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SEAN GUTHRIDGE
Maxx Johnson of East Brunswick High School gets stripped of the ball while going up for a shot on Monday against Bridgewater-Raritan in the Central Jersey Group IV final in Raritan. The Bears came up short as the Panthers claimed a 49-38 win.

The Old Bridge Roller Hockey Instructional Program is holding sign-ups for its spring program, which will begin in mid-April, at the Old Bridge Ice Arena. The nine-week program teaches the fundamentals of roller hockey, including skating, passing, stickhandling and shooting.

The Wednesday session runs from 7 to 8:30 p.m. and is for children between the ages of 5-8. The Thursday session, which runs from 7 to 8:30 p.m., is open to players between the ages of 9-12.

An advanced session will be held Thursdays from 8:30 to 10 p.m. for players between the ages of 10-13.

Each session includes scrimmages and full equipment is required. The program is sponsored by the Old Bridge Parks, Recreation and Social Services Department and costs $70 for residents and $80 for nonresidents. Registrations are being accepted at the Arena Pro Shop. For more information, call John Piccolo at (732) 679-8339.

The Red Bank Armory Ice Complex will run spring adult house hockey leagues with play beginning on April 9. There will be B and C leagues open to appropriately skilled teams and players and a 35-and-over league. All leagues will play a 12-game season. Team entry is $4,000 and single-player entry is $300. All teams must have a 15-man roster. Games will be played on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights. Sunday games will be played at 6:45, 8:30 and 10:15 p.m. Monday and Tuesday games will be played at 8:15 and 10 p.m. Goalies may play free. For more information, call (732) 450-9001.

The Marlboro Little League Memorial Day Tournament will run from May 26-29. The league is taking entries for 9-year-old, 10-year-old, 11-year-old, 12-year-old and Junior (13- and 14-year-old) divisions. Call Gary Gleitman at (732) 536-4578 for additional information.

The Jackson Youth Baseball League

is now accepting registration for its summer Baseball Tournament that begins on July 22. Play will be offered in 10U, 11U, 12U and 13/14 Divisions. If interested, call John Pannella at (732) 928-0398 after 7 p.m.

Crowther, Vander Valk valued Knights leaders

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o-captains Joe Crowther and Dan Vander Valk played integral roles in making the Old Bridge High School wrestling team’s season a successful one.

Both grapplers won their respective weight classes at the District 20 competition to move on to the Region 5 competition. Crowther, 25-4 on the year, again took first place in the regional event, and he won the Greater Middlesex Conference (GMC) Tournament earlier this winter. Vander Valk, who is 21-7, was second in his division at the GMC but was eliminated in the regional competition.

"Joe and Dan are outstanding leaders, and I was lucky to have them," said veteran Old Bridge Coach Ken Scott. "It’s like having two extra coaches in the room. They truly set the standard for the team, not just on the mats, but in the classroom. They are excellent examples of what we want our program to be."

Sporting a career mark of 71-24, Crowther heads to the state tournament at 140 pounds. That should be no surprise to Old Bridge fans, as the senior comes from a wrestling family. His father, Harry "The Cradle" Crowther, starred for Cedar Ridge High School, as did his uncle Lenny. Brothers Harry and Cliff also made their mark at Old Bridge. Paul Fredericks, an uncle on his mother’s side, is also a former wrestler. And they all come to watch Joe compete.

Naturally, one of Joe Crowther’s strengths is the cradle; he also excels from the bottom. Of course, he has been wrestling since the third grade and has had some fine tutors along the way.

"Joe is a finisher, a hardworking kid who will work at a task and do it well until it’s complete," Scott said. "That’s how he won the District; he refused to quit, and in the end he won. He just has a lot of heart."

Coming off of a 20-win season, expectations were high for Crowther. "I didn’t really think about it that much," he said. "I just tried to work hard and take things one match at a time."

He also credited Vander Valk and teammates Omar Munoz and Kevin Quinlan with helping sharpen his skills in their practice matches.

