Championship or bust for Haddonfield wrestling in 2020

After falling short in the sectional finals the past three years, Haddonfield wrestling is determined to win the program’s first-ever sectional title in 2020

Seniors Luke Benedict, Ryan Bolletino and Declan Skelly have all won district titles during their careers at Haddonfield. They’re hoping to make more history in 2020 and help the Bulldawgs to the program’s first-ever sectional title.

Haddonfield wrestling’s seniors have managed to advance to the South Jersey Group 2 finals in every year of their high school careers.

What the seniors haven’t experienced yet is what it’s like to win a sectional title.

In three straight seasons, the Bulldawgs have advanced to the sectional final with a chance to become South Jersey champions for the first time in program history. Each year, Haddonfield has fallen short. This year, the senior class wants to make sure the heartbreak it experienced in past seasons does not happen again in 2020.

“We’ve got to win it,” senior Ryan Bolletino said. “We can’t just keep making it there and falling short of our goal. We have to make it there and win it.”

“(Making it to the sectional final) is not enough,” senior Declan Skelly added. “We really want to win and move on to (states) and see what we can do there.”

The Bulldawgs will go for their first-ever sectional title with a senior-heavy lineup that includes a trio of former district champions. Senior Luke Benedict was a District 28 champion at 138 pounds as a sophomore in 2018. Last year, Haddonfield had two district champions with Bolletino winning at 132 and Skelly at 145. Skelly would advance all the way to the state tournament.

“It was completely different,” Skelly said of his experience at states, where he lost his first round match. “It’s a huge crowd. There’s just rows and rows of mats set up. It’s a completely different vibe.”

Bolletino came up short of making it to states last year, but his district title run last year is pushing him to take another step forward in 2020.

“It was an awesome feeling,” Bolletino said of winning a district title. “It was probably one of my best feelings last season. At regions, I finished in fifth and fell short of my goal of making it to states last season. I’m just going to work harder to achieve my goal of making it to states.”

The three district champions will lead a team with a new head coach this season. Eric Hamrick, one of the most decorated wrestlers in the history of Collingswood High School, is now in charge of the program at Haddonfield. A 2011 Collingswood graduate, Hamrick was a three-time district champion and set the Panthers’ all-time record for wins.

Hamrick said the team’s strong senior leadership has made the transition to becoming head coach at Haddonfield an easy one.

“I can rely on them to help me get the young kids going during practice,” Hamrick said of the team’s leaders. “If I’m running late, I let them know and they can get everything set up. They’re in the weight room pushing kids, showing younger kids how to do it. I communicate with them.”

“I love Coach Hamrick,” Bolletino said. “He’s a great dude. He pushes us to our limit, so we’re going to get better every single day.”

Hamrick also knows what it takes to win a sectional title. Collingswood won one during his time with the program in 2008.

“I want to get them to the state tournament,” he said. “I want them to go to Toms River.”

The Bulldawgs have most of their lineup from 2019 back, with a couple holes to fill at the heavyweight and lightweight slots. The battle for starting spots in the lightweight classes has been competitive and Hamrick will be trying out multiple wrestlers in the team’s early-season tournaments to see who steps up.

“The lightweights have been working hard,” he said. “I’m switching it up so they’re wrestling new people. But they’re pushing each other, they’re young, but they’re willing to learn.”

The new additions to the lineup will play a crucial role as Haddonfield tries to make history in 2020. For the senior class, the message to the underclassmen is simple: it’s sectional title or bust this season.

“We’ve been really good the past three years and we’ve made the South Jersey finals every year I’ve been in high school,” Benedict said.

“This year, especially with a lot of seniors on varsity, I think we’re ready to win.”