ATLANTIC CITY -- In the past year Eric McMullen’s life has undergone some major changes, some for the better and others which have tested him. For the most part it’s been a storybook season for the North Bergen senior, but everything was flashing before his eyes as four seconds remained in the third period.
McMullen was trailing Christian Brothers Academy’s Hayden Hrymack 1-0, his goal of becoming a state champ about to be derailed. But off a restart with a few ticks left on the clock, McMullen burst to his feet to tie the bout at 1 and force overtime. Early in the sudden victory period McMullen drove Hrymack forward and secured his legs near the edge of the circle, scoring the only takedown of the bout. The come-from-behind 3-1 semifinal victory Saturday evening at Boardwalk Hall thrust McMullen into the 195-pound NJSIAA championship bout.
“When I was on defense I was just thinking about everything I’ve been through,” McMullen said. “My coach just said close your eyes, listen to the whistle and get up. I just went for it as hard as I could. I wanted it more than him. I just got up.”
In overtime McMullen used that momentum to push the pace and score the early takedown to advance to Sunday’s 195-pound final against Don Bosco Prep’s Razohnn Gross. McMullen defeated Gross 5-3 in the Bergen County final in their only meeting this season.
Last season McMullen was a Region VIII champion for Paulsboro but transferred to North Bergen in the offseason. He won a state championship in football during the fall and is one bout away from adding an individual wrestling title to his resume. What a difference a year makes.
“Last year this time I was out of the state tournament, I lost my first two,” McMullen said. “If anyone told me a year from then I’d be at North Bergen, win a state title in football, win counties, districts and regions in wrestling, I would have told them they were a liar.”
“Coming here from Paulsboro, it was a big adjustment. It was a big sacrifice leaving everyone I knew but as a man you have to do what has to be done sometimes.”
McMullen will be aiming to become just the second state champ in Bruins history. John Bott won the 170-pound title in 1983.
When Morris Knolls senior Jermaine Eluemunor came to the United States from England midway through his freshman year wrestling was nowhere near his radar. Head coach Larry Rizzo coaxed him away from the basketball court and onto the wrestling mat, and two and a half years later he finds himself in the heavyweight state final.
Eluemunor beat Piscataway’s Beniah Harrigan 3-2 in the ultimate tiebreaker when Harrigan was called for locking hands as he attempted a rideout. Now Eluemunor will look to complete his unlikely journey to a state title when he faces Northern Burlington’s Cody Melton.
“I tried getting up but he locked around my ankles and I couldn’t get up,” Eluemunor said. “But then I saw that he he got called for locking hands. I just thought, ‘my first year here and I’m in the finals. It’s crazy’.”
Morris Knolls has never had a state champion, and last had a finalist in 1966 when Fred Piotrowsky finished second at 141 pounds.
Freshman took center stage at 106 and 113 pounds as both Hanover Park’s Anthony Cefolo and DePaul’s Dave McFadden scored upsets to advance to their respective finals. Cefolo edged top-seeded Jan Rosenberg from Morris Knolls, 6-3 to avenge a loss in the Morris County final. Cefolo will face JFK-Iselin’s Carl Buttitta, who defeated Brick Memorial’s Joe Ghione 10-0 in the other 106-pound semifinal.
McFadden looked tremendous in a 6-0 victory over Toms River South’s Kevin Corrigan, who was a favorite to reach the final. In the quarterfinals, McFadden beat Delbarton’s Christian Innarella 11-4. Since losing twice at the Beast of the East McFadden is undefeated.
“I can’t even tell you what’s going through my head, honestly,” said an elated McFadden. “I look up and see this crowd and realize I’m wrestling in the state final. I have one more match and I believe I can do it.”
McFadden will face Seton Hall Prep’s Brendan Calas, a returning state champ. In a rematch of last season’s 103-pound state championship bout, Calas outlasted North Bergen’s Luis Gonzalez 4-2 in overtime.
“It would be awesome to repeat, especially considering the way things have gone this year,” Calas said.
An elbow injury limited Calas during the regular season and a pair of losses to Innarella had cast some doubt to whether Calas had it in him to win another title. So much for that.
The stunning upset - and there’s always one - came at 145 pounds when Toms River South senior Ken Theobold knocked off Camden Catholic’s T.J. Miller, 7-6. Miller was the state champion at 135 pounds last season and had not lost in New Jersey in two seasons.
