WEST ORANGE- Several minutes before the entire team was going to gather for the traditional team championship photo inside the spacious Codey Arena, Essex County Wrestling Tournament co-director Joe Piro was handing the trophy to a Seton Hall Prep Pirate who did not win an individual title but was paramount with his performance in helping to lead the way to SHP capturing a fourth straight ECT title.
Junior AJ Hinton, who is as understated as they come in pointing to the ‘team’ concept over his own individual performance, which was a key third place at 160 pounds, had epitomized as much as anyone in the Pirate lineup why they are the deepest mat squad in Essex County.
“I knew what I was capable of, but it was all about the team tonight in trying to help us win another county title,” said the first-year starter and 14th seed at 160, who came in with a 3-10 record. “This is a tremendous group of guys to work in the room with every day and the opportunity to win another team championship was enough motivation for me to just keep wrestling as hard as I know how to.”
SHP needed top-to-bottom contributions from wrestlers like Hinton, who was pinned by West Essex’s eventual champion Alex Jones in the 160-semifinals but battled back and earned a pin for third place, since the Knights, who are clearly the second-best team in the county, produced six individual champions as the Pirates were still able to edge out the North Caldwell regional high school, 256 to 238.5 for the 2019 ECT team title.
The Pirates tied Livingston (2001-2004) in becoming just the second team to win four consecutive county championships. Livingston has the most overall ECT titles with eight, while Belleville and SHP have seven apiece.
With its six individual titles, while also going 6-for-6 in finals, West Essex ties SHP (2005), Livingston (2001) and SHP (1983) in producing a half a dozen county champions.
“AJ Hinton was the difference in the tournament, and has come such a long way this season” said SHP 10th-year head coach Jack Decker, whose Pirates had 13 of 14 weight classes score in the ECT. “He actually told us the day before the county tournament started that he was going to take top three and he did it!”
While the Pirates went 3-5 in the finals (with Larry Melchionda at 120, Jack Wilt at 152 and Michael Massa at 170 all winning individual titles), West Essex showed their own depth and immense talents with its half a dozen champions as Ricky Cassidy (113), Mike Ruane (132), twins Darren (138) and Alex (160) Jones, Luke Dignazio (182) and Bardhyl Gashi (285) all came through with victories in their final bouts.
“Our coaches tell us that no one works as hard as us and it shows,” said Gashi, a junior, who defeated SHP’s 2018 ECT champ Niko Diakides for the second time this season in the ultimate tie breaker (4-2 in the second OT). “We talked about preparing to wrestle at a high level as the county tournament kicks off some of the biggest matches of the season and our guys really responded out there.
“This is the best atmosphere for a county championship. It’s still always about one-on-one and I’m just trying to keep improving in a sport I didn’t start with until halfway through the eighth grade and facing a kid as tough as he (Diakides) is again just makes it such great competition out there which I love to be a part of!”