Strange as it may seem, sometimes the fiercest rivals end up making the best partners.
In a merger as unthinkable as Batman and the Joker sitting down and having dinner together, the Bordentown and Florence high school wrestling teams joined forces three years ago and the results continue to be impressive.
Bordentown and Florence? One of the great high school rivalries in Burlington County and beyond, uniting as one?
“Honestly, no,” Bordentown junior Colman Ermi said. “At first it was like, weird. We didn’t know any of them. But then we all got to know each other and they just fit in with us. It’s really helped us a lot.”
The schools formed a co-op team during Ermi’s freshman year and the outcome has been favorable. Going under the banner of Bordentown and wearing the Scotties singlet, the team went 18-11 and 17-11 the first two years. It slipped to 11-11 this year although there was a greater emphasis on individual success, and the plan worked.
The team produced two state qualifiers in Florence seniors JaJuan Hayes and Ryan Brazill, with Hayes placing for the first time in three trips to Atlantic City. Florence senior Joe Levach and Bordentown juniors Ermi and Sammy Mazzella each qualified for regions for the first time. Scotties junior Arianna Menna wrestled in the first officially sanctioned NJSIAA girls’ regional tournament and came within one win of qualifying for states.
First-year head coach Jim Gill, who assisted Matt Benedetti the previous two seasons, says the coupling has “been awesome.”
“It has worked out perfectly,” he said. “They filled in a lot of spots where we were down numbers wise. They just clicked with our guys. If we didn’t say anything, if we just showed up and wrestled, I don’t think you would even notice a difference that these guys are from a different school than we are.”
Which is exactly what the goal was.
“That’s something, from day one, we’ve always preached,” Gill said. “This isn’t two schools, this isn’t two programs. This is one program. We’ll continue moving forward. The numbers have only increased since we started three years ago.”
Florence had not fielded a team since most of the current wrestlers were in youth programs. Bordentown reached out to see if they would be interested in a co-op and it came to pass in 2016. This year, nine FHS wrestlers comprised roughly one-third of the team.
The biggest individual beneficiaries of the bonding were Hayes, Brazill and Levach. None had a place to wrestle as freshmen and all took advantage of their opportunity when it came. Each was a three-time region qualifier, Brazill reached the states twice and Hayes made the trip all three years.
Hayes finally climbed the medal podium this year with an eighth-place finish at 220 pounds after going 0-2 and 1-2 his first two trips to AC. It was his last hurrah in wrestling, as he plans on playing college football.
“He’s an awesome story,” Gill said. “We told him this is the year, he was a senior, he put the work and the time in. He was firing on all cylinders. Things really started to click for him he just looked great all year.”
And his presence went beyond his own individual success.
“He was a physical leader in the room and on the mat he was the emotional leader,” Gill said. “Guys rallied around him, guys were excited when he was out there and he was wrestling. It was really fun to see.”
Ermi concurred with his coach, saying, “He’s been one of my role models since I met him my freshman year. I look up to him a lot. It was pretty cool to see him place this year. He just took that big leadership role. He always kept my head straight right before matches.”
The results were readily apparent. After wrestling JV and varsity as a freshman and strictly varsity as a sophomore, Ermi compiled 26 victories. He surpassed that total with 27 wins this season, including 14 pins, and took third at districts at 113 pounds. As the ninth seed, he pulled a slight upset by beating the eighth seed in the first round of regions before losing to the first and fourth seeds.
“He was just a kid who wanted to get better, and it was a case of ‘How do I get better?’” Gill said. “He hits the weight room in the off-season pretty consistently. He’s a guy that wrestles all the time in the off-season. Last year we entered him in districts, he lost a close one in the first round. That was something that fueled his fires a little bit. This year he kind of took off.
“I think he became more of a student of the sport. He went from a guy who was probably a little more raw in middle school. He really got along with some of the older guys on our team. A guy like Billy Moore wrestled a couple years ago, they became close and both wrestled for the same club team. He just kind of followed in his footsteps.”
Ermi gave a simplistic explanation for his improvement.
“I just kept grinding, going to clubs and stuff, and finally made it this year,” he said. “Going to regions was amazing. Regular season tournaments aren’t as intense. Everybody there is good.”
Mazzella got his first taste of region action by taking third in districts at 145 pounds. He also won more matches this year (19) than his first two seasons combined (18).
“Two years ago he was in our varsity lineup, last year he actually took a dip back down to JV most of the year,” Gill said. “This year we got him back into the lineup. He found himself a spot and kind of took off on his own a little bit. He worked hard and got a lot stronger. He was 106 as a freshman, and he got a little bigger and a little more athletic. He’s just an athlete. He’s super strong and he’s super athletic, that helped us a lot this year.”
With the Florence seniors graduating, Gill expects Ermi and Mazzella to take over the leadership role next year. Also returning will be Menna, who won by pin in her first three region matches before falling in the semifinals to the eventual 111-pound champion.
“She stuck it out with the boys the last few years,” Gill said. “She has been in both our JV and varsity lineup wrestling against the guys. It was really fun getting to watch her wrestle against other girls. We didn’t have that many girls in our program and she didn’t wrestle that many girls when we went to other places. She’s finally starting to realize how good she is as a wrestler. Next year we’re going to see some pretty good things from her.”
He hopes to continue to see good things from the program in general, figuring the co-op agreement will continue to increase interest.
“The goal is to always get higher numbers,” Gill said. “Wrestling is such a unique sport. It’s hard to get kids involved but once you get them involved they’re hooked. Right now it’s just getting them hooked. Once they’re there they find out how fun and unique it is. We’re continuing to see how we can get more Florence guys and more Bordentown guys.”
Somehow, that still doesn’t sound right after three years. But it’s hard to argue with the results.