Both Chad Walsh and C.J. LaFragola can see the mountaintop now and the South Jersey wrestlers want to climb higher, which is expected since neither reached this rarified stage by being content at any level.
Walsh, a former Camden Catholic High School four-time state place finisher, and LaFragola, a state finalist at St. Joseph Hammonton, both will compete at the NCAA national championships beginning Thursday in St. Louis.
Their life-long journey to be a collegiate national champion is at their feet. And like the mountaineer who was asked how he reached the summit, answering “one step at a time,” they both aren’t looking past the first round in their bracket.
“I’m looking to win it, but I have to take it one match at a time," Walsh said Wednesday afternoon from St. Louis. “Every match is tough. Everyone has the same mentality. Everyone wants to win it. They all want to be All-Americans.
“So every match is going to be a battle. I’m looking forward to it.”
Walsh, a junior 165-pounder at Rider University, earned All-American honors by placing fifth last year at the NCAA championships.
“I worked way too hard to separate myself," Walsh said. “I’m on that national level now.”
LaFragola, a sophomore 184 pounder at Brown, is making his first trip to the NCAAs, which will be held Thursday through Sunday at the Scottrade Center.
“I’m trying to stay relaxed, I don’t want to get hyped up too early,” LaFragola said Wednesday night from St. Louis. “It’s definitely an awesome feeling walking down and checking out the arena. We practiced there twice now. I’m comfortable where to go and how it looks.
“So now its just the lights are going to be on and fans are going to be cheering and its going to be crazy, but I’m going to have to settle down and try to do my job.
“It doesn’t matter what the score is, I’m just trying to get that ‘W.’ “
Other South Jersey wrestlers who will be trying to get one ‘W’ at a time are Holy Spirit’s Pat D’Arcy of Princeton and Burlington Township’s Kevin Devoy of Drexel at 133 pounds along with Clearview’s John Van Brill and Holy Cross’ Matt Correnti, both of Rutgers, at 157 and 197 pounds respectively.
“It’s definitely nice to have a couple of local boys out here with me," Walsh said. “South Jersey usually has more guys who qualify, but seeing South Jersey step it up is good to see.”
Also defending national champion Myles Martin of Penns Grove who attended powerful McDonogh, a prep school in Maryland, before winning the 174-pound crown last year as a true freshman for Ohio State, will compete at 184 pounds.
“I wrestled against him growing up, but around 8th grade he went down there and created a name for himself," Walsh said about Martin. “I mean, he was tough before he left, but once he got to high school he shot up and got real big and really started dominating guys.”
LaFragola earned an at-large bid at 184 pounds, so he could meet up with Martin.
“I’m pretty sure I wrestled him in one of those youth tournaments,” LaFragola said. “I’m almost certain I wrestled him like in 7th grade.”
LaFragola, who lives in Little Egg Harbor, attended Holy Spirit as a freshman before transferring to St. Joseph.
“We’re staying at the same hotel so we chatted a little bit,” LaFragola said about D’Arcy. “It’s just crazy that we were in high school together as freshman and now we are out here together trying to get on the podium, it’s crazy.”
Walsh will try to reach the top steps of the podium too, like his older brother, Taylor, did at Indiana University, finishing as a national runner-up. Taylor was a two-time state champion at Camden Catholic, where he graduated in 2010.
If Walsh reaches the championship match like his brother, he would be the first Rider wrestler to reach the finals.
“Last year showed me I’m capable of being in the finals and wrestling with those guys," Walsh said. “I moved up a weight and this whole season has been about going out and wrestling the style I worked on during the season.
“Having confidence in my style is probably the coolest thing because I know as long as I go out and wrestle the way I’m capable of, I’m going to have a good shot.”
Walsh, who is the No. 5 seed at 165 pounds, will wrestle around 12:30 p.m., Thursday against Johnny Sebastian, a redshirt sophomore at Northwestern who was a three-time New Jersey state champion at Bergen Catholic.
“I got to go out and set the pace, I got to go out and go get him," Walsh said.
LaFragola will wrestle around 1:30 p.m. Thursday against Jordan Ellingwood (26-8) of Central Michigan University.
“He wrestles similar to me,” said LaFragola, who is 24-13 overall for the second highest win total on the team this year. “I just have to make sure I finish my shots and if I get in, don’t just sit there, try to capitalize and make sure you get up on your feet and finish through.We definitely prepared for our opponent."
This season, Walsh is 29-2 overall and now has 77 career wins.
Last year, as the 15th seed, he posted wins in four of six matches at the NCAA championships. He beat the No. 2, No. 4 and No. 7 seeds at the nationals.
As a freshman, Walsh won his first match but then lost his next two in nationals at 157 pounds.
Walsh, a sociology major, has two years of experience to draw on when he steps onto the mat and into the middle of his life-long dream.
“I’m ready to make it happen," Walsh said.
One match at a time.
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