"I try to be smart out there," Crowther explained. "I have an in-between style; I’m not too aggressive and I’m not too defensive. I try to take what my opponent gives me."

What Crowther, who has 10 pins, will do more often than not is provide an opponent with six torturous minutes of give and take. Ranked in the top 10 percent of his class, Crowther uses his mind as much as his formidable athletic skills to succeed.

On the other hand, Vander Valk came into the season not knowing his role. He was 11-11 last season and at one point he ended up in a reserve role.

"I pulled him out of the lineup last year," Scott said. "He never said a word, and I never heard from his parents. That’s the kind of kid he is. He took that as a marching order to work harder. And did he ever work. I wanted to make him a captain, but I wasn’t sure where he would fit in, so I hesitated. He was not going to b denied. He did his talking through his actions."

The day after football season ended, Vander Valk, ranked eighth academically in a class of 640, was in the wrestling room getting ready. He was much improved on his feet, and when wrestle-offs began he made his mark quickly and became the starter at 152 pounds.

"The most important thing for me was maturing," he said. "I didn’t have mat sense. I’d just try to score, and that’s how I’d get caught. Now I can manage a match and pick my spots."

A few-early season wins built Vander Valk’s confidence — and he was off and running. His excellent senior campaign has improved his career record to 42-28.

Something of a throwback, Vander Valk is a three-sport man, mixing football and baseball with wrestling. He admits that in an era when many athletes concentrate on one sport, it’s increasingly difficult to play three.

"I would probably be a better wrestler, for example, if I concentrated on it year-round and were able to put everything into it," he said. "But I’m very glad I’ve had the opportunity to play three sports at the varsity level. That’s been a great experience, too."

Despite their successes on the mats, neither Crowther nor Vander Valk is certain if he will continue in college. Both have been accepted to Rutgers University but are weighing their options.

Not to fear, though; the Crowther and Vander Valk names are not likely to go away from Old Bridge wrestling. Crowther’s cousins Len and Keith are now competing at Sandberg Middle School, while Vander Valk has three younger brothers. Nick, a sophomore, competed for the Old Bridge junior varsity; Mike competes for Salk Middle School; and Steve, a first-grader, is about to enter the Mat Rat program.

"Kids like Joe and Dan are part of the reason I stay in coaching," Scott said. "And it goes way beyond wrestling. They’re good people."

Crowther was joined at yesterday’s Super Regions in Red Bank by teammates Justin Smigelsky, Mike Carro and Sal Iodaci.

Smigelsky is also a Region 5 champion and is guaranteed a spot at the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association Wrestling Tournament, to be held this weekend at the Meadowlands Continental Airlines Arena, East Rutherford.

Smigelsky powered his way to the 103-pound title on Saturday at Hunterdon Central High School. Previously, Smigelsky had won the District 20 event and finished second in the Greater Middlesex Conference (GMC) tourney. The junior’s record stands at 25-3 on the season.

"Justin’s a battler," Coach Scott said. "He has a lot of experience and he’s been there before, taking second in the Region and District last year."

Iodaci, 20-6, took second place in his weight class in Region 5, losing a 9-7 decision to East Brunswick’s Tom Corio. He also finished second in the District 20 competition to Corio.

As with Iodaci, Carro was a finalist at Region 5 and took second in the 119-pound weight class.

Ritchings, Corio capture Region 5 titles for Bears

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he East Brunswick High School wrestling team may have compiled an unspectacular 7-8 record, but Coach Glenn Pazinko’s Bears have plenty to be proud of. To begin with, their ledger is a significant improvement over last season’s 4-8 mark, and most recently two winners in the NJSIAA Region 5 tournament.

Sophomore 112-pounder Keith Ritchings won a 5-4 decision over Bridgewater’s Josh Shearer, while at 171 pounds senior Tom Corio came back from a 5-4 deficit with a reversal and a takedown posting a 9-7 triumph over Sal Iodaci of Old Bridge, whom he’d defeated four times previously.

