The bizarre high school wrestling season just started last week, and veteran St. Peter’s Prep head coach Anthony Verdi found himself on the sidelines, dealing with a two-week quarantine due to exposure to the COVID-19 coronavirus.
No cause for alarm, because it wasn’t a case of the pandemic reaching the Marauders.
This instance came from within the Verdi household. One of Verdi’s children tested positive, causing him to step aside from the Marauders for two weeks right at the start of the new season.
“I’m coaching from afar,” Verdi said. “I will miss some dual meets, but our program is not going to skip a beat. I’m upset that I can’t be there, but I’m not concerned, because our coaching staff is solid.”
Verdi knows that this wrestling season – a truncated six-week in-between winter and spring campaign – is unlike anything ever assembled in New Jersey sports. Volleyball is another sport that will operate in this time frame this year.
But in this six-week period, it has to be extremely hard to compete in a sport that calls upon precision and timing with closely monitoring weight and diet. Plus, the wrestling season is usually history by April and this year, wrestlers are just getting geared up.
“Everything is so unexpected,” Verdi said. “It’s all day-to-day. We’re operating now, but it could all drop at any point. It’s really scary. One positive test could end the entire season. We’re doing everything by the book to make sure there are no problems.”
Verdi said that the Marauders have broken up practices into smaller groups. He has prohibited his wrestlers from going to wrestling clubs on their own, a popular practice in regular settings.
“It’s school, wrestling practice and home,” Verdi said. “Everything else can stay away until May. It may get monotonous and boring, but we are making sure everything is done right. So far, we’ve been okay. The kids are following the rules. But I can’t police them when they’re on their own.”
Verdi said that he hasn’t noticed any drop in the Marauders’ intensity and focus.
“It’s been working,” said Verdi, whose team has defeated West Essex and Bayonne so far at press time. “I don’t think it’s hurt our kids at all. I think it has helped our energy level. Sometimes, kids get burned out from practicing too much. It wears on them mentally and physically. Our practices have been upbeat and up tempo.”
The Marauders have a relatively young lineup with only four seniors.
“But it’s definitely an experienced group,” Verdi said. “We return five state qualifiers. We have kids who know the system and know what the expectations are of them. We’re not spending a lot of time on teaching technique. The drilling part of practice is easy. It’s ingrained into the senior class. They are examples for the underclassmen. So, practices flow. There won’t be any changes in how we operate.”
The Marauders’ lineup is solid.
At 106 pounds is freshman Jake Talarico, who has wrestled before on the youth level with some success in Union County.
“He has a good track record,” Verdi said. “There are a lot of unknowns at that weight class, but Jake is a pretty physical kid. He’s a little on the bigger side at 106. He’ll do just fine there. I expect Jake to compete with the best.”
The Marauders currently have two solid wrestlers at 113 pounds in junior Diogo Montalvo and sophomore Angelo Pellicci.
Pellicci went to the state tournament last year at 106 pounds and won more than 30 matches. Montalvo stepped in after an injury to the Marauders’ 113-pounder midway through the season and did a solid job. Verdi said that Montalvo and Pellicci will split time at 113 for the time being.
At 120 pounds is talented sophomore Donovan “D.J.” Chavis, who was the Marauders’ starter at 113 last year before a shoulder injury ended his campaign early. Chavis missed a good portion of the season last year but recovered in time to qualify for the state tournament.
“I’m excited to see what he can do,” Verdi said of Chavis. “He’s bouncing back from the injured shoulder, but he looks great.”
At 126 pounds is senior Patrick Adams, who has a ton of talent and experience to boot. It only seems as if Adams has been a fixture in the Marauders’ lineup for about 20 years. Adams is approaching the 100-win plateau and could get it if his season is extended.
“He’s a very unorthodox wrestler,” Verdi said. “He’s a tough kid to face. He has a funky style.”
Senior Sean Rendeiro is the Marauders’ 132-pounder with high hopes of wrestling the last week of April. Rendeiro was the Region 3 champion at 126 pounds last year.
“He’s a tough, hard-nosed kid,” Verdi said. “He has great technique. His skill level is exceptional. He’s extremely talented.”
Rendeiro could challenge for a state championship or at the very least he could finish among the top eight in the state at that weight class.
Junior Felix Lettini was the surprise of last season, when he practically came out of nowhere to win a district gold medal.
“I wasn’t sure how he was going to work out,” Verdi said of the 138-pound Lettini. “He had a good year last year. He won once in Atlantic City. He’s filled out more and he’s strong. He’s better technically. He cleaned up a few things and has improved a lot.”
Senior Mike Pestana is the team’s 145-pounder.
“He was in and out of our lineup last year,” Verdi said. “He has a lot of experience.”
Freshman J.J. Fuller is working his way into the lineup at either 145 or 152 pounds.
“He has a ton of potential,” Verdi said. “He’s up for the challenge and has been working really well.”
Fuller won both of his early matches against West Essex and Bayonne.
Dominick Lettini, the younger brother of Felix, is a 152-pound freshman.
“He’s a tough kid who has a big upside,” Verdi said. “He’s going to be a good one. He has a very bright future.”
Junior Roger Diaz is a 160-pounder.
“He’s very athletic and very scrappy,” Verdi said. “He’s naturally strong and uses that strength to his advantage.”
Junior Pat Groo is the team’s 170-pounder.
“He’s a little inexperienced, but he’s a hard worker who is doing all the right things to get better,” Verdi said. “He’s a good team kid.”
Senior Antonio Villatoro is the Marauders’ 182-pounder.
“He’s been a really nice surprise,” Verdi said. “He has a few varsity matches under his belt and he won his first two matches this year.”
Senior Bobby Auld is a 195-pounder who has cracked the varsity lineup this year.
“He’s come a long way and he’s now getting his shot,” Verdi said.
Freshman Martin Martinetti is the Marauders’ 220-pounder. That’s a tough weight class for a 14-year-old freshman facing experienced mature men.
“He has to continue to mature physically,” Verdi said. “Once he fills into his role more, he’ll be fine. He’s a tough kid.”
Verdi said that he was glad to be able to put a team on the mat.
“I’m happy that the seniors are getting that last shot,” Verdi said. “It’s awesome to be back in the [wrestling] room. It’s just nice that we were able to survive all the craziness. It’s been over a year since we were there.”
And for Verdi, it might take just a little while longer.
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com, follow Jim on Twitter @ogsmar and listen to the Hudson County Sports Podcast, brought to you weekly by Stan’s Sports Center, 528 Washington Street in Hoboken, on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Listen to this week’s guest, namely the legendary Togo Palazzi, the former Union Hill and College of Holy Cross All-American who spent eight years with the Boston Celtics in the 1950s.