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In his 22 years as the head wrestling coach at Raritan High School, Rob Nucci has built something special. All you needed to do to realize that was look into the stands at Franklin High School during the team state finals.

Students, parents, fans, alumni, and teachers from the Hazlet school showed up in droves - on Super Bowl Sunday, no less - to watch the Rockets wrestle for the NJSIAA Group 2 state championship and Nucci's Rockets gave them plenty to cheer about when they defeated High Point, 37-27, to win the program's second group state championship.

Rob Nucci is the 2022 Shore Sports Network Shore Conference Wrestling Coach of the Year, but not simply because his team won a state title. It is how Nucci molded his squad into a championship team that is so impressive.

Rob Nucci Coach of the Year
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Raritan wasn't a juggernaut this year and rarely is within the Shore Conference. But what the Rockets are is incredibly consistent. They are a perennial top-10 team and a contender to win division, state sectional, and Group 2 titles almost every year. And they do this without a star-studded lineup. Make no mistake, the cupboard is far from bare at Raritan, but there are no superstars, just tough, hard-working kids who buy into Nucci's plan. Wrestling year-round, and in some cases wrestling exclusively, has become a prerequisite for success in most cases. Raritan doesn't have a single wrestler who would be considered a full-time wrestler.

"Hazlet is a small, blue-collar town so we don't have the kids who can get to the clubs all year round," Nucci said. "But, and this was something we started in 2009, our offseason is scheduled that we will wrestle between 50 to 75 dual meets mostly in the summer to get our core guys to wrestle. So when you get every single kid in the program wrestling between 50 and 75 matches that can make up a pretty decent lineup when the season comes."

Coaches preach about instilling a culture in a program and Nucci did that early in his tenure at Raritan. It wasn't difficult to get kids and parents to buy into what he was selling, either, because his vision for the program reflected the values they already appreciated. The Raritan wrestling team has and will continue to be a reflection of the town of Hazlet as long as Nucci is in charge.

"I think every one of our wrestlers comes from two parents who work full time and it's kind of bred into the kids to know that work ethic is very important," Nucci said. "They're not afraid to put the time and the commitment in. Having kids of my own I know it can be hard to get kids to commit to something. In Hazlet, it wasn't much of a sell. We get everyone to participate and it's very student-athlete driven."

Nucci puts great stock in their offseason program because it sets the stage for the season. Heading into last season, Raritan didn't have the same level of preparation because Covid protocols prevented many of the offseason dual-meet tournaments from taking place. This past summer was much closer to pre-pandemic levels. Once his team got through the grind of the offseason, he knew had had a group that could contend for a state title.

"Two summers ago we weren't able to do any of those things in the offseason and that hurt us," Nucci said. "We weren't able to outwork people. State championships are won in the offseason and I'm going to say I think we do that more than any program."

Raritan's season began with a 39-21 loss to a Warren Hills team that ended up reaching the Group 3 state final. The Rockets then suffered a 37-30 loss to a Lacey team that reached the South Jersey Group 3 sectional final. They started to find their groove in early January when they won 10 matches in a row, including victories over Ocean, Jackson Memorial, and Rumson-Fair Haven. They then dropped an epic 34-32 match to eventual Group 1 state champion Delaware Valley but rebounded a day later with a win over eventual South Jersey Group 4 champion Shawnee.

Raritan lost to St. Peter's Prep in the finals of the Pine Barrens Duals and then suffered a defeat at the hands of St. John Vianney in their Class A Central match. The Rockets earned the No. 7 seed in the Shore Conference Tournament and defeated Ocean in the first round before being eliminated via a loss to Howell.

Raritan was 16-6 at this point, but the wins and losses didn't matter much to Nucci. All he cared about was whether his team was prepared to make a run at a state championship.

"What I've learned as a coach is what you do in December and January means absolutely nothing come February," Nucci said. "Right out of the gate we wrestled Warren Hills and we knew they were going to be very good. You look at our schedule, it's not about picking up easy wins. Our losses were to Warren Hills, DelVal, Howell, St. Peter's Prep, St. John Vianney, Lacey. We beat Shawnee who was a sectional champion. You schedule matches that are going to make you better."

Raritan cruised into the Central Jersey Group 2 sectional final with wins over Holmdel and Manasquan to set up a rematch with Rumson in the sectional championship match. Raritan had defeated Rumson 37-31 during the regular season and there were several bouts that had the potential to go the other way. Rumson was also going to have senior Aidan Shaughnessy, a former region champion, back in its lineup.

This time, it was all Raritan as the Rockets won nine bouts, headlined by a phenomenal rally by junior Braden Kmak in which he stormed back to take the lead and then pin Shaughnessy at 5:59 in the swing bout at 132 pounds. The victory gave Raritan its fourth sectional title and first since 2018.

"We knew we were going to have to beat Rumson again in that sectional final and having them at home was an advantage for us," Nucci said. "We wrestled our tails off that night."

Raritan then hosted the Hanover Park in the Group 2 semifinals and delivered a 56-21 thrashing to get back to the Group 2 final. Waiting for them was a familiar nemesis in the form of High Point. The Wildcats were the reigning Group 2 champions and had won six group titles in their illustrious history. Back in 2018, High Point rallied with wins in the final six bouts to beat Raritan, 30-25, in the Group 2 state final. High Point struggled early in the season but had turned it around heading into February. All along, Nucci figured it would be the Wildcats they would have to vanquish in order to win another state championship.

This was the moment all those matches in the offseason were for, and the Rockets were not about to squander the opportunity. Raritan won eight bouts, including key pins by Matt Erven at 113, Braden Kmak at 132, and Zach Reilley 144 pounds, plus a very important decision by Logan Acevedo at 138 that allowed Nucci to bump Reilley to 144 and maximize their points. A decision win by Alex Auletta at 150 gave Raritan a 28-18 lead with four bouts left. High Point drew closer with a decision win at 157 pounds but at 165, Bobby Mulligan delivered a championship-clinching pin when he locked in a cradle for the fall at the 3:20 mark. Raritan now had an insurmountable 31-18 lead with just two bouts left.

Finally, the Rockets were state champions again. The large Raritan crowd made their presence heard and even more supporters waited for them as they drove down Middle Road back to the high school that evening.

"If you notice the crowd we had, they were there two hours before we wrestled," Nucci said. "We had a student fan bus with 50 kids and there was a heck of a lot of fans from Hazlet there. When you win something like that the whole community comes together. There were probably 10 fire trucks and police cars waiting for us when we got off the Parkway and about 500 people waiting for us at school. There's nothing better as a coach."

That support necessary for success comes from within the program too, as Nucci was quick to note. Assistant coaches are crucial as are those involved with the feeder programs. They are the unsung heroes of any program with sustained success.

"When you win Coach of the Year it's not just you. There are so many people involved in it," Nucci said. "Two assistants this year were Ethan Wolf and Charles Barrale, two former wrestlers of mine, two young bucks, and they did an outstanding job. The whole other thing that needs to be talked about is that Art Lynch, well after his kids came through the program, is still a big part of this. Jimmy Erven has run our rec programs for years. Don Murphy is still around helping out. We have these people who aren't paid coaches but are still a big part of this wrestling community."

Pretty soon the Rockets will be back to the grind during another offseason where they will try to outwork their opponents during the heat of the summer. You know what you're going to get from Raritan; toughness, versatility, and a team-first attitude. It starts at the top with Nucci, one of the best coaches in all of New Jersey. The engineer of the Green Machine.

 

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