Looking Ahead: After stellar first two years, Hildebrandt eyes states

Williamstown wrestling standout prepares for postseason

MATTHEW SHINKLE/The Sun: John Hildebrandt, a junior at Williamstown High School, is preparing for another postseason run after last year’s individual district title and Most Outstanding Wrestler award. Next on his mind — a state title.

Coach Jon Jernegan was already well aware of the lofty goals John Hildebrandt had in mind for his future by the end of last season, when he achieved his second consecutive season of 30 wins, a district title and a Most Outstanding Wrestler award.

For some, it would seem like a good ending to the final two years of a high-school career. But for Hildebrandt, it’s merely the beginning as the Williamstown junior prepares for yet another postseason run as the regular season winds down.

“His goal is to place in the state … I know he wants to be on the podium,” said Jernegan. “I’ve coached a lot of kids over the years, but [Hildebrandt] is probably one of the most technical kids I’ve ever coached.

“I know he has it in him; he just needs to go out there and do it.”

Earlier this year, the fate of a 2020-2021 high-school wrestling season seemed dim. Eventually a 15-match regular season, substantially shorter than what a typical year allows, was agreed to, with slight alterations made to an eventual postseason.

Of course, Hildebrandt was slightly let down to hear of the news. For  the past three years, Williamstown has a combined record of 57-18 that has bolstered its reputation as one of the premier programs across South Jersey.

Through the team’s first nine matches, Hildebrandt went 8-1, with his team going 5-4. But with less time for this year, Hildebrandt will now focus solely on training for the postseason, an effort to stay safe from  injury, COVID and other issues that would make him and other individuals on the team ineligible for the upcoming district tournament.

“The regular season absolutely mattered to me, but my main focus is definitely the postseason,” he insisted. “My ultimate goal is state champion.”

Earlier this month, Hildebrandt started two-a-day practices to prepare for what he hopes will be a deep run that includes a state title. This year, he’s coming in with a new mindset and at a new weight class, after capturing the 106-pound district title last season.

“It’s always been a goal of mine to get bigger,” Hildebrandt noted. “It happened more naturally, gaining weight, as I got older, but I didn’t want to stay at 106 pounds because I felt like I was a little smaller. I definitely wanted to get bigger.

“I definitely have the skills and the right mindset, but I have to wrestle well and stay focused,” he added. “This year, I’m coming in with a new mindset and I have a chance to win it all.”

Jernegan says he’s seen his now 120-pounder grow this season in limited regular-season action, with Hildebrandt’s sole loss coming at the hands of Middletown South’s Jack Zaleski, the same individual that beat Hildebrandt at states last year.

“Regardless of that, he’s been very dominant and improved a lot from last year and obviously gotten a lot bigger …” Jernegan said. “Now he just needs to stay focused and get ready for the district tournament.”

While Hildebrandt’s future is unknown, an unfortunate casualty of the COVID-shortened season is the Williamstown wrestler’s chances at breaking a program record in career wins, according to the coach. That record is currently held by Anthony Racobaldo, at 142 career wins.

“It’ll even be tough for him to get 100 career wins now because of this, even though he legitimately had a shot to break the program record,” Jernegan said of Hildebrandt. “I tease with Racobaldo that he’s lucky the pandemic happened, because a few guys were on the verge of having the chance of breaking his record.”

Hildebrandt admits he’s eyed that record ever since getting to Williamstown High School, though it’s no longer a realistic feat.

“It was definitely a goal of mine coming into Williamstown because I’m friends with Racobaldo and we’ve joked about it in the past,” he said.

Hildebrandt recorded back-to-back 30+ win seasons during his freshman and sophomore years; eight more wins so far this season have him sitting at 74 career wins before the postseason. 

If the world returns to normal next year and a more traditional wrestling season and schedule is possible, Hildebrandt should be a lock to at least reach the 100-career win milestone. 

But either way, Hildebrandt says his main focus remains the same.

“It’s definitely a little sad knowing that I can’t really get [the career wins mark] now because of the pandemic, but my ultimate goal is states, and that’s the only thing I really care about.”