"Keith is wrestling his best right now," Pazinko said of Ritchings, who is 24-6 and placed third in the region last year as a freshman and is making his second trip to the states.

"There are a lot of tough kids in his division," noted the coach. "Keith has worked very hard in the off-season and has turned out to be a very smart tactical wrestler."

In last night’s Super Regions meet, Ritchings was slated to face the winner of a match between Brad Galeta of Bound Brook (31-4) and Rob Jimenez of Brick Memorial, who is 28-3.

As for the 27-1 Corio, Pazinko feels he has only begun to reach his peak.

"He’s had a tremendous year, his one loss coming in the county finals," he said. "If you look at the other regional champs, he’s right there with them, and yet I don’t even think he’s wrestling as well as he can. Tom’s a tough kid who won’t back down, but I think he’ll perform even better than he has."

Corio got his next chance last night against either Rudy Medini of Woodbridge (27-3) or Jake Butler, who has a 25-7 mark for Point Pleasant Beach.

East Brunswick had some other fine efforts by its grapplers. Junior heavyweight Dennis Bruno placed fourth in the regions and has run up an excellent 17-8 record.

At 189, junior James Gagnon was second in the districts, while 215-pound junior Adam Fleischhauer was second.

Two other 11th-graders, Nick Yannazzo (130) and Mark Blackborow (119), were third in district competition, as was freshman John Clay, who grapples at the 152-pound level.

The Bears have another freshman, Brian Ackerman, who has shown solid potential.

"He’s wrestled well in a tough weight class," said Pazinko, who is assisted by Joe Csatari, Andy Scanlon, freshman coach Mike Vinella and eighth-grade boss Jay Adochio.

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The Monroe Junior Falcons fell to Piscataway 54 to 24. A pin by Ryan Worden highlighted the effort for Monroe.

Against South Brunswick the Falcons fell 62 to 17 and saw their record drop to 5-7 for the season. Pins by Worden, Grant Herring and a technical fall by Kyle Patton led the Falcons effort. Grant Herring and Kyle Patton finished the regular season undefeated and earned top seeds in the league tournament in South River on March 5.

Herring also placed in a qualifying tournament for the State Championships and will wrestle on March 18.

Monmouth Power, an Amateur Athletic Union basketball club, is seeking talented players for its boys 17-year-old team based in Marlboro. Tryouts will be held in March. For information, please call Chris at 566-3697.

The Sayreville Leprechauns Pop Warner football program will be conducting a registration session for football players and cheerleaders on March 18 at the Civic Center on Dolan Street between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Those registering are asked to bring a copy of the registrant’s birth certificate, a recent wallet size photo (no uniform pictures) and two checks, a $40 registration fee and a $75 refundable workbond. A recent physical is also required. For more information, call at 727-5580.

The Middlesex County Over-50 Softball League is accepting applications from individuals wishing to play in 2000. The organization runs a slow-pitch arch league where recreation and safety come first. All games are played on Saturday mornings and the season begins on April 15 and ends in late August. To be eligible, players must reach their 50th birthday by Dec. 31. For more information, call Rich Nadler at 329-8595, or e-mail him at rnadler22@aol.com.

South River Parks and Recreation will be conducting a registration session for all youth baseball and softball leagues today and Friday from 6:30 to 8 p.m. in the South River elementary/middle school auxiliary gym. The leagues are open to resident children ages 4 (if registered for kindergarten) through 15. The registration fee is $20 per child. For more information or information on men’s and women’s softball leagues, call 254-4412.

Raritan Bay Cougars football and cheerleading sign-ups will be held Friday, March 24 from 7 to 9 p.m. and March 25 from 10 a.m. to noon at the Raritan Bay Cougars Field House, located on Cheesequake Road, Madison Park section of Old Bridge. For more information, call 721-4375 or visit the organization’s Web site at: http://sport.nj.com/sport/cougars.