WEST CALDWELL -- When all is said and done, the only drought that may turn out to be longer will be the time between Major Tournament championships for Tiger Woods.
Despite the Chiefs’ constant quality and competitiveness, Saturday, Feb. 22, was the first time since 2002 that the wrestling team from James Caldwell High could call itself a district champion.
By totaling 179 points, the locals edged out perennial powerhouse Passaic Valley, which had 169. Rounding out the team totals were West Orange with 153, home-standing West Essex Regional with 115, Cedar Grove with 94, JFK of Paterson with 54, Glen Ridge with 52, Orange with 45, Verona with forty and East Orange Campus with two points.
After the Chiefs lost team-leader Joe Galioto (17-1) to a freak injury during the Essex County Tournament on Jan. 25, longtime JCHS head coach Gary Garamella emphasized that the season was not over for his team.
Truer words were never spoken, as the Chiefs went on to tie for the Super Essex Conference/American Division championship by the slimmest of margins and, now, have used victory in a few key closely-contested confrontations to earn the program's first district title since just after their 2001 odyssey.
“We were in third place heading into the semifinals and things just didn't look good at all,” admitted Garamella. “However we had a great semifinals round and a great finals round and we were able to come out on top and have five champions and nine kids move on to the regions.
“If we hadn't lost Galioto, most likely, we win the conference and the district and it's not very close.
“But, after losing him, our kids really came together and showed that they can overcome adversity.”
The key performances for the Chiefs in district action came from Joe Valentino, a senior who was seeded fourth, but finished first.
Down, 2-1, to top-seeded Jala'a Darwish, a sophomore from Passaic Valley in the semi's, Valentino got Darwish in a headlock and pinned the PV matman at the 1:58 mark, prior to edging Mark Riggio, a third-seeded sophomore from Verona, 3-2, on an ultimate tie-breaker in their title tussle.
“That was a huge break for us and a huge boost in points,” said Garamella. “If that doesn't happen for Joe, we don't win the title, it's that simple.”
Valentino was joined on the list of District 13 champs from JCHS by second-seeded 113-pound sophomore Dean Caravella (28-4), top-seeded 120-pound senior Mario Pitch (22-12), top-slotted 152-pound senior Ray Iodice (27-3) and top-spotted 220-pound 12th-grader Joe Bongo (25-9), while silver medals went to three second-seeded Chiefs grapplers: 126-pound senior Nick Russomanno (28-8), 145-pound 12th-grader Ryan Condit (29-7) and 160-pound sophomore Ryan Schaffer (22-12), with third-seeded 132-pound freshman Christian Dalla Riva (23-11) reaping a bronze medal.