Never question the power of New Jersey high school wrestling. Like football in the South ... well maybe not to THAT degree ... wrestling in the Garden State is a way of life.
And it is a way in Ocean County every winter. At one point in a 20-year period, most every school had a star wrestler or a dynamic team that competed for a title of some kind. But no team was dominant in Ocean County during that span than Brick Memorial High School.
From the time Brick Memorial became a school in 1980, wrestling was immediately becoming the star attraction due to the work of hard-driving head coach Tony Caravella. Caravella had a power in the county with his Mustangs, even though questions raged in the beginning over how he was able to build that dynamo on the north side of Brick Township.
Brick Memorial and Tony Caravella were like wrestling's New York Yankees ... you either loved them or you hated them. But there's one thing that you never did.
That was overlook them.
For years, Brick Memorial was "chasing the carrot" for county supremacy. Then on a February night in 1985, the Mustangs won in shocking fashion with the bearhug and pin heard round the Shore when Dean Kanabrocki got a hold of sure-shot heavyweight rival Tim Rioux of Toms River East and put him on the mat for six points and the first Shore Conference title in school history.
In 1986, the Mustangs repeated their SCT title and went on to not only win their first state Group III championship, but were named the No. 1 team in the state. Talk about going to the next level in a hurry.
A lot of the key wrestlers on that '86 team, however, graduated -- state champion Bob Martin, Kanabrocki and Dean Albanese. But in '87, the Mustangs were good again.
In the NJSIAA South Jersey Group III tournament, the Mustangs were the third seed. They would have to go to Blackwood and face No. 2 seed Highland Regional, which was far from a slouch itself. The Tartans were a four-time state Group IV champion under legendary coach Ralph Ross. They knew how to win and had ways of winning.
You'll see that later on here.
Everyone that was associated with the gold and green of Brick Memorial wrestling knew this might be the biggest hurdle to jump en route to another state champion.
And so on Wednesday, February 18, 1987, the Mustangs entered unfriendly territory at Highland Regional with the thoughts of a state champion repeat in mind.
Wrestling at most schools is no big deal ... you announce the lineups, the wrestlers come out and shake each other's hands and then it's off to the 101-pound match. No biggie.
Not at Highland Regional in the 1980s. The lights went down and the spotlight was on the two guys in the center of that mat. And though it wasn't as pitch black as, say, legendary Phillipsburg High School, that aura of something big was there. And on this cold February night, the gymnasium at Highland Regional was packed to the rafters.
The "Tony Twosome" got Brick Memorial off to a 9-0 lead as 101-pounder Tony Nash stunned state tournament qualifier Bob Aceto, 8-3, and unbeaten 108-pounder Tony Roselli pinned Jason Rivers in 4:39. Then Vinny Santanello and Stan Lewis went move for move at 115 pounds before the pair ended in a 6-6 tie.
Though it was a tie, it gave the Tartans some much-needed momentum, and they took advantage of it. Rob Sentman beat Dann Pulsifer at 122 pounds, 7-4, then Gino Giumarrello beat Chuck Marotta, 3-0, at 129, to make it 11-8.
The Highland fans were whipped into a frenzy. The Tartans had the advantage in the middleweights and they knew it, and so did the crowd. They continued that dominance with a Ken Johnson win over Jeff Scott, 6-4, at 135 pounds and Chad Cassidy's 3-2 nail-biter over Jon Barger at 141 to make it 14-11 in Highland's favor.
All that early Memorial momentum was gone. Any sign of Memorial cheering was practically drowned out now. But we were yet to get to the upperweights, where Memorial had the slight advantage. If the Mustangs could gain a little momentum near the end of the middleweight run, there's no doubt they could win the match.
It was going to start at 148 pounds with Memorial's Chris Dvorak taking on a very good Jon Reilly. Dvorak was working his moves on Reilly, and built a 6-0 lead going into the final two-minute period.
But wrestling's a funny sport. One minute you're dominating and the next minute, you find yourself on your back just like that. Reilly caught Dvorak and pinned him 30 seconds into the last period.
The wind had been knocked out of Memorial's sails to say the least. Instead of a tie, maybe even a one-point lead, Highland had a 20-11 lead with four bouts left.
Joe McCabe, though, got the Mustangs fans back into it. He worked over Dean Cacciavaliano for nearly two periods before he finally put him on his back in 3:52 to make it 20-17 with three bouts to go.
At 170 pounds stepped Memorial freshman Vinny Dallicardillo, the one Mustang wrestler I would get to know over the years, first as a two-star sport in wrestling and football, then as an assistant coach at Memorial and finally as Brick Memorial High's softball coach through most of the 2000 decade. It was Dallicardillo's Mustangs who pulled off the biggest upset in Ocean County Softball Tournament history in 2003 when as an 11th seed, they stunned No. 1 and unbeaten Manchester in nine innings, 5-4.
But that's another story for another time.
Dallicardillo was having to face a more experienced Rob Franks, one of Highland's top wrestlers, but was coming off a separated shoulder just two weeks earlier that forced him to miss time. Franks was not 100 percent and Dallicardillo, who would take fourth in the state at his weight class as a senior three years later, was laying it on Franks hard.
The two battled down to the final 15 seconds when Franks was able to escape Dallicardillo's hold for a point and 5-4 victory, giving the Tartans a 23-17 lead with two bouts left.
