When the high school wrestling season began a few weeks ago, St. Peter’s Prep head coach Anthony Verdi knew that he had the makings of a solid team, perhaps the best he’s had since he took over the program a few years ago.
“We returned a lot of kids, like 11 varsity letter winners, four state qualifiers, and a state placer winner [Kevin Innis],” Verdi said. “We knew we had a solid and balanced lineup. It’s probably the most balanced and deepest team we’ve had. We have a lot of sophomores and we’re still predominately sophomores, but they’re battle-tested. They’re all pretty experienced now.”
In fact, Verdi was so confident that the Marauders would be a force to be reckoned with this season that he began the year by taking his team to a prestigious national tournament in Reno, Nevada.
“I thought it would be a good experience to build some character and chemistry,” Verdi said. “A lot of our kids have already wrestled on the national level, so it was important for them to start off strong.”
However, there aren’t a lot of people who thought that the Marauders would start off the season with an impressive 9-0 undefeated mark, including two huge wins last weekend over Parochial rivals Bergen Catholic and St. Joseph of Montvale.
“It was a nice day for the program,” Verdi said. “It was good to see both of those rivals before the state sectionals. Bergen Catholic has been the big dog for so long.”
It was the first time that the Marauders defeated BC since knocking the Crusaders off twice in the NJSIAA Parochial A finals in 2000 and 2001, giving the Marauders their only two state wrestling titles.
The undefeated start has enabled the Marauders to earn a No. 13 ranking in the recent statewide rankings by the Newark Star-Ledger.
“It’s tremendous to see St. Peter’s Prep among the names like Phillipsburg, Paulsboro, and Kittatinny,” Verdi said. “We’re right there with them. It’s pretty amazing. We have a lot of season left and we have to see what we’re made of, but right now, it’s a good feeling.”
The Marauders are fortunate to have most of a bunch of fabulous freshmen from a year ago back for another season. They’re also lucky to have the 215-pound Innis, who finished fifth in the entire state last year, back for his final year. Innis currently is ranked as the No. 1 wrestler in New Jersey at his weight class and he has a 15-1 record, with his only loss coming in the finals of the Reno tournament. Innis is rapidly approaching Sean O’Grady’s school record for career wins (Innis has 114, O’Grady’s mark is 117). Innis is also ranked No. 10 in the entire nation at 215 pounds.
“He’s the leader of the team, the captain, the role model,” Verdi said. “The younger kids all look up to him and the way he conducts himself. Kevin is constantly looking to get better. He works so hard and he’s a great student as well. He’s definitely the presence in the wrestling room and has taken the younger kids under his wing.”
The Marauders have two other wrestlers who are ranked among the state’s best in sophomore 125-pounder Lenny Richardson and sophomore 160-pounder Tony Pafumi.
Richardson won 32 matches as a freshman last year and earned a berth in Atlantic City at the state championships. Pafumi set a new school freshman record with 33 wins last year. Both are currently ranked sixth in the state in their respective weight classes and both won District 16 championships last year.
Frank Colom, who missed most of the start of the season with an injury, is another talented sophomore who will fit in at 135 pounds. Colom was second at District 16 last season.
Another returning district champ is junior 171-pounder James Fox, who earned Hudson Reporter All-Area honors as a defensive end in the fall. Fox was second at the region tourney a year ago.
“James is a tough kid who is quick on his feet and smart,” Verdi said.
Frank Biafore, who was second in the district at 103 last year and won more than 20 matches, returns at that weight. Jimmymack Casey, a freshman, is the Marauders’ 112-pounder. Sophomore Ryan Thornton and freshman Farris Dwider are handling the 119-pound duties.
Senior Frank Pestana is the team’s 130-pounder, with another senior, Joe Buckman, just about ready to contribute after undergoing knee surgery. Freshman James Kellner is in the mix with Buckman and Pestana in the 130-to-135 pound weight class.
Sophomore Brian Merkel, another of last year’s fabulous freshmen, is back at 145. Junior Devin Ruiz, who was second in the district last year, is doing well at 152 and has 12 wins this season.
Junior James Lancellotti is the team’s 189-pounder. Lancellotti is another football player who wrestles, as does the team’s heavyweight, Gianni McLaughlin.
McLaughlin, who earned First Team All-State honors from The Star-Ledger for his play on the gridiron in the fall, has returned to the wrestling mat after competing three years ago as a freshman.
“He wanted to have a chance to end his high school career on a championship team,” Verdi said.
McLaughlin may get his wish. The Marauders are that talented.
They have a showdown upcoming against Delbarton, the team that knocked them out of the state sectionals a year ago. But the young Marauders are a year better, a year stronger, a year wiser – with one of the state’s best wrestlers to lead them. It looks like a perfect combination.
“It’s been great so far,” Verdi said. “Let’s see what happens.”
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.