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Historic day for North Bergen wrestling; Freshman Pace becomes first girl region champ

North Bergen sent three female wrestlers to the first-ever all-girls’ region tournament at Red Bank Regional and crowned the first-ever female region champ in Amanda Pace (second from left). From left are head coach and athletic director Jerry Maietta, Pace, Emelin Aguilar, Sujeydy Gonzalez, assistant coach Jon Webber and assistant coach Kelvin Hernandez
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North Bergen sent three female wrestlers to the first-ever all-girls’ region tournament at Red Bank Regional and crowned the first-ever female region champ in Amanda Pace (second from left). From left are head coach and athletic director Jerry Maietta, Pace, Emelin Aguilar, Sujeydy Gonzalez, assistant coach Jon Webber and assistant coach Kelvin Hernandez

Amanda Pace started wrestling when she was just six years old.

She wasn’t afraid to start practicing and training, even though there weren’t a lot of girl wrestlers.

“When I started wrestling, there weren’t any other girls,” Pace said. “The next year, there were a few. I had two cousins (Anthony and Kyle DeOrio, who currently plays football at Monroe College in New York) who wrestled and I used to wrestle around with them. I watched them a lot and just fell in love with it.”

So Pace became a wrestler.

“At first, my father wasn’t happy,” Pace said. “He told me no. I brought a paper home to have him fill it out so that I could wrestle. It was something I wanted. After a while, he got used to it.”

By the time Pace hit sixth grade, she was becoming proficient at wrestling.

One of her coaches at North Bergen Recreation was former North Bergen wrestler Bobby Dabal, who was a four-time region champion during his days as a Bruin.

“The coaches taught me all the little things that gave me the extra push,” Pace said. “It was good to know that I had people behind me. As I got older, I ended up going up against the biggest and toughest guys. I stuck with the sport the longest and became mentally tough.”

Last year, Pace won the Park Ridge Tournament against boys. It was the first time that a girl won that tournament.

So by the time Pace enrolled at High Tech High School last September, she was determined to wrestle at the high school level. She would compete at North Bergen High School, because High Tech doesn’t offer sports.

Veteran North Bergen wrestling coach Jerry Maietta said that he has always had an open door philosophy when it comes to girls wanting to wrestle.

“They’re fine, as long as they are willing to work,” said Maietta, who also doubles as the school’s athletic director. “They’re just like everyone else.”

A little more than a year ago, Emelin Aguilar joined the wrestling team at North Bergen, becoming the lone female on the team – before Pace joined the Bruins last November.

“They were in the room just like the rest of the team,” Maietta said. “I knew that Amanda had wrestled for a number of years with the North Bergen Recreation program. I could tell right away that she had the fundamentals down pat.”

And the NJSIAA recognized that more and more girls wanted to participate in wrestling, so for the first time this year they initiated a region wrestling tournament strictly for girls.

That tournament was held recently at Red Bank Regional High School.

“It was exciting knowing that there would be a chance for Amanda to wrestle against the girls,” Maietta said. “She had a handful of matches with the boys’ varsity, so it was interesting to see what she could do against the girls.”

Pace had a little experience, because she wrestled in the first-ever all-girls wrestling tournament at Bloomfield High School during the Christmas holidays and finished second in her weight class.

So Pace was poised to do well at the first-ever all-girls NJSIAA region tourney.

“I don’t know if I was happy or excited, but I was ready,” Pace said. “I had wrestled for so long. I thought I had a shot.”

As part of her preparation, Pace went regularly to the RedNose Wrestling School in Cresskill. She would go to the practices at North Bergen High in the afternoon, then go home for a bit, then head to RedNose at night.

“It was a long day, but it was part of the process,” Pace said. “I just learned how to adjust my schedule.”

Pace performed well at the region tournament at Red Bank, taking home the gold medal in the 147-pound weight class, becoming the first local female to ever win a region tournament. She also earned the right to participate at the NJSIAA state championships in Atlantic City.

North Bergen honors its region champs by putting their names on the wall of the school.

“She belongs on the wall just like every other region champ,” Maietta said. “She has good mat awareness and knows the sport well. The Bruins will be going back to Atlantic City. She guaranteed that. It was good for her. I knew she could wrestle, but no one knew what to expect at this region tournament, because it was the first one.”

Maietta believes that this was just the start, sending Pace, Aguilar and Sujeydy Gonzalez to the first-ever all-girls region.

“I think the sport is going to grow,” Maietta said. “For a first year, there were a lot of girls there. This was a good start. It may come to the day where we have a full girls’ wrestling team at North Bergen. Whatever is best for the kids, we’ll do it.”

“I think there are going to be a lot of girls who want to try out the sport,” Pace said. “It’s up to them if they want to put in the work. Being a region champ, I am proud of myself, but I want to do more.”

Meaning becoming a state champion.

“That would be nice,” said Pace, who will be a pitcher for the North Bergen softball team next month. “Winning a state championship in Atlantic City would be a dream come true. It would be surreal. The fact that I’m going to be there is amazing. The guys will be there, but there’s a simple fact that I’m here, too. I can finally show that I belong.”

Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com and follow Jim on Twitter @ogsmar.