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After posting its first winning record two years ago and notching 18 victories last winter, Branford wrestling wants to continue rising up the ranks by winning the SCC Division B championship. On Jan. 3, the Hornets showed the conference that they are indeed a contender as Chris Bonagiuso’s squad hosted Division A foe Amity and had no problem dispatching the Spartans 51-21.
Following Amity’s victory in the opening bout, Branford rattled off six consecutive triumphs to take a commanding 33-6 advantage, then sealed the deal when senior captain Ed Rivera won a 10-7 decision in the 132-pound weight class.
“This was a big win against a Division A team and Class LL school. We started out slow, but picked it up and I was pleased with our quality of wrestling,” said Coach Bonagiuso, whose team hosts defending Division B champion Foran at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 16. “We finished second to Foran the last two years and now we hope to keep getting better so we can make a run at them.”
Branford (2-2) prevailed in 10 of the 14 bouts in upending the Spartans (4-3), receiving pinfall wins from senior Chris Pantani (180), senior Jorge Meralla (220), junior Nick Kelsey (113), senior Josh Celone (138), and sophomore Nick Temple (152). Sophomore Alex Rasmus (195) and senior Austin Fries (285) won by forfeit and freshman Nick Rocca (106), junior Joe Martone (126), and Rivera each notched victories by decision.
Rivera captains Branford with Meralla, Celone, and senior David Travisano (152) and talked about what’s helped his Hornets emerge as one of the SCC’s teams to beat.
“Our middle school team [coached by Tom Ermini] has gone undefeated the last three years and so those kids come to high school ready to perform well,” said Rivera. “And besides Coach Bonagiuso, we also have two assistant coaches in Jesse Hurlburt and Dan DiBisceglie who push us hard at practice and make sure we do good cardio work. It feels great to have seen us progress into a really good team.”
After freshman Tikee Whitfield was pinned by Amity’s Dave Buono 1:07 into the 170-pound bout, Pantani pinned Stevie Della-Guistina at the 1:08 mark in 180 action. Rasmus then won by forfeit at 195, giving the Hornets a 12-6 lead, followed by Meralla earning a win by pin in his 220 duel. Meralla was nearly pinned early against Damon Robinson, yet gained a crucial reverse late in the first period to put Robinson on his back and win at 1:54.
Fries’s forfeit victory at 285 made it 24-6, after which Rocca won an 8-4 decision against Eli Silvert in the 106 bout. Rocca was in a defensive position through most of the first two periods, but turned the tide in the third, earning three points for a near fall to ice it in the closing seconds. Kelsey then pinned Jake Cala at 1:36 of his 113 bout, giving the Hornets a huge 27-point lead.
The Spartans got back a few points when Jordan Rios pinned junior Hershal Patel 4:43 into the 120 contest, but Martone responded by winning an 8-2 decision against Jessie Cala at 126. Martone held a slim 4-2 lead entering the third period, but dominated the final frame in extending the advantage to 36-12.
Rivera’s 10-7 decision against Michael Cala at 132 then clinched the victory for Branford. This bout was nip-and-tuck for the duration as Rivera only led 8-7 with 50 seconds left after being taken down, although he countered with a reverse for two key points in emerging triumphant.
Celone then pinned Bobby Fischer at 4:17 of the 138 match, Branford sophomore Frankie Diaz was pinned in 45 seconds by Dan Grober at 145, Temple controlled his 152 bout with Andrew Esposito before pinning him at 5:10, then Hornets’ senior Walter Kreske dropped a 12-6 decision to Evan Donahue at 160.
Record-wise, Pantani improved to 9-1, Kelsey improved to 9-2, and Rivera raised his mark to 8-2. Last season’s MVP Martone doesn’t have quite as many wins as he missed a week due to a separated shoulder, but is now back in action and feeling optimistic about what he and his team can achieve the rest of the way.
“We want to finish in the top three of SCCs and the top seven of states,” said Martone. “We can definitely achieve those goals if we keep pushing ourselves and working hard.”