Southern’s Nick O’Connell Ends Wrestling Career as State Runner-up

By DAVID BIGGY | Mar 06, 2019
Photo by: David Biggy Southern Regional senior Nick O’Connell celebrates with assistant coaches Dan Roy and Luke Lanno after ousting Phillipsburg’s Cody Harrison in the 152-pound semifinals at the NJSIAA Wrestling Championships in Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall on March 1.

Sometimes, dreams come true. Other times, they come partly true.

When Nick O’Connell carried the 152-pound weight-class sign to lead its state placewinners during the annual “Parade of Champions” inside Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall on March 2, one part of his childhood dream had, at last, arrived.

After stepping onto the mat for the 152-pound title bout of the NJSIAA State Wrestling Championships, the Southern Regional senior planned to make the other part of that dream a reality.

“It was a big deal,” he said. “That’s what I’ve wanted to do since I was a little kid. To wear the Southern singlet on that mat, in the state final, was awesome.”

Of course, the guy on the opposite side of him – Robert Garcia of Pope John XXIII in Sparta – had the same plan to fulfill a dream. Unfortunately for O’Connell, Garcia’s game plan for doing so was a better one. Garcia scored a 13-5 major decision, leaving O’Connell to settle for the runner-up position on the medals podium.

“I shook his hand afterward and said, ‘You had a heck of a tournament.’ He pinned four kids and got a major in the final,” O’Connell said after taking some time to let out his emotions following the culmination of his high school career. “That would have been a dream of mine to have the tournament he had, and I just said, ‘Congrats, man. You got me. You’re better than me.’ He was legit.”

Legit in the sense that, through Saturday, no wrestler in New Jersey had sent O’Connell to his back once, never mind multiple times in the same bout. Legit in the sense that no wrestler in the state had scored more than six points on O’Connell in any contest. Legit in the sense that none of the 40 wrestlers O’Connell had previously faced this season beat him.

“That kid (Garcia) was on fire,” said Southern head coach John Stout. “He was really focused and all the credit in the world goes to him. He came here prepared to win the state championship and he had a great tournament.”

While O’Connell cut his path to the championship bout with an 18-6 major decision over Don Bosco’s Christian Jimenez in the preliminary round, a 6-4 decision over St. Augustine Prep’s Connor Kraus in the second round, a 9-3 win over West Morris Central’s Justin LeMay in the quarterfinals and a 4-3 victory over Phillipsburg’s Cody Harrison in the semis, Garcia blazed his way to the final without going past two periods in any of his first four bouts, pinning all his opponents.

Only 10 seconds after Garcia, the fourth seed, shook O’Connell’s hand to start the title match, he was in on the second-seeded Ram’s left leg, and that was the start of an offensive onslaught like O’Connell had not seen this season. After O’Connell worked up to a neutral position following Garcia’s first takedown, the Lions senior snagged a headlock and drove O’Connell to his back for a near-fall and a 7-1 lead with just 40 seconds gone by in the first period.

O’Connell managed to get off his back about 25 seconds later, but still with 25 seconds to go Garcia turned O’Connell again for a two-point near-fall and a 9-1 advantage. O’Connell finally escaped and got to his feet with 10 seconds left, but Garcia didn’t relent during the second period.

After starting on defense, O’Connell worked his way to his feet and maneuvered to face his opponent, but Garcia immediately snatched O’Connell across the front of his shoulders and again dropped him to the mat for another near-fall. O’Connell fought off the pin and escaped with 45 seconds left in the period, but a 12-3 deficit was a tough hill to climb at that point.

“I wasn’t going to give up,” O’Connell said. “I was close (to pinned) on that headlock. He had it tight, but I wasn’t going to quit. I could have gotten teched before I got pinned. But there was no way I was going to quit.”

Not only did O’Connell not quit, he staged a comeback. Starting the third from neutral, O’Connell got in on Garcia and worked it into a takedown with 1:25 to go. As Garcia methodically took his time to get off the mat – chewing up some 30 seconds while doing so – O’Connell realized the urgency to try something big, and as Garcia moved to stand up O’Connell snapped his shoulders back and pounced for the pin attempt.

Garcia was quick to roll his right shoulder and got to his belly before O’Connell (40-1) could get him in position to press him. Eventually, with about 20 seconds left, Garcia (23-0) was back to his feet and facing O’Connell, then fought off O’Connell the rest of the way.

“Nobody can take that away from me,” O’Connell said of being one of the last two 152-pounders standing on the final day of the season. “We were out there, nobody else. People can say you should have done this and that, but they weren’t the ones out there. They have no idea. Very few people know what it’s like to be out there wrestling in front of that many people.”

O’Connell finished his outstanding career with a 104-15 record. In addition to being a state runner-up, O’Connell finished as a two-time district and region champion, a three-time state tournament qualifier and a two-time state placewinner. He was eighth at 145 pounds as a sophomore.

“I couldn’t be any more proud of Nick,” Stout said. “I wasn’t surprised at all that he was in the final. He’s represented us in the best way anybody has in the history of Southern Regional, and it’s our loss to have him graduating. He’s an excellent representation of exactly what we’re trying to do at Southern. He’s an excellent man, and he has a great future ahead of him.”

That future includes attending and wrestling for Cornell University starting in the fall. O’Connell intends to study business, and assistant coach Luke Lanno – who knows what it’s like to end a wrestling career as a state runner-up – believes bigger things are ahead for him.

“I told him that this is going to sting for a long time and he’s got to fight through it,” Lanno said. “He’s going to a great Ivy League school with a great wrestling program. He’s only going to get better, especially with the guys in that wrestling room and the coaches they have there. It’s going to be a great experience for him and I’m excited to see where he ends up.”

And even though it was difficult to look ahead following a loss in the state final, O’Connell seemed to understand that he has a bright future.

“I’m going to one of the best academic schools in the world,” he said. “The wrestling program is great, a top-10 program, and I’ll have a great training partner. So how can I not get better? I’ll be excited to be there.”

Still, that excitement was buried under anguish for the time being. Nonetheless, O’Connell was grateful for the support of his family, coaches and teammates, particularly classmates John Stout and Nick Pepe, who were eliminated from contention for podium spots the day before but were in Boardwalk Hall for O’Connell’s title match.

“I put on that Southern singlet for the last time today, and I had Nick and John right there with me,” said O’Connell, who has competed side by side with Pepe and Stout since their Stafford Recreation days. “They both warmed me up. They were both in the stands today. I’ll be friends with them for the rest of my life, and I can’t thank them enough for supporting me through everything.”

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