Hopewell Valley High wrestling coach Mario Harpel is bestowing huge praise on Eric Barbera when he says “Hopewell Valley is a tough wrestling program; we’ve had a lot of success and been fortunate … and Eric Barbera works as hard as anyone that’s come through our program.”

The main reason for that is Barbera’s self-described mindset.

“I’m always moving forward,” the senior said. “It’s on to the next match or on to the next practice. I never take easy days. I have two modes. One is cruise, which is going pretty hard. Another is intensive, which is going really hard. I guess there’s a snooze button on there, too.”

If there is, Harpel has yet to see it in four years of coaching Barbera.

“He is relentless in the practice room,” Harpel said. “He’s relentless in a match, and the beauty of him is he’s always there. It doesn’t go away. That is just a great cornerstone for our program because we have a lot of great kids. I’m proud of every kid that has been through the room and Eric has always epitomized what we want to be and how we want to wrestle. You wouldn’t believe how hard he works. It’s almost mind boggling.”

Barbera said his worth ethic came from his father, along with several older cousins and brothers who “introduced” him to wrestling by roughing him up as a little kid.

“My father is actually the same way,” Eric said of working hard. “It’s just how we are as Barberas. I’ve been doing sports my entire life. In soccer I always did the work.

“I enjoy it. I enjoy it a lot. You have to enjoy what you do. I work myself as hard as I can in practice and use that. The preparation is essential.”

Barbera has spent many years preparing for his final season of high school wrestling.

“I’m used to wrestling older siblings,” he said, adding with a laugh. “I was always the youngest, and they pretty much drug me into what they were doing and beat up on me. My uncle mentioned I should try wrestling, and as soon as we moved to New Jersey my dad put me in the Hopewell rec program in fourth grade, so wrestling has always been a big part of my life.”

As he came up through the ranks, Barbera enjoyed stellar success at Timberlane Middle School. He placed second in the Mercer County Middle School Tournament in sixth grade and won the title in seventh and eighth. His eighth-grade year produced a 20-0 record. When he arrived at HVCHS, Barbera battled for the varsity starting job at 130 pounds with senior Tim Gainsborg.

“We had some pretty close wrestle-offs,” Barbera said. “But he had those three years on me.”

Barbera wrestled JV that year and lost just once all season.

“You could see it in him as a freshman,” Harpel said. “It was always there for him. You could see it early, what he possessed mentally to get into practice and so forth. It’s really been there since he got here. I’ve never seen him back down.”

Although he only got a few varsity matches as a freshman, Barbera felt his ninth-grade season helped prepare him immensely for what was to come on varsity. And being on the JV only motivated him more.

“The whole program does the same workouts in practice,” he said. “All of the JV works just as hard as the varsity team. I think it was a good experience. Just going to practice, seeing the varsity guys, I kind of envied them. It just pushed me to work harder.”

Eric burst onto the varsity scene by winning the Mercer County Tournament at 145 pounds as a sophomore. Last year, he was second in the MCT at 152, losing to Trenton superstud Ray Bethea.

“That was really OK,” Barbera said. “Before the match, I just wanted to make sure I gave him a run for my money. He pinned me pretty quick but I went as hard as I possibly could during the whole time I wrestled him.”

A few weeks later, Barbera took a major decision over Princeton’s Dave Klinges in the consolation round of the District 17 Tournament, which qualified him for the regionals. He was beaten there in the preliminary round by Bound Brook’s Joshua Ugalde, who went on to place in the states.

“That was a really good experience,” Barbera said. “It was really exciting. I knew every single kid worked really hard to get there. There was good competition all around and it was really exciting with all the matches. I thought I was gonna wrestle some other kid in the prelim, but I wrestled a kid who placed in the states. It kind of got caught me off guard to get a really good match like that so soon in the tournament, but it was a good experience. I’m really excited for districts this year.”

Barbera has gone between 152 and 160 this season, and heading into the end of January he was 14-4 (64-23 career) with second-place finishes in the CBA and East Brunswick invitational tournaments. At that point he was unsure whether to wrestle at 152 or 160 in the counties and districts, but his goal was to win counties and qualify for states this year.

Harpel says Barbera may have a better shot of reaching states at 152 but says “he’s right there” with whatever weight class he chooses.

“He’s always been solid on top, and he’s probably improved most on the bottom and with his offensive determination on his feet,” the coach said. “His general offensive position has actually gotten really good.

“The thing with Eric is he would always make up for anything with his desire to compete. He could get out of a bad position just with that.”

Barbera agrees with that assessment, but realized that desire would only take him so far. This past summer he worked on sharpening his technique.

“I didn’t work on anything in particular,” he said. “In past years, I kind of wrestled on emotion and rage. But over the summer I kind of matured. Now I’m more technically self-aware.”

He thinks he’s aware of a snooze button somewhere in his psyche. But you would have a hard time convincing those who know him of that.