It was supposed to be a great season, a memorable season for the North Bergen High School wrestling team. After all, aren’t they all successful memories with the Bruins?
Considering that ever since Jerry Maietta, now also the athletic director at the school, took over as the head wrestling coach 23 years ago, the Bruins have dipped under the .500 mark just once. And appearances in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group V sectionals have become an annual occurrence, having qualified for the states in each of the eight prior seasons to the 2019-2020 campaign.
So Maietta had high hopes for his squad with all the returning talent he had.
But then, disaster started to strike. Justin Cantor, who ended last season on the mats of Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall competing in the NJSIAA state championships, suffered a torn ACL and was lost for the season.
“We had other kids that we thought were coming back who decided not to come out this year,” Maietta said. “In September, I was figuring out our lineup, but by October, you could have thrown that out.”
That’s because another returning senior Mike Sierra was really gearing up for a great final season.
“I worked hard in the summer to get ready,” Sierra said.
But while training in October, Sierra suffered a serious groin injury that eventually required tedious and potentially dangerous surgery.
“It was an unusual injury,” Sierra said. “I thought it was over. It was tough being a senior, especially with all the time I put into it. To have that kind of injury was really tough on me.”
Sierra was penciled in as the Bruins’ 195-pounder, but those plans were scratched.
Luckily the team had very talented incoming freshman 138-pounder in Joshua Palacio, a wrestler who had an impressive resume on the mat even before he stepped into North Bergen High.
Palacio wrestled for the previous five years, traveling to the Olympic Wrestling Club in Wyckoff in Bergen County to train.
“I used to be involved in gymnastics,” Palacio said. “But then I got too heavy. I was a little chubby boy. Someone told showed me a little bit about wrestling and I loved it. It teaches you about life lessons and how to never give up. I feel such excitement every time I get on the mat.”
Palacio also had another excellent drilling partner, namely two-time state champion Anthony Giraldo, who resides in Guttenberg.
“He has a mat in his garage,” Palacio said. “I wrestle with him a lot. It really helps. If I can wrestle and get two points on a two-time state champ like Anthony Giraldo, then that’s an accomplishment.”
So does Palacio stand a chance against Giraldo?
“Nah, he beats me up,” Palacio laughed. “I love it. I feel grateful for the opportunity to wrestle with him.”
And Palacio had one goal in mind.
“If I can go to the states as a freshman, that would be great,” Palacio said. “That’s the goal of the whole team.”
Ricky Perez is the team’s first-year junior heavyweight. He was an underrated wrestler who never hit the mats before this season but managed to hit the NJSIAA District 9 postseason tournament with a record of 18-11.
“I enjoy the sport a lot,” Perez said. “It was my first year, but I put a lot of effort and work into it. I knew what kind of results I would get out of it. I played football a lot longer and that helped me a lot with wrestling. I saw an opportunity this year and I took it.”
Perez managed to win that District 9 gold medal, a distinction that puts his name on the Bruin Wall of Honor in the gym.
“It is going to mean a lot to see my name up there,” Perez said. “Maybe some first-time kids will see it and believe they could do the same.”
Perez was the lone Bruin to win District 9 this season.
“It’s going to mean a lot for next year,” Perez said. “The other guys in the locker room talk garbage, but I’m the only one who won. I’m making plans to go pretty far. I’m confident and happy.”
Sierra somehow managed to get the medical clearance to return to the mats in early February, in time for the Hudson County Duals at Union City. He then competed in the Bruins’ match in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group V playoffs against Bloomfield at 220 pounds.
“I had to get back into shape after missing the entire year,” Sierra said. “I didn’t have enough time to cut weight. I didn’t care what weight class I was in. I just wanted to compete. The only worry I had was getting hit there [his groin] again. But I felt pretty good.”
Sierra finished second in the District 9 tournament to the eventual state champion P.J. Casale of Delbarton. He also finished third in the Region 3 tourney to also punch his ticket to Atlantic City, along with Palacio and one other Bruin wrestler.
The other state qualifier was Amanda Pace, who once again made it to Atlantic City in the girls’ division. The sophomore Pace, who is also a standout pitcher on the North Bergen softball team, finished second in the state in the girls’ division at 161 pounds.
“I think she was a little more confident this year,” Maietta said. “She wrestled every day with the boys, so I think that definitely helps. She also shows an extra amount of grit on the diamond when she’s pitching. I think her success in wrestling carries over to softball.”
“I think I bring that wrestling mind to the mound,” Pace said. “If I get in a tough spot, I think about how I wrestle. Wrestling has helped me with softball and it sort of kicks off my season.”
Pace knew what she was expecting in Atlantic City, considering she competed there last year.
“It was no more new, so that helped me a lot,” Pace said. “I knew what the atmosphere was going to be like. I knew how to prepare. Last year, I felt like everyone’s eyes were on me.”
Pace doesn’t mind wrestling against both the boys and the girls.
“I wrestle girls all year round in girls’ tournaments,” Pace said. “When I wrestle a boy, I’m able to adjust. I think it’s to my advantage. Wrestling is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, both mentally and physically.”
Because of their success that sort of flew under the radar locally, the quartet of successful Bruin wrestlers, namely Palacio, Sierra, Perez and Pace have been selected as Hudson Reporter Co-Athletes of the Week for the past week.
Maietta can look to the future with three of the four, with only Sierra graduating.
Palacio, who finished 37-5 this season with three of the losses coming to two-time state champion Anthony Clark of Delbarton, has a ton of potential.
“This kid can wrestle,” Maietta said. “He likes to compete. It’s good that I have him for the next three years. He has a lot of potential and a lot of room to grow.”
Sierra’s story is remarkable. He thought his career was history.
“I worked hard for four years for this,” Sierra said. “To compete in Atlantic City was amazing. It felt great. I missed almost the whole year and I made it to Atlantic City.”
Sierra is already back in the gym training. He hopes to wrestle in college next year somewhere.
And the rest? They’ll be gracing the North Bergen wrestling room, competing with the Heart of a Bruin. – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com