Theobold outmuscled Miller in the first period with one thunderous takedown early, setting the tone for the entire bout. A third-period escape gave Theobold the one-point lead and he was able to hold off Miller to reach the final.
“I think the first takedown always means a lot in a match and that first one kind of broke him a bit,” Theobold said.
Theobold led 4-2 after one and 5-4 after two, never allowing Miller to impose his will.
“I know everyone thought T.J. Miller was going to come back and win and in my mind I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, it was going to be a tough fight,” Theobold said. “Right now I think I can beat anyone and I think the state title is mine.”
At 120 pounds, Troy Heilmann exacted revenge on Nutley’s Robert Trombetta with a 2-0 semifinal win. Trombetta pinned Heilmann when South Plainfield and Nutley wrestled in the sectional tournament. Watchung Hills sophomore Mike Magaldo emerged from the loaded bottom bracket with a 4-2 overtime win over North Bergen’s Anthony Giraldo. Magaldo and Heilmann will meet for the fourth time this season. Heilmann has won the previous three bouts.
Heilmann’s teammate Anthony Ashnault kept his quest for perfection going with an 8-2 victory over Delaware Valley’s Mike Pongracz at 126. Ashnault goes for state title number three and a 130-0 career record against Hunterdon Central’s Gary Dinmore, who surprised Jackson Memorial’s Brian Hamann 4-2 in overtime.
The Scott DelVecchio-Connor Melde rematch won’t happen at 132 pounds thanks to Timber Creek’s Brandon Keller topping Melde 3-1 in the semifinals. DelVecchio improved to 43-0 with a pin over Livingston’s Jason Estevez in 4:38.
South Plainfield’s “Murderer’s Row” made it four straight finalists when senior Tyler Hunt topped Camden Catholic’s Chad Walsh 5-2. He’ll face Toms River South’s B.J. Clagon, who beat Rutherford’s John Boyle 6-1. Hunt is 43-0 this season while Clagon is 40-0.
Don Bosco Prep’s Sal Mastriani cruised into the final with a 9-4 win over East Brunswick’s Jonathan Schleifer at 152. The undefeated senior will square off against Trenton’s Ray Bethea (36-0) in the final.
At 160, Johnny Sebastian gave Bergen Catholic its first finalist since Jonathan Becker in 2008 by defeating Becton-Wallington’s James Dugan, 3-2. The Crusaders sophomore gets undefeated Hammonton senior Phil Bakuckas (41-0) in the final. Bakuckas is Hammonton’s first finalist in program history. Bergen Catholic’s last state champ was Joe Trause in 2007.
Mendham’s Ryan Harrington kept his perfect season intact by scoring a 5-2 decision over Hawthorne’s Ethan Ramos at 170 pounds. His opponent in the finals is Haddon Township’s Steve Nelson, a 3-2 winner over St. Peter’s Prep’s Anthony Pafumi. The North Carolina-bound Harrington is looking to become Mendham’s first two-time state champ.
Jackson Memorial’s Dallas Winston advanced to his second straight state final with a 1-0 win over Becton-Wallington’s Bryan Loughlin. He’ll face Piscataway’s Tevin Shaw, also a returning finalist, who beat Roselle Park’s Vic Pozsonyi 3-2 in the ultimate tiebreaker. Winston lost to James Fox of St. Peter’s Prep in the 189-pound final last year while Shaw lost to High Point’s Ethan Orr at 170.
Brandon Hull gave Group IV champion Phillipsburg it’s first finalist since Steve Kempinski in 1999 with a 3-2 win over Holy Cross’s Mauro Correnti at 220. The Stateliners’ last year with a state champ was 1996 when both Tim Moore (130) and Mark DeFrancesco (189) captured gold. He get’s Lacey’s Lex Knapp in the final. Knapp eked out a 2-1 overtime win over St. Joe’s (Hammonton) junior Roy Lucas. Knapp is just the second finalist in program history. Current CBA head coach Russ Witt won Lacey’s only state championship at 119 in 1997.
Final round action resumes Sunday with the third, fifth and seventh-place bouts at 10 a.m. followed by the finals at 2 p.m.
Bob Badders covers wrestling for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @Bob_Badders