.
“I watched my brother and then fell in love with the sport,” Cantor said. “It was a tough sport to learn.”
In the early days while he was learning with the highly successful North Bergen Recreation program, Cantor didn’t get frustrated. He might have been getting tossed and rolled all over the place by everyone including his brother, but Cantor stuck with it.
“I got stronger,” Cantor said. “Actually, the moves came pretty easy to me. It helped that my brother was around. We were always fighting and wrestling in the house.”
When Cantor was in seventh grade two years ago, he walked away from wrestling.
“I didn’t like it anymore,” Cantor said. “I took a break from it.”
But Cantor realized that he had wrestling in his blood.
“I came back because I realized I missed it so much,” Cantor said. “I had to dedicate myself again to it. I had to have the mindset to wrestle again.”
And Cantor did exactly that, enjoying a solid eighth grade season before heading on to North Bergen High, where head wrestling coach and athletic director Jerry Maietta was waiting to welcome Cantor with open arms.
“We knew he could wrestle,” Maietta said. “He was a solid product of the Rec program and he was a well-rounded wrestler. We knew that he had to be in our lineup right away. We expected big things from him.”
Right away, Maietta liked Cantor’s wrestling style.
“He doesn’t wrestle like a freshman,” Maietta said. “He’s not afraid at all. He’s very athletic. He likes to compete. That’s what he does best. He competes.”
Cantor realized that he was a decent wrestler from the start.
“I got really good at it,” Cantor said. “I didn’t think I’d be good at first. I really think I needed that break in seventh grade to get better. I was really worried.”
Cantor became a dedicated wrestler full time. He worked with a strength and conditioning coach Rocco Dioguardi to develop his 132-pound body. The 132-pound weight class is a very tough group, because it is generally filled with experienced veterans who started in the lower weights and gradually moved their way up to 132 pounds. Nature forced Cantor to wrestle at the tough bracket right from the start.
“I gained a lot of confidence from working with the strength and conditioning coaches,” Cantor said. “He helped me with breathing exercises so I could pace myself. I learned how to sprawl better. I was definitely stronger. After all that, I knew I was ready.”
“I think he wrestles with a lot of confidence,” Maietta said. “He’s comfortable and confident out there. I wouldn’t say he’s cocky, but he has a little swag to him. He’s a competitor who likes to compete. It’s one thing to say it, but it’s another thing to do it. He likes being in the heat of battle, likes being in the fire.”
Cantor won 27 matches this season prior to the Bruins entering the NJSIAA District 12 championships in Livingston High School two weeks ago.
At District 12, Cantor shocked everyone by not only winning the 132-pound championship, but also claiming the Most Outstanding Wrestler of the tournament, quite an achievement for a freshman.
“There were some good wrestlers in that bracket,” Maietta said. “And he didn’t even wrestle a full match. He won by a pin, a technical fall and a pin. He was the Most Outstanding Wrestler because he had the best tournament.”
Cantor then went on to finish third at the Region 3 tournament last weekend in West Orange to punch his ticket to the state championships this weekend in Atlantic City.
For his efforts, Cantor has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week.
Cantor lost his first match at the Region 3 to Kyle Tino of Phillipsburg by a 10-9 decision, but then stormed back in the consolation round to win three times and finish third. He pinned Peter Tringali of Mendham in 2:46, then defeated Edgar Moreno of West Orange, 6-2, and then qualified for the state tournament by earning an 11-5 decision over Sebastian Cornejo of Morris Catholic.
Cantor is ready for the major obstacle of facing the state’s best in Atlantic City.
“I think it’s a hard challenge, but I’m ready,” Cantor said. “I faced a lot of seniors this year, so I’m ready for the challenge. I guess I shocked everyone by being the District champ, but I just knew I wanted it. I’m very happy. It’s just another step in my career. I’ve decided to dedicate myself and wrestle all year round.”
Maietta is hopeful that this is just the start for the talented freshman.
“I think he has the potential to be a very good one,” Maietta said. “A lot can happen over the next few years, but I just hope he feeds off his success and uses it as a springboard to reach higher goals. I think he has a lot of potential, but potential is nothing unless you work at it. He has to keep pushing forward. I think he will.” – Jim Hague.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.