Hopewell Valley’s Chris Lanciano, wrestling at 126 lbs., faces Lawrence’s Nasir Denson on Jan. 10, 2019. He won by pin. HoVal won the meet at home, 60-15. (Photo by Mike Schwartz/mikeschwartz.photo.)

After suffering a near miss at the state sectional team tournament, the Hopewell Valley Central High wrestling team scored a direct hit at the District 19 tournament.

On Feb. 8, HoVal came the closest it has ever come to a sectional championship when it dropped a 32-30 decision to Ocean Township in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III final. While that was pure heartbreak, what happened at Delaware Valley High School nine days later was sheer exhilaration, as HVCHS won the first district championship in school history.

Couple that with a ninth straight Mercer County Tournament title and a school record-tying 21 wins, and you have one of the most balanced teams in program history. Hopewell’s 11th MCT title in 12 years broke Peddie’s record for most all-time county championships, and all 14 wrestlers placed for the first time ever.

“We’ve had some amazing teams, and this is just another to carry on the tradition,” coach Mario Harpel said. “It’s always a different team every year, and really that’s the fun part of coaching. It never gets boring for me. We try to prepare and get every group focused on what they need to do to compete. This team cares. It’s really an outstanding group of kids. All 38 in the room are really dedicated and work hard.”

Harpel has had plenty of dedicated teams, but none ever claimed a district title. That all changed on Feb. 16 when Hopewell’s 205.5 points outdistanced Delaware Valley by 17 points. It was Mercer’s first district crown since Robbinsville’s successful run earlier in the decade. The Bulldogs advanced 10 to the Region 5 Tournament in Franklin on Feb. 22-23, with three district champs, two other finalists and five third-place finishers.

“This means a lot to the program, obviously, and it means so much to the team,” senior 126-pounder Chris Lanciano said. “We worked tirelessly for it, and we knew it was gonna be between us and DelVal for the title. They beat us early in the season (34-27 on Dec. 18) and, quite frankly, it was an embarrassing loss. That night after the match all the guys vowed we could beat them for the district title, and it gave us something extra to work for.”

And while Mercer County teams may sometimes be an afterthought to other teams when it comes to competing for a district crown, Hopewell usually goes into the fray optimistic.

“We always believe we can be champions,” Harpel said. “We train every day at that level to give ourselves a chance. Winning districts means a lot to Hopewell Valley wrestling and our entire program, from the 38 kids in the room, to alumni to the middle school and youth.”

What made the run so impressive is that Hopewell had eight new wrestlers in the varsity lineup.

“It was cool to see that group grow up and come together. It’s one of the better experiences I’ve had as a coach,” Harpel said.

Lanciano had faith in the new guys, if only because they have been groomed to succeed over the years.

“Our guys are constantly pushing every single guy in the group,” said Lanciano, who won his 100th match this year, as did teammate Justin Venezia. “In Hopewell’s wrestling room a guy who’s a three or four year JV guy is as important as a guy who started varsity for three years and he’s now a senior captain. In the room everyone treats everyone equally and we push each other as hard as we can.”

He had a sense it would all pay off this year. “I just saw something in the guys that when we started working at the beginning of the season it was different,” Lanciano said. “A different feel to the team. An intensity and a real drive within the team from a very early point. I knew this year we were gonna do great things.”

Hopewell’s district champs (with weight class and season records prior to regionals in parenthesis) were sophomore Jacob Venezia (113, 36-2) and seniors Aaron Longo (138, 28-9) and Justin Venezia (145, 35-6). Runners-up included Lanciano (126, 29-3) and sophomore Brian LaCross (195, 30-10), while third-place finishers featured junior Christian Micikas (106, 29-10), sophomore Josh Beigman (170, 25-16), senior Brandon Bowman (182, 27-13), junior Christian Cacciabaudo (220, 24-16) and junior John Snyder (285, 23-12).

The Venezia brothers both won MCT crowns along with Micikas, while Bowman and Lanciano took second at counties.

About the only bummer up to the regionals was the loss to Ocean, as a Spartan pin in the last second turned the tide of the match and made the difference. Harpel said he had mixed feelings about the outcome, taking pride in how close the Bulldogs came, but suffering the sting of disappointment.

“I was really proud of the group and how far they advanced to get to that point,” he said. “We came a long way from day one to that point, and I have only good feelings with how we competed and how we got through Rahway in the semis and how we represented ourselves. But it is heartbreaking when you lose that close. You can always go back through the match and find ways to win in your head. So you have to be careful about that. I generally stay aware of the positive piece of it.”

Lanciano feels it’s only a matter of time before the Bulldogs add a sectional crown to their trophy case.

“We were obviously really proud and real excited we got to that stage and how we wrestled all season, but coming two points shy, it’s really tough,” he said. “In the match itself, we had guys wrestling insane matches that really brought us back in it. We were close. Obviously I’m not gonna have another shot to get a state title for the team but in the future, I think our guys will definitely get one in the bag.”