The writing was on the wall last year for Shawnee wrestling: Big things were coming sooner rather than later.
After an abbreviated 2020-’21 season, in which head coach Kyle Packer was in the midst of only his second season at the helm of the program, the Renegades qualified their first state finalist since 1984, with Isaac Dean nearly taking the state title in the 182-pound weight class.
Dean’s individual success, coupled with the culture change that Packer sought to bring to the program after taking over, helped instill a new sense of belonging for Shawnee amongst top wrestling programs in South Jersey.
“There was a different attitude and somewhat of a culture change,” Packer said. “It was more of them believing in themselves kind of thing, and it’s something that wasn’t going to happen overnight … I’d like to think that we could’ve jumped out on the scene a little faster last year if it wasn’t for COVID, but we knew we were on the right track and we proved it this year.”
That culture shock helped the Renegades turn a 5-8 record last season into a South Jersey Group 4 sectional title this year, after the top-seeded Renegades defeated third-seeded Moorestown 48-19 to claim their first sectional championship in the school’s 52-year history.
“This puts that out there that you can succeed at Shawnee if you buy-in to what we’re preaching as a family, these guys on the team this year did exactly that,” Packer said.
Thus far, Shawnee has amassed a 23-1 record going into its state semifinal match against Mount Olive. The Renegades started the season off with a 13-match winning streak before their single loss thus far set up the opportunity for another double-digit winning streak.
The mentality of making the best out of every change given, Packer said, has been more than enough to fuel his teams fire all season long.
“We’ve just been preaching that every day is an opportunity so let’s seize it,” Packer said. “I think our first real seizing moment was our comeback win against Camden Catholic last week; these kids definitely believed in themselves before that but that win validated the belief for sure.”
With the night starting at 113 pounds, the first two matches kept the score close with Shawnee clinging to a close 6-3 lead before four straight wins by the eventual sectional champions helped create a seemingly insurmountable lead for the Quakers to overcome. Nick Cottone, Jake Hastings and Chris Ahrens all pinned their opponents during that four match winning streak, while Anthony Duarte won a 4-3 decision, bringing the scoreboard to 27-3.
Matt Quinn and Jay Stokes also secured pins for Shawnee in the victory.
According to senior Anthony Duarte, the team’s discipline and dedication in turning the program around were evident from the very beginning of the season.
“On the first day of the season, Packer told us we had goals that he believed we could achieve, but what I think really set us apart was our effort in and out of the room,” Duarte said. “All of our guys are super dedicated and committed, it helped form a really strong team aspect. We all know our roles and how to execute our plans on the floor and this season showed that.”
Having secured the program’s first sectional title in school history, the achievement is something that all involved — from those on the mat to those that watched from the stands — will always remember.
“Words honestly can’t describe this,” Duarte said. “This is something that everyone involved is always going to remember, whether it’s the wrestlers, the parents, the coaches, the teaching staff that’s here, it’s an amazing moment for Shawnee.”