HAZLET – The Raritan Rockets are in search of their first state championship since 2012 when they beat Delsea, 30-28, to capture its first and only group title in program history winning the NJSIAA Group II championship.
They advanced to the group tournament that year by beating Delaware Valley – a long-time thorn in their side – 30-29, to win its second sectional title in program history and first since 2004 taking the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II championship.
They’ve come close in recent years reaching the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II final the past three years only to be turned away each time by their nemesis, Delaware Valley.
Last season Delaware Valley beat the Rockets, 36-26, in the CJG II final and the Terriers then went on to capture the Group II championship finishing ranked ninth in the state. The two previous years Del Valley squeaked by the Rockets by one point in heartbreaking 30-29 and 31-30 losses in the 2015 and 2016 sectional finals.
“We won the Group II state championship in 2012 but have gotten beat by them in the finals since then,” long- time Raritan head coach Rob Nucci said. “It’s turned into a great rivalry and I have a lot of respect for them and even though they’re over an hour away it seems to be one of the best rivalries in sectional history. I don’t think any other two teams have met up as much as us and yea, they’re a thorn in our side, that’s an understatement. It’s been frustrating, but they make us better. We are who we are because they drive us to beat them year in and year out and that’s what it’s all about.”
The good news for the Rockets is that after one of the best seasons in program history last year, they returned 11 starters, including seniors Russell Benson, Robert Taddeo, Charles Barrale and Ethan Wolfe – all District 20 champions.
The quartet led the Rockets to the District 20 team championship for their first team title since 2011 and as a team the Rockets sent a group of 11 wrestlers to the Region 5 tournament.
“We won the district tournament outpointing Monroe, who was ranked higher than us in the state last year,” said Nucci of his team’s district title. “We had a heck of a tournament. What set us up (this year) is we had most of our guys returning and in my 21 years coaching here this might be the best team I’ve ever had and we’ve had some pretty darn good teams here.”
The Rockets went 26-3 a year ago and finished ranked second in the Shore Conference and 14th in the state. They won the Shore Conference Class A championship for the seventh straight year for their 12th division title in the last 13 seasons.
Raritan also advanced to the Shore Conference Tournament final before falling to Howell, 36-24, and the Rebels went on to finish 30-1 as the No. 1 team in the Shore while finishing ranked sixth in the state.
This season the Rockets have kept the engines humming, posting a 10-1 record with their only loss coming against No. 8 Seton Hall Prep back on Dec. 23.
A year ago Benson claimed first place in Region 5 but fell one win shy of medaling in the state tournament. This season, wrestling at 132 pounds, his record stands at 15-1 after posting a 38-3 record a year ago.
After placing first in the districts and fifth in the regions last season, Wolfe is undefeated so far this season posting a 15-0 record in the heavyweight class and has looked unbeatable. Teddeo meanwhile is wrestling at 113 this season with a 10-6 record following a 2017 campaign when he went 27-12 and placed first in the districts.
Senior A.J. Erven, who recorded a 27-7 record last season at 126, is 15-1 this season now wrestling at 138, and senior Christian Sookdeo has a 10-5 record at 145 after posting a 23-6 record at 138 last season.
Junior Anthony Aquilano went up a couple of classes from 152 to 170 pounds with good results going 13-4 this season after going 18-7 a year ago and taking home a second in the districts and after going 13-11 at 160, and placing third in the districts a year ago senior Nick Polaco dropped down to 152 and is currently 8-8.
Junior George Brudick has been stellar for the second year in a row going 13-1 in the 182 weight class after placing second in District 20 and fifth in the regions a year ago posting a spectacular 33-6 record, while junior Justin Acevedo is wrestling again at 195 this season and checks in at 13-4 after recording a 20-10 record a year ago with a third-place finish in the districts.
Senior Dylan Loonay went 7-7 a year ago at 170 and after dropping down to 160 this season is 8-3, while his brother Mike Loonay is 8-8 after moving up to the 120 weight class after going 8-3 last season at 106 pounds last season.
Junior Cameron Rafalko has been solid posting a 7-9 record moving up a class to 126 after going 13-17 at 120 last season.
Raritan is solid top-to-bottom with quality depth at most weight classes. They’re unquestionably one of the top teams in the state and that should translate into a state title this year barring any unforeseen events. The road to the Shore Conference Tournament championship will be a bit bumpier with Howell – ranked No. 3 in the state – standing in their way.
“The thing that has always made us very good is that we’re a Blue Collar Town,” said Nucci. “We don’t have many kids that belong to wrestling clubs because of finances but what we do better than anyone is we take kids throughout the summer to different tournaments and dual meets. We wrestle as a team; we don’t do much individual work and what that sets up is that where we’re a very balanced team. We don’t have any superstars but we have a good guy at every weight class and that’s kind of the makeup of our team – a well-balanced team with quality wrestlers at every weight class. Hopefully this year we’re going to push more guys to Atlantic City
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