Steven O’Campo had heard about the incredible environment at the wrestling Tournament of Champions, and he was finally able to experience it first-hand during his final year.
The High School South senior lost two tight matches in the tournament, held in Atlantic City from March 2 to 4, to finish his season 34-4, but getting to that level will always be memorable.
“I should have come out of there with a medal, but it was great to be there,” O’Campo said.
The accomplishment is all the more impressive since O’Campo was focusing on soccer as his main sport until two years ago. He still played soccer this fall for South as a way to clear his mind and prepare for the rigors of the wrestling season.
“Growing up, soccer was my No. 1 sport,” O’Campo said. “Freshman and sophomore year even, I was leaning more toward soccer. And then I just made a decision to go with wrestling. Wrestling really grew on me and I loved the sport. I decided to dedicate all my time to wrestling after that.”
It paid off with a breakout season last year followed by another big jump this year that has him looking forward to wrestling in college. He is spending the next month visiting and finalizing his choice where he will compete for the next four years.
“Now that I’m starting to commit, I can’t wait to see what I can do in college,” O’Campo said. “My aspirations are to get to the NCAA tournament and place in the NCAA tournament. That’s a long road ahead of me, but nothing is really impossible.”
O’Campo was bidding to become just the second wrestler in the WW-P school district history to medal at the TOC. Nick Maher of WW-P South placed fifth in 2016. O’Campo was seeded seventh at 152 pounds after placing third at the Region 5 championships. Only the top three wrestlers from each region advance to the TOC.
“It was a really tough region,” said WW-P South head coach Warren Gerstacker. “We talked previous to our region starting about the path we expected, the path we thought he could take. He met the expectations.”
“I showed up at states, and I had a really good seed, and I’d beaten a lot of the kids who were seeded below me pretty easily, and I showed up and it was nerve-wracking. Definitely the environment gets you if it’s your first time there.”
O’Campo had heard all about the environment, but he had to experience it himself. He tried to rely on the experience that had won him 96 other matches in his career, close to the 100-win milestone that so many chase.
“I was trying to tell myself, that can’t be real, you just have to go in like it’s any other match,” O’Campo said. “It’s not the same. You get phenomenal wrestlers that have been there all four years, and I bet it feels like home. If it’s your first time there, that is a culture shock.”
It was so loud in his first TOC match that he couldn’t hear his coaches shouting for him to make a move toward the end. O’Campo finished the match thinking it was tied, 3-3, not that he was losing, 4-3. He was up in the second match before being taken to his back. He spent the rest of the match trying to regain those points before bowing out of the tournament.
“It’s really close,” Gerstacker said. “When you get to the state tournament, everyone is tough. Your seed doesn’t matter most of the time. Everyone there is good.”
O’Campo closed his scholastic career by advancing further than ever. Each year, he progressed a bit more. As a freshman, he picked up 10 wins. That total jumped to 20 wins as a sophomore as he placed third at the Mercer County Tournament and second in District 20 at 152 before falling in his first region match. Last year at regions, he came within a win of giving himself a shot at states.
“This year he was twice the wrestler he was last year,” Gerstacker said. “That’s through the amount of work he’s put in, and the way he’s trained. We identified the things he had to work on. He has a good foundation and we concentrated on little details we had to improve on.”
O’Campo trained at South with teammates Joe Salerno and Duncan Kreutter before the latter was injured. It was a young Pirates team this year, and O’Campo’s success gives them inspiration that he hopes will help.
“I can always tell they look up to me,” O’Campo said. “I might be better than them, but I just coach them and show them what’s up. I really just want them to stick with the sport for now. A lot of them are intimidated by the sport already, and my school is not known for its wrestling so it’s hard to get good wrestlers in the room.”
It takes more than in-season preparation. Despite playing soccer, O’Campo was around for workouts in the fall and he spent the offseason preparing to compete at a high level.
“Freshman and sophomore year, I was just wrestling to wrestle,” O’Campo said. “I wasn’t really doing much in the offseason. Then sophomore year going into junior year I realized that I could get somewhere with wrestling. That’s when I really started to go to the offseason clubs and tournaments, going out and finding the best competition and other rooms to wrestle at. That helped me get a lot better.”
O’Campo still has room to grow. He’s only been fully committed to wrestling for two years, and that commitment helped him return with a new belief this year.
It paid off with his best season of his WW-P South career. He will graduate after reaching the penultimate level of New Jersey wrestling.
“He’s a state qualifier,” Gerstacker said. “Not many people finish their career saying they’re a state qualifier. It was an awesome run. He worked as hard as anyone I coached. In the end, he’s a state qualifier and that’s a lot to be proud of.”