Making history: Delran’s Emma Matera, Girls Wrestler of the Year

The Bears sophomore, enamored with grappling since she was old enough to walk, became the school's third state champ (and first female) and helped build the program up this winter, too.

Matera made a promise to herself and her coaches after finishing fourth in the state last winter. “She told us out at Atlantic City and at regions that she’s better than that,” Delran coach Nathan Marter said, “and she expects to be better than that, and she wants to be better than that. She basically couldn’t wait until this year and she’s just worked her butt off.” (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

Thirteen months ago, on the day before President’s Day, Delran freshman Emma Matera looked up from the mat, made eye contact with her coach and apologized.

The inaugural South Region tournament’s 136-pound championship match wasn’t quite over, but Matera knew the result had been decided: She was getting pinned in the opening minute of the second period. The freshman mouthed “I’m sorry” to Nathan Marter.

“I felt bad; I was putting too much pressure on her,” said Marter, Delran’s wrestling coach. “But she was putting that much pressure on herself … She told us out at Atlantic City and at regions that she’s better than that, and she expects to be better than that, and she wants to be better than that. She basically couldn’t wait until this year and she’s just worked her butt off.”

Flash forward to March 7, 2020. Matera didn’t have to settle for a consolation match at Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall, the longtime site of the state championships. She was in the finals and wasn’t wasting time, either, scoring the first takedown of the match, against reigning state champ Gabby Miller of Monroe Township.

Matera fulfilled her promise to her coaches and to herself, too. The kid who first fell in love with grappling at age 2 defeated Miller and made her way to the top of the podium as the third individual state champion in Delran High School history and the first female.

Matera — a South Jersey trailblazer, proud girls wrestling ambassador and a state champ — collected one more honor before her sophomore season was complete: She’s South Jersey Sports Weekly’s Girls Wrestler of the Year.

‘It’s crazy,” Matera said of her place in school history. “I know when I’m always doing jump ropes in the room, I’d look up at those two names (Brett Matter and Bill Duff) and I’d be like, ‘Come on, we’ve got to get more up there!’ We have all of these district champs and region champs. It just helped me keep going. It means a lot to be up there and hold that title.”

Matera’s second high school season was a resounding success.

Matera — who credited Marter, fellow coaches Pete McArthur and Rick Cordero and former middle school coach Jason Pope for her development — didn’t just make wrestling history but has helped build Delran’s program, too. Consider this: A year after she was the only female wrestler in the room (the 2018-19 season marked the first that NJSIAA held region and state tournaments for girls), Matera was joined in the Bears’ wrestling room by a dozen other girls. Three of them advanced to the state tournament, including first-year wrestler and fellow sophomore Kalli Roskos, who joined Matera as a state finalist two Saturdays ago.

“(Emma) spent a lot of time bringing the other girls along, and at one point I had to have a conversation with her, I kind of told her, ‘You need to worry about you; the other girls will come along,’” Marter said of Matera’s natural instincts to lead the budding girls team. “‘You can’t forget you’re a wrestler. It’s not your job to make the other girls better, it’s your job is to make yourself better, which in turn, will make the other girls better.’ Emma wanted them to have success so they’d keep coming back, but she couldn’t sacrifice her own success.”

At the state finals, Roskos was pinned in the first period, just as Matera was preparing to take the mat for her own championship match.

“It was heartbreaking to see that, having her walk past me looking so upset;  all I wanted to do was give her a hug and a ‘Aw, we’ll get them next year,’” Matera said. “But there were people handing me ankle bands and telling me to step up to the carpet so I couldn’t … It definitely helped fuel me forward. I knew I had the ability to do it. So I just had to (get a state title for us).”

Matera’s first-place medal was the culmination of more than a dozen years dedicated to the sport. Although she didn’t begin wrestling until middle school, Matera has been involved in martial arts since she was old enough to walk.

When she was just 2, Matera watched her uncle, Ted Mehl, compete in a North American Grappling Association (NAGA) tournament in Wildwood. When it was over, she looked up at her mom, Cheryl Matera.

“Emma turn,” Cheryl Matera said, mimicking her daughter’s voice.

They gave in and let the toddler tussle with a couple of boys her age. The rest is history.

Delran High School sophomore Emma Matera poses with her mom, Cheryl Matera, outside of the school with the championship bracket from the NJSIAA Girls Wrestling State Tournament. (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

As the final seconds ticked off the clock at Boardwalk Hall on Saturday, with Marter yelling his lungs out and Matera scanning the crowd to find her teammates, the kid came of age and was ready to be crowned a champion. But before running into Marter’s arms, Matera shook Miller’s hand and made a beeline to the crowd, where she found Miller’s parents.

“She has so much respect for Gabby Miller and her parents — her father is one of the big advocates for girls wrestling — and she went off the mat and shook Gabby’s parents’ hands first, and then the (Monroe Township) coach’s hand, before coming over to jump into my arms to celebrate,” Marter said. “It’s almost like she took everyone else’s emotions into account before she enjoyed what she just accomplished, which is phenomenal.”

“I’m more proud of her for that than the medal,” Cheryl Matera said. “That’s the game of life. I know medals from my own time: They get stuck in drawers. But what she’s taught her team, what she learns from her coaches and who she is as a human being, she’s on a podium she never has to get down from.” 

Matera, 25-1 with 22 pins this season and 40-5 overall at Delran, is halfway through her high school career. Her goal between now and graduation in 2022?

Two more championship medals, naturally.