Steinert’s Keon Cooper (center) is congratulated by his dad and assistant coach Doug “Cooperazzi” Cooper and head coach Adam “The Postmaster General” Jankos after defeating Johnny Andre en route to gaining a state berth (Photo from Facebook)
By Rich Fisher
Feb. 25: The road to Atlantic City apparently starts on the Road of Klockner.
Hamilton Township sent not one, but two wrestlers to the NJSIAA State Tournament Saturday, as Nottingham junior Jerry Andaluz took fourth at Region 6 at 152 pounds and Steinert senior Keon “Cooperazzi II” Cooper did likewise at 182 pounds. The top four finishers in each weight class at Brick Memorial High School wrestle at states in Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall starting on Friday.
It is the first trip for both wrestlers. Cooper is the second Spartan to go in three years, as Brandon Cray won back-to-back state titles in 2015-16. Andaluz gives Nottingham a second straight qualifier, as Jon Jacobs went last year.
“It’s probably the best feeling I’ve had . . . ever,” said Andaluz, who upset two of the four higher seeds he faced. “After winning districts, just the experience of it was amazing. It makes my coaches happy. They really expected a lot out of me and when I wrote my goals down this year, it was win districts and go to states, and I was able to do it.
“It was a challenge, but I definitely enjoyed every second of it and I’ll never forget it. I’m just happy to make my family proud, because it wasn’t easy getting here. I knew I’d have to fight for it, and I definitely did.”
Seventh-seeded Andaluz (32-9 record) lost his first match of the day to Point Pleasant Boro’s 2nd-seeded Francis Marshall, 17-5. That immediately dropped the Northstar into wrestle-backs, where
he defeated 6th-seeded Jack Milazzo of Robbinsville, 11-6, and Point Pleasant Beach’s 5th-seeded Jimmy Sherlock, 9-6, to clinch a state berth. He fell to Howell’s Xavier Kelly, 13-4, in the third-place finals.
Because he jammed his thumbs in practice the previous day, Andaluz was going for the takedown points.
“I was really confident on my feet,” Andaluz said. “I knew that I could take people down, and I just honestly took people down. The way my thumbs were (not) working I couldn’t really tilt anybody or work my way on top, so I just cut them and I knew I had to be smart enough to get the maximum angle and just be aggressive enough to attack from there.”
It was Jerry’s third meeting with Milazzo, who he beat the first time but got pinned by the second.
“I shouldn’t have gotten pinned, but it happens,” he said. “I knew I could beat him. He’s a good wrestler but it honestly comes down to the overall match and I think that I wrestled a better match than him. I was better on my feet and I knew he couldn’t take me down.”
As for Sherlock, the two wrestled earlier this year in a quad meet and Andaluz lost a one-point decision due to not knowing the correct score.
“I was winning by a point and I was on bottom and thought I was losing by a point,” he said. “I tried to get out, he got me in a cradle and I gave up two back points and I was shocked after when I heard I was winning.
“So when I heard he was going to be my next match (Saturday), I was excited because I wanted my revenge. I was going to be ready for that match.”
Andaluz felt he was ready to go to war thanks to the faith head coach Jason “The Rock” Marasco and assistants Jim “The Boulder” Becker and Charlie “The Stone” Iacano had in him (Becker earned Region 6 Assistant Coach of the Year).
“It was cool because my coach knew this whole time I was gonna win,” Andaluz said. “He gave me the confidence in my heart to do it for him and the other coaches and make them proud.
Asked what he is expecting from states, Andaluz said, “I haven’t really thought about it. To be honest when I get there I’m just gonna wrestle like every other match. I never get too much into detail about their record or how good they are. I just go out there and wrestle my match.
“Win or lose I’m happy to be there, it wasn’t easy,” he continued. “I’m gonna give it my best and just be happy that God put me in that place. Just have fun, it’s all about having fun. This is a big part of my wrestling career so far.”
It’s a big part in Cooper’s athletic career overall. After missing states by one spot last year, he finally got over the hump and ranks this with winning the javelin two straight years in the Mercer County Track & Field Championships.
“I’m overwhelmed with excitement,” Cooper said. “And giving Andre his first loss is just amazing.”
Indeed, the 6th-seeded Cooper (32-6) set the region on its ear by defeating Hightstown High nemesis Johnny Andre, 7-6, in the quarterfinals. Cooper opened by pinning 11th-seeded Taylor Sousa of Shore Regional in 5:06.
Next up was the 3rd-seeded Andre, who defeated Cooper in the district finals one week earlier. Andre brought a 36-0 record into the match and took a 4-0 lead in the first period. But Cooper stuck to the plan, took the match the distance and got a late escape for the winning point.
“During the week me and (coach Adam “The Postmaster General”) Jankos were studying up on the film from my last match with him and just kept going over and over it and we knew he got gassed,” Cooper said. “We used to our advantage to bring him into the deep waters (late into the match).”
With his confidence booming from the victory, Cooper nearly upset 2nd-seeded Sam Houston of CBA in the semifinals before losing 4-3. That dropped him into the wrestle-backs, where he pinned Trenton’s 9th-seeded Brian Shawsam in 3:10 to clinch a state berth.
“I was kind of anxious (for the wrestle-back) because I really wanted to go to AC,” Cooper said. “The winner of Colts Neck and Trenton were supposed to wrestle me. I just watched that match and kind of studied up on him and eventually beat him in the wrestle-backs.”
Cooper admitted it was a little tough to get up for the third-place finals since he was already in states, and he lost a 6-3 decision to Northern Burlington’s 4th-seeded Tommy Hill.
Cooper will now set his sights on the boardwalk.
“I’m just anxious for that first match,” he said. “I gotta do well in that first match.”