The Lawrence High School wrestling team re-wrote its record book this year and needed about five pens to do so.
The ink continually flowed with superlatives as Lawrence posted its first winning record since 2009-10, finished fourth in the Mercer County Meet and qualified three wrestlers for regionals.
“This was the most talent I think we’ve had in the four years that I’ve been here,” said senior 113-pounder Darren Ikeda, a senior co-captain along with 126-pounder Miraj Patel. “Everybody wanted to work harder now that we were winning. It was a good feeling in the room, everybody was happy, no one was upset about how they wrestled because everybody’s winning. It feels good to win.”
And oh, how they won.
Lawrence’s dual meet record of 23-7 smashed the school mark of 15 wins, which was established by both the 2004 and 2005 teams. Coach Chris Lynne, who completed his 32nd year at the helm, felt those two teams were the greatest he ever had as they combined for a state champion and 11 state qualifiers. But even they did not put up the numbers this team did.
The Cardinals set new LHS standards for most individual wins, most pins, most sub-minute pins and most wrestlers with 20 wins. Junior 170-pounder Connor Verga set the individual record for most pins and most sub-minute pins, and Lynne became the second coach in Mercer County history to win 300 matches.
The accomplishments came about with just two seniors and two juniors in the starting lineup – and one of the seniors was in his first year of wrestling.
Was it a surprising season? Evidently not.
“Actually I did expect this kind of success,” Patel said. “Last year we had a young team and we were starting a bunch of freshmen and they were performing extremely well. So I knew in the upcoming years the team would only get better from there. Our record clearly showed that this year. It’s been a long time coming, honestly. But the sophomores and freshmen really stepped up. They work hard.”
Ikeda was on the same page.
“I knew we would be able to go far with who we had,” he said. “We had a great team from the start and I knew we were gonna just get better from there.”
From 2015-17, Lawrence struggled with just 14 dual meet wins during those three seasons. Last year, Lynne started 11 freshmen and the Cardinals improved to 12-15.
Asked what gave him the faith to pull such a bold move, the coach said, “It wasn’t a matter of confidence, it was a matter of necessity. We were bad, we weren’t getting anything out of our middle school. But the coaching staff changed over at the middle school, we had a couple former Division I (college) wrestlers running our program and you started to see the difference in the quality of the kids who came up.”
Head coach John Gusti and his assistant, Jimmy Stewart, took over the middle school program and suddenly it’s a wonderful life in the Lawrence wrestling rooms.
“You still gotta turn them into high school wrestlers, but now at least they have experience and they’re into the sport,” Lynne said. “And our middle school this year is undefeated.”
Of the 11 that wrestled last year, 10 are still with the team and the majority started as sophomores.
“It took us half a season to kind of man up last year,” Lynne said. “There were little injuries, a little whining, but it was growing pains. Once (assistant) Jeff Bergen and I got them to believe in themselves they took off and that was the building blocks for this year.”
Highlighting the sophomore class was 132-pounder Reese Schenck, who was 30-10 entering the region tournament after winning a District 21 title.
Sophomores who contributed were 106-pounder Corey Stallworth (25-7 record), Isaiah Hancock (119 pounds, 9-8), Reese Schenck (132-138, 25-10), Brett Gallagher (138, 6-19), Careem Frost (145, 21-11), Jake Dallarda (160, 25-13), Adam Zarow (182, 21-11), George Stoev (195, 4-12), Carlos Gonzalez (182) and Ricardo Cruze (182, 3-7). Freshmen who stepped immediately into a starter’s job were Karry Villalobos (220, 16-20) and Sean Mills (152, 19-22).
As for upperclassmen, the seniors not only provided leadership, but enjoyed stellar seasons themselves. Patel finished 31-10 and Ikeda was 24-12.
“We just tried to get everybody to work harder and to wrestle hard in their matches,” Ikeda said. “Even if they’re gonna go up against a tough kid, we tell them to not change how they wrestle; and just wrestle as hard as they can every match.”
“We try to make sure practice runs smoothly,” Patel said. “We have to be a good role model for them. Whatever coach says I do without question, and the younger kids catch on to that fast.”
The team’s biggest surprise was senior heavyweight Moaamen Nasr, who carried a 23-14 record into regions after taking third at districts in just his first year of wrestling.
“I wish I had him for four years,” Lynne said. “He’s athletic. He was a football player, we were working on him for two years to come out. He had a phenomenal season.”
The team’s top performer was Verga, who was 33-6 with 27 pins entering regions after taking third place in District 21.
“He’s a pinning machine,” Lynne said. “he’s broken every pin record there is, especially under a minute pins. He doubled the past record. He’s the third Verga brother to wrestle for us and he had a great year.”
In looking at this year’s successes, Ikeda felt the best dual meet win was over Hightstown, “because we had a lot of great pins and the pins really mattered.” Patel thought the victory over Nottingham was huge, “because we lost to them a lot over the years, so beating them was an accomplishment for our coach and the entire team.” As for the MCT effort, Lawrence’s fourth-place finish was a result of 20 pins, which Lynne called “the difference between fourth place and 10th place by getting all those bonus points.”
Overall, it was an entirely new environment in the Cardinals wrestling room, which stemmed from a growing confidence.
“After we got a couple wins we started realizing as a team we can become stronger and even better and perform really well,” Patel said. “The atmosphere changed from a losing team to a winning team. We worked harder and we wanted it more. After you get a taste of winning you just keep wanting the same thing.”
It was a feeling that permeated throughout the team. Just as losing can be a negative virus that spreads among the wrestlers, winning can be the elixir of happiness.
“The kids wanted to work hard,” Lynne said. “The more success they got, they fed off it. In the past few years, we would get in a dual meet and it was ‘Can we beat this team?’ This year is was like ‘How are we gonna beat this team?’ They fed off each other and just got on a roll. If one kid came up short, or something bad happened in a match, the next kid picked them up. They’ll go off the mat and high five the kid behind them, like saying ‘I did that for you.’”
The best news for Lynne is the future, as 10 starters return and another talented crop will be coming up from the middle school.
“I’m sure the (wins) record is probably gonna be broken in the next couple seasons,” Patel said. “Maybe it will last a year, but hopefully by the time they’re seniors, they’ll break it.”
In other words, wrestling is back in full vigor at Lawrence High.