Sean Farrell, Staff Writer, @seanfarrell92
WEST ORANGE — Sam Cali would have loved it.
The setup was like a wrestler’s paradise.
TV cameras by every mat. Champions at every weight. Spectators in every seat.
At least 2,500 fans came to West Orange High School on Saturday for the inaugural Sam Cali Invitational Wrestling Tournament, where many of North Jersey’s top teams battled schools from five other states. Its mission was to bring in the best of the best, and honor the former Don Bosco and Rutgers star who passed away in a 2016 car crash.
The first day was a huge success.
“Sam would be in awe,” said his mother, Theresa. “I know he would be. We want this to be the premier wrestling tournament in New Jersey and grow and grow. We just want to give back to the wrestling community because they supported us and were always so kind.”
College scouts and Rutgers’ representatives were on hand for 32-team all-day event, and they got to see some good wrestling. Don Bosco and DePaul highlighted the North Jersey contingent with four wrestlers apiece headed to Sunday’s semifinal round. St. Joseph sent three wrestlers through, while Fair Lawn and Paramus will also be represented.
Travis Arata advanced for Mahwah as well by scoring a huge upset in the quarterfinal. Arata earned a 7-5 sudden victory with a takedown of Montville’s Joe Daddario, ranked second at 170 pounds. The Thunderbirds’ senior with 85 career wins came to prove he was better than his seventh seed, and did just that to draw a matchup with Joe Napoleone of St. Joseph.
“If you’re wrestling against Travis, it’s very hard to figure him out,” first-year coach Benjamin Wagman said. “He does not put himself in compromising positions. He’s not out of any match. Even if he’s down, he’ll find a way to win as he did in this match. He has an unorthodox style which really confuses his opponents. He has a great shot and great defense. He’s strong and methodical, patient. In that last match, it all came.”
Tournament champions will get college scholarships from the charity in Cali’s name. Cali went 89-28 in his high school career, though the state medalist was known more for his personality off the mat. He got along with everyone and never made enemies, a 3.8 GPA student accepted into 12 schools. And of course, he loved wrestling and all the lessons it taught.
“Sam is a special kid,” Don Bosco coach Tom Farinaro said. “His mom and dad are great people. This is a great tournament and a wonderful thing. I just wish we didn’t have to be here [under these circumstances]. Sam is going to be dearly missed by a lot of people. Everybody loved Sam. Wherever he went, everybody knew him.”
Don Bosco finished second in the team scoring race behind West Morris Central. The Ironmen were encouraged by a positive return for 106-pounder Justin Bierdumpfel, who wasn’t scored on in either win. Bierdumpfel recently came back from an ankle injury and accepted a forfeit in his only previous apperance this season.
“I’m very happy he’s back in the lineup,” Farinaro said. “I’m happy with his performance today. Justin’s a tough kid. Getting him back in the lineup is a big help for our team.”
The other semifinalists for the Ironmen were Michael Tandurella (113), Luke Chakonis (195) and Peter Acciardi (220). Acciardi is one of just two seniors on the team and Cali’s only teammate left, overlapping by one season.
“He always trained hard,” Acciardi remembers. “He would go to practice after practice. I really looked up to him. He was my role model. He was funny, he was the best person you could know.”