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The Branford wrestling team followed the best regular season in program history by notching its best all-time showing at states with a fifth-place finish at the Class M State Championship at Law High School on Feb. 15 and 16.
The Hornets saw six wrestlers earn medals by virtue of placing in the top six, advancing each one of them to this week's State Open, twice as many athletes Branford had ever sent to the Open in a season. Those athletes were senior Austin Fries, who took second place in the 285-pound weight class; junior Joe Martone, who was second at 126; senior captain Ed Rivera, who placed third at 132; senior Dave Travisano, who finished third in the 145-pound bracket; junior Nick Kelsey, who was fourth at 113; and senior Jorge Meralla, who placed sixth in the 220-pound class. These performances, combined with some other solid showings, helped Chris Bonagiuso's squad tally 132.5 points to place fifth out of 31 competing teams. Ledyard won the meet.
"We still have the State Open, but this caps off the most successful season Branford wrestling has ever had. This meet was a great moment for the program and the culmination of a group effort by our entire community," said Bonagisuo, whose team recently completed a 17-4 regular season in which he earned his 100th career victory. "Our previous best finish at states was 11th last year and so to see us place fifth with six kids getting medals was really exciting."
Branford's two athletes who made it to championship bouts were Martone at 126 and Fries at 285. Martone, seeded third in his bracket, pinned a competitor from Bethel in just 1:26 in his opening bout. After that, Martone won a 7-0 decision versus Platt's Domenic Massaro and an 8-4 decision against New London's Mike Commander before losing 6-0 to Matt McAllister of Bacon Academy in the final. This was the third straight year Martone medaled at states.
For Fries, a first-year wrestler seeded ninth, he started his weekend by pinning Platt's John Bernardo in a mere 1:01 and then won a 10-4 contest against top-seed Tyler Ferrante of Enfield-Fermi. Fries then gained a 7-2 decision versus Berlin's Mike Burek to reach the final, where he was pinned by East Haven's Derek Schneider in 1:35.
"It's an incredible task to teach someone the sport of wrestling in one season, but Austin put in a lot of time and became a very good wrestler as the season progressed. To get to a state final in your first year of wrestling is one of the most incredible things I've ever seen," said Bonagiuso of Fries, who recorded his 20th victory of the campaign. "Joe, who was our MVP last season, also wrestled tremendously in this tournament. He was up against a stud in the final and, even though he lost 6-0, Joe still wrestled a great bout."
In terms of the Hornets' other medalists, Rivera, the No. 3 seed at 132, earned a win by pin and won a match by decision before dropping a decision to go the consolation round, where he won one decision before notching a 4-3 win versus Matthew Jones of Ledyard in the final to place third.
For Travisano at 145, the No. 4 seed notched two pins before losing a decision to top seed Jake Eliades of Berlin to go to the consolation bracket, in which he earned a pin and then notched an 8-3 decision against Platt's Youssef Saez in the final to finish third.
In action at 113, 3rd-seeded Kelsey recorded win by decision and was then pinned to go to the consolation round, where he gained two pins and a decision victory to reach the final, taking a 4-0 loss to Ledyard's Robert Drury to place fourth.
Then at 220, No. 3 seed Meralla won by injury default before winning a decision. Meralla then lost a decision to go to the consolation round, in which he dropped a pair of bouts to finish fifth.
Additionally for Branford, Nick Rocca won a decision before being pinned and dropping a decision at 106; Hershal Patel lost a decision at 120; Dan Jakubiak was pinned in his first match at 138; Nick Temple won a decision and dropped a decision, then won by pin before getting pinned in the 152 bracket; Walter Kreske lost a decision at 160; Tikee Whitfield won by pin and then lost twice by pin in the 170 class; Chris Pantani notched a victory by decision and then lost a pair of decisions at 182; and Alex Rasmus lost by decision and was pinned in the 195 class.