When James Cruz was just a freshman joining the wrestling team at St. Peter’s Prep, he expected greatness, coming from a solid youth wrestling program in Belleville.
There was only one problem. Cruz did not experience instant success. In fact, Cruz won only three matches his first year as a Marauder mat man.
“It was hard adjusting for me, because I had a lot of success in middle school,” Cruz said. “I used to win all the time and now I won only three times.”
Cruz had a practically invisible record of 3-7 as a freshman. For someone who started wrestling when he was in third grade, Cruz anticipated success on the high school level right away and it didn’t come.
“It was a little rough for me,” Cruz said.
But there were no thoughts of walking away, like many others do when they don’t instantly enjoy the sweet smell of success.
“Wrestling is something that I always enjoyed doing,” Cruz said. “I always had a passion for the sport. I wasn’t about to let that losing record make me lose sight of something that I loved to do. I just had to make sure I got better.”
Cruz’s teammate and friend Niccolo Colucci had to endure a lot of the same when he was a freshman. Colucci posted a nondescript 9-17 record as a freshman three years ago.
Maybe it was a little harder for Colucci to swallow, considering that his father, Dean, was a state champion for Xaverian High School in Brooklyn and his older brother, Christian, was a state champion for Prep in 2015. Christian Colucci now wrestles for Rutgers University.
The pressures of keeping up with family tradition had to be extremely difficult for Niccolo Colucci to handle.
“It was destined for me to be a wrestler,” Niccolo Colucci said. “Christian always gave me someone to look up to. I could try to compare myself to him. He pushed me a little if I needed to be pushed.”
And of course, Dean Colucci was a major part in the development of his youngest son.
“My Dad had a whole schedule mapped out for me,” Niccolo Colucci said. “As soon as last year was over, I was ready to go more than ever. I was 100 percent ready to win and become a state champion.”
Both Cruz and Colucci developed into stellar high school wrestlers, even after their less than stellar freshman campaigns.
In fact, the 170-pound Cruz and the 220-pound Colucci were both victorious at both the NJSIAA District 16 and Region 4 tournaments, heading off to the recent state tournament at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City with exactly similar 32-4 records.
Although Cruz is also a baseball player, he found the time to head to the Bitetto Wrestling Club in Teterboro, headed by former Hackensack state champion Chris Bitetto, almost religiously, going three times a week during the off-season and more when the high school season drew closer.
“I was able to balance the two,” Cruz said. “But once baseball season was over, I was back wrestling at the club. I knew had to get better.”
St. Peter’s Prep head wrestling coach Brian Innis saw the improvement in Cruz.
“He worked his tail off,” Innis said. “He made the decision to get better and he did. He turned the corner after his freshman year and was 100 percent dedicated to the sport.”
Colucci continued his workout regimen with his father and two brothers, Christian and older brother Dante, another former Prep wrestler.
So the two friends and workout partners headed to Atlantic City with a chance to secure some state glory, which they both did. Colucci finished fourth at 220 pounds and Cruz was fifth at 170.
Incredibly, in winning his final bout, taking the fifth-place match over Ethan Craft of Rancocas Valley, Cruz collected the 100th victory of his career. Cruz never would have received the chance to earn the 100th victory if he wasn’t in the consolation wrestleback round, where he won an incredible six times.
So with Colucci placing fourth and Cruz fifth, the two became just the latest in a long line of Prep wrestlers to earn medals and stand on the podium in Atlantic City.
And for their efforts, Colucci and Cruz have been selected as The Hudson Reporter Co-Athletes of the Week for the past week. It marks the first time this season that there have been co-recipients of the weekly award.
Colucci earned the same distinction that older brother Christian did in 2015 when he won the state championship at 220 pounds.
For Colucci, finishing fourth was extremely bittersweet, because he lost to the eventual state champion, Zach Delvecchio of South Plainfield, 3-2, on a controversial out-of-bounds call, then lost in the finals of the consolation round to Gage Armijo of Mendham by a 10-6 score.
“I was pretty devastated [after the loss to Delvecchio],” Colucci said. “If my family wasn’t there with me, I might not have been able to bounce back. My brothers were there and so were my parents. If I had to come back and wrestle the same night, that might have been tough. But I had the whole night to be disappointed, then gather myself and come back.”
Colucci said that he watched his friend and workout partner win his final match and get to the 100-win plateau.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have been watching, but I couldn’t help myself,” Colucci said. “I’m really happy for him.”
Innis was happy for both of his wrestlers.
“I have not coached a group of seniors that I’m more proud of,” Innis said. “These guys weren’t standouts right out of the gate. They worked so hard to get where they are. It’s unbelievable to see them standing on the podium, getting their medal. It’s so great what they were able to accomplish. James Cruz is exactly the type of kid who you want to use as an example. He won three times as a freshman and he won six times in Atlantic City his last weekend. That says a lot. It was an emotional day, a very special weekend.”
Colucci knew that he had to recapture himself and come back to get fourth.
“Once I lost, I needed to get the next best thing,” Colucci said. “I knew I would regret it forever if I didn’t. I’m happy for the opportunity to place in the tournament. I trained my whole life for that moment.”
Cruz said that he wanted to be remembered in a different fashion.
“I like to be known as a villain,” Cruz said. “I like being a villain. My goal was to be New Jersey’s biggest villain. I don’t mind it at all.”
And once the season was over, there was no need to worry about cutting weight. So Cruz went to a local restaurant and was a villain to the menu.
“I ate three appetizers and had two milkshakes,” Cruz said.
Baseball season had indeed begun. – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com