Girls Wrestler of the Year: Williamstown senior Paige Colucci
With a jiu jitsu background but no experience in wrestling, Colucci tried out the sport as a senior, the first year it was a sanctioned sport for girls in New Jersey, and collected South Jersey’s first regional title.
Bruce Quinn certainly has the credentials of being a bona fide tough guy. He’s an ironworker and Army veteran. He’s also the owner of Endgame Brazilian jiu jitsu in Williamstown.
But earlier this month, first in Toms River and then a week later in Atlantic City, the tears were difficult to fight off as Quinn watched one of his favorite pupils compete.
Williamstown High School senior Paige Colucci, a first-year wrestler, was making history as South Jersey’s first regional champion and then competing in New Jersey’s first sanctioned state tournament for girls, too.
“I’m a big baby, crybaby,” Quinn said. “But I love that kid.”
Colucci came up short of a state championship, but she entered the final weekend of the high school wrestling season with a 17–0 record with 17 pins, a remarkable run for an athlete who had competed in jiu jitsu for three years but hadn’t even begun to try wrestling until November.
“Honestly I couldn’t be prouder,” said Quinn, Colucci’s jiu jitsu coach and №1 wrestling fan. “I kind of look at Paige like she’s like my daughter. I always took her under my wing. I knew she was special from the (jump). She’s just different, it’s hard to explain. She’s always had this special ability.”
Colucci, who matches her physical talent and history making with an even-keel mentality, the perfect mix of confidence and humility, earned a collection of medals (including the aforementioned South Jersey Regional championship) during her inaugural wrestling season. She added another before heading off with the rest of Williamstown’s 12th graders on the senior trip to Disney World: The Sun Newspapers Girls Wrestler of the Year.
The Braves trailblazer can use that as another reason to promote the sport and her belief that, regardless of gender, anyone anywhere can do whatever they want as long as they put their mind to it.
“Looking back on it now, I’ve already had some girls reach out to me and tell me they’d like to wrestle, and I think that’s cool,” she said. “I’ve always felt if you wanted to do something, just do it, who cares if no one else has ever done it. Do your own thing. I never saw my gender as a thing, but I think it’s cool that now girls can look at me and say, ‘if she can do it than I can do it.’ So I hope it inspires them.”
For Colucci, who only decided to go out for wrestling at the urging of a teacher and assistant wrestling coach, John DeAngelis, her impromptu decision to try wrestling could even be described as life-changing.
Colucci went through the first half of her senior year at Williamstown not giving a whole lot of thought to college. But after making a name for herself on the sport’s biggest stage in New Jersey, new doors are opening.
Williamstown head wrestling coach Jon Jernegan has been in contact with at least a half dozen schools throughout the country regarding Colucci. And some of the schools have been the ones doing the reaching out.
“If I can wrestle in college and the side effect is getting a degree, that’s not bad,” Colucci said with a laugh.
Colucci’s love of jiu jitsu made jumping into a testosterone-fueled wrestling world a little easier. Still, she had to overcome the odds and remain mentally tough as the lone girl in the Williamstown wrestling room and had to persevere through the long, grueling season, too.
When it was over, Colucci had another favorite sport.
“I’ve always loved grappling in general, but I like wrestling because I feel like it’s more my style,” she said. “It’s the one time I’m allowed to be aggressive and allowed to be a bully — in a good way. You know what I mean? It’s just an experience in itself. It’s very exhilarating. It’s just a fun sport.”
Colucci was a near-perfect match for a sport that demanded a special blend of physical and mental toughness. If she can continue to wrestle beyond high school, why wouldn’t she try to keep it going?
“I really think whatever she does in life, whether is military, (mixed martial arts), wrestling, the sky is the limit,” Quinn said. “She’s a gift to the art. I’m not the smartest guy, but she’s special. And I’d like to say I helped create her, but that kid would have been amazing anywhere. I was just fortunate enough to meet her.”
For Colucci, the feeling is mutual with a sport she hadn’t even considered until after Halloween.
“I learned that I’m way stronger than I thought I was, not physically but mentally,” Colucci said. “Everything is a mental battle. (Coach DeAngelis) always talks about climbing the mountain and ever since I began wrestling, I know I can climb any mountain. There are other things I can apply it to.”
No matter what life throws at her, it can’t be as intimidating as joining a new sport as the lone girl on the team and then as thrilling as coming out on the other end as a champion.
“So,” Colucci said, “that’s another reason I like wrestling.”