This season has been one of transition for the South Brunswick High School wrestling team.
New head coach Bobby Januska took over the reigns of the program from the legendary Joe Dougherty this year, after the long time coach stepped down in 2012 after amassing a school record 305 wins. Januska, who spent six seasons as an assistant at SBHS after coming over from North Brunswick, has the Vikings sitting at 16-13 as the District 20 Tournament begins this weekend.
"The transition has been really smooth and that's a credit to the kids," Januska said. "Coach Dougherty's philosophy is the same as mine and he left the program in good standing, so I just hope to be able to continue the tradition."
Januska also credited the influence of Dougherty and North Brunswick coach Mark Salge for shaping him both as a coach and person. But it ultimately comes down to wins and losses for the Vikings, who look to several strong candidates from the team to reach the state finals in Atlantic City this year.
At the head of the list is the dominant senior Ali Yildiz, a 182-pound GMC Tournament Champion who heads into districts with a record of 32-0, ranked fourth in the state by the Star Ledger. Yildiz triumphed last weekend in a battle of the the unbeatens, besting Hightstown's previously undefeated star Joey DeCristofaro.
"Ali has been tremendous. Coming in as a new coach, he's been on board with everything I asked him to do," Januska said. "His wrestling speaks for itself. Last weekend, he wasn't 100 percent going up against another undefeated wrestler and he set the tone. He's one of the tech fall leaders in the state, which shows that he works on his moves rather than just throwing someone to the ground and pinning them. He's a true sportsman who takes all his opponents seriously without any fear in his heart."
South Brunswick's other GMC Champion, 152-pound Jordan Pagano rolls into districts with a record of 32-1, and is ranked fifth in the state by the Star Ledger.
"Pagano has had a phenomenal season with only one blemish on his record, but that is part of the sport," Januska said. "He had a signature win against (Dylan Painton) South Plainfield under the lights earlier this year that set the tone for his confidence. Earlier in the year, I don't know if he really believed that he was one of the class wrestlers in the state. Once he won that match, he went from having faith, which is good, to having belief, which is better. I don't think there are many kids in the state who can score on him unless he's giving away points. He's relentless on top, he's relentless on his feet, and he has the type of attitude you need to be a successful wrestler."
Senior Constantine Rissiotis, who took second in the GMC at 195, brings a 28-3 record to districts as he eyes a trip to the shore.
"The state is stacked at 195, but with the way Constantine has been wrestling he has the ability to make some noise and make it to Atlantic City," Januska noted.
Emerging as a young gun for the Vikings this year has been Mikey Klimkiewicz, a 106-pound freshman who heads into districts with a record of 22-11 and a third place finish in the GMC’s.
"(Klimkiewicz) has really done a nice job this year in his first season," Januska said. "He's put together a good season and has a real shot at being a district champion as a freshman."
Januska said that heavyweight Gordon Thompson, a junior, has been one of the most improved wrestlers on the roster this year, with a record of 20-13.
"Gordon seems like this five foot-nothing kid, but he's just improved tremendously this year," Januska said. "He's a 20-match winner and he's really come on strong. He had a few tough breaks with one-point losses along the way, but he hasn't let that get in the way of his goals to improve and do well."
While Januska pointed to his three senior leaders as having the best shot to make it to Atlantic City, he remains hopeful a few Vikings will rise to the occasion this weekend and give SBHS a district title.
"The goal is to win the districts and we hope to have anywhere from three to five district champions," he said. "If all things break right, I believe we have a shot at winning. Monroe, East Brunswick and Old Bridge are the favorites and it's always gonna be a dogfight with them. I'd like to think we'll be in the mix as well."
The District 20 Tournament will begin at 10 a.m. on Saturday at Churchill Junior High School, at 18 Norton Rd in East Brunswick.