Braves reloading for another run in ‘19

Williamstown wrestling enjoyed a highly successful season last winter, winning the most matches in school history. Despite losing key contributors, the Braves are ready to compete in a competitive Tri-County Conference again.

Sophomore Cody LaGamba, seniors Sam Ray and Chad Tracy, and sophomores Taylor Robinson and Joey Racobaldo give the Braves a formidable combo of up-and-coming talent and senior leadership that could help the Braves make a run during the 2018–19 wrestling season. (RYAN LAWRENCE, The Sun)

On the penultimate day in November, the room off the gymnasium was dimly lit and swampy, just how a high school wrestling practice room should feel at any time of the year.

But the more important observation was how crowded the room felt. There were two wrestlers on every mat and others hovering around waiting for their chance to scrap, too.

A year removed from the winningest season in program history, Williamstown High School has its work cut out with a talented senior class gone after graduating, but also has no shortage of new kids hoping to form the next winning team.

“We’re trying to work on where our varsity team is going to be, who is going to be at what weight, we want that optimal team,” Braves coach Jon Jernegan said. “We have a lot of kids in here. I think from having such a good season last year we’re seeing that a lot of kids want to be a part of that program, they want to wrestle for us. Right now we’ve been doing a lot of teaching.”

The beginning of a new season is fun for every team — the contenders, the rebuilding programs, and everybody in between — because of the unlimited possibilities. Everyone can make predictions, but there is never going to be a perfect prognosticator. The unknown is exciting.

After leading his alma mater to a 24–3 season in 2017–18, Jernegan is intrigued with the possibilities.

Sure, he can waste his time counting all the seniors who made last season possible. But the better spent time is looking out at all the mats in front of him and pointing out the potential of a freshman (106-pounder John Hildebrant) or looking at the guy two times his size (heavyweight Sam Ray) who could be destined for a breakout season in 2018–19.

“(Ray’s) first year wrestling was last year and he beat some kids who made it to the state tournament,” Jernegan said. “So we expect big things from him with a year under his belt.”

Jernegan and the Braves staff will know a little bit more about how they stand as the season progresses, of course. In December, the tournaments bookending Christmas (the Gator Tournament, the Arthur O. Marinelli Tournament) will reveal who his top individuals are compared to their rivals throughout South Jersey.

But how they wrestle as a team is a different story. It’s what made last year’s Braves’ season a successful story, having a tight-knit group that fed off each other and thrived in dual meets.

Sure the Braves had one of the state’s best in 195-pounder Bryan Martin (Region 8 winner, third at states), but they also had seven others seniors who have graduated from that 24-win team.

“We lost a lot of kids, but the benefits are that we had a lot of young kids that were on the team and saw (that season),” Jernegan said. “Our (departing) seniors, when they were freshmen, they were pretty good. By the time they became seniors they were really good and we had a really good season. But we had a freshman class last year with a lot of guys in the varsity lineup and they learned from them. So hopefully they take off just as those seniors last year did (in their high school careers), and we can have the same type of season.”

Along with Ray, Chad Tracy, Joey Racobaldo, Taylor Robinson, Cody LaGamba are all back from last year’s starting lineup. Tracy (145) is a senior who wrestled at Regions last winter.

“He’s taken over as our leader,” Jernegan said. “He knows how those guys (last year) practiced and he’s following in the same footsteps.”

Jernegan, a ’93 Williamstown graduate who went on to wrestle at Bloomsburg University, knows the room isn’t the same as last year, but he also knows it’s a heck of a lot more crowded than it was when he was in school a quarter century ago. And the unknown, the possibilities, the tempered expectations? They are all exciting.

“The school got bigger, a lot more talent,” he said, remembering his own high school days before pivoting back from past to present. “Kingsway will be good again, they’ve got a lot back (from last year). Clearview. Highland. Our conference is going to be tough, and we want to be competitive in that.

“If we can get those five (returning starters) to win matches and then get three more kids, then we should have a shot at beating Kingsway and those teams.”