The stage was set for one of the most controversial moments in my 26 years.
Onto the mat at 189 pounds stepped junior Todd Narwid, an experienced wrestler, but part of a group of younger Mustangs who were filling the shoes of the graduated state championship team members. Narwid's challenge was Tom Meyers, a lanky young man, but almost white as a sheet the moment the whistle blew.
Before you can blink an eye, Narwid had Meyers down on the mat. And he was able to work him over and put near-fall moves on him that helped accumulate his total.
Narwid led 5-0 after the first period, but near the end of the first period, Narwid got Meyers in the air and brought him down hard ... a "thud" sound followed.
Nothing was called, but Meyers had hurt his neck. You would think at that point with a hurt neck, Meyers might tell his trainer he was not all that good, but since nothing got called against Narwid, the match was still on.
This would prove to be vital toward the ending that was to take place.
Narwid started the second period up with Meyers down on the mat. He worked him again and built the lead up against what seemingly was a defenseless Meyers, who was only now trying to avoid being pinned and sending the heavyweight bout into a winner-take-all scenario.
Meyers did that, but by the end of the second period, it was 11-0. This match was a foregone conclusion to who would win. It was only a matter now of how it would end.
This scenario, though, was not a part of the agenda.
Narwid again started in the up position and tried everything he could to put Meyers in pin placement, but Meyers was somewhere between wiggling and not trying to wrestle, which should have gotten him a warning from the referee, but didn't.
So Narwid decided to force the issue. He picked Meyers up again and this time, put him down on the ground hard. Not as loud as the "thud" the first time, but hard, nonetheless.
Meyers, this time, didn't get up. The referee awarded Meyers a point because of the slam. Out on the mat went Ross, an assistant coach and trainer Tom Storer. Each team is allotted two minutes for injury time per match and Storer attended to Highland's 189-pounder. About 90 seconds in, you could see Meyers start to get up, as if he wanted to finish the match.
But you could also see the coaches telling Meyers to go back down. Storer would tell me later on that Meyers suffered "a mild concussion and strained ligaments" in his neck.
I have no doubt to this day the kid was dazed and probably not at his full wits. However, the kid was almost jumping up, ready to finish this match. That, I will forever question. A concussed person gets up wobbly or doesn't get up at all. Certainly a concussed person never gets straight up or with little help.
And Memorial fans weren't buying this either. As soon as Ross and Storer told the referee their wrestler could not finish, Narwid was disqualified because of the slam ... anything that involves giving a point to an opponent for a slam and not allowing that person to continue is a DQ.
Highland Regional forfeited the heavyweight bout to Reggie Gadson, whose fate was just trivial now, and the Tartans slinked away with a 29-23 win.
I can't remember honestly if the teams shook hands at the end of the match, but I do remember one thing -- Tartans wrestling personnel got into their team room in a hurry. Even happy Highland fans felt ashamed that this was the way an even match was decided -- a questionable DQ call, something that still resonates in my mind 24 years later.
I can still see those referees getting out of Highland's gym in a New York minute. I can see the Blackwood police having to be called into the gym to restore order. I can feel the blood boiling of those Mustangs fans and parents who just saw a potential upset swiped away like that.
With all the talk nowadays of concussions in sports like football and soccer and how much more athletes are protected, it'd be neat to tell you that 24 years later, Tom Storer and Highland Regional were well ahead of that curve.
But I think I'd be lying to you. A young man who was willing to finish out a match was kept down and helped preserve a Highland Regional win.
Needless to say, Narwid wanted the kid to come out of the locker room afterward. Narwid had two losses up to that point -- and both for the same reason. He was DQ'd in a match earlier in the year against a very good Dan Bennette of Point Pleasant Boro when Narwid was winning.
"Their so-called strategy worked," Narwid said afterward. "They won because the kid stayed down and won (his) match."
But if you think Narwid was upset, you should have seen Caravella afterward. A former wrestler himself, Caravella sounded like a man who wanted to take Ross on himself in a winner-take-all bout.
He first dismissed the thought that Ross had nothing to do with pulling Meyers and it was Storer's call. Then he added, "That was atrocious. And they call themselves a wrestling school? To rob a state championship match like that was ludicrous. That wasn't a flagrant move. I'd be embarrassed if I ever had to take a kid out like that."
And as Caravella kept talking, one thing became noticeable -- his anger made his vocal octave range get shriekingly higher. By the time he finished his tirade, he was in tears. Then he went back to the door of his locker room, opened it and slammed it hard enough behind him for even a full gymnasium to hear. To this day, I can't believe the door stayed on its hinges.
On the other side of the door, Caravella was crying, brought to tears by a call that may have sounded all about safety, but was nothing about the gladiator sport wrestling represented. The referee had to do what he had to do, but for a young man to stay down when he was ready to finish the match will always be questionable.
Whether he liked it or not, though, Caravella and his boys were having to leave Blackwood with hopes of a repeat state championship over.
By 1988 and reloaded with most of the wrestlers who were in Blackwood that night, the Mustangs won a second Group III state title.
And who knows what may have happened if not for a questionable slam and the two minutes after that. It may have been a three-peat for Memorial the following year.
To this day, I'm sure Caravella doesn't worry about his program's place in New Jersey high school sports history.
But I'm sure he still gets a little hot about that night in 1987 when safety was even questioned.