Roselle Park’s Chris Gural had to endure his share of disappointments during the 2015-2016 post-season, in wrestling.
Gural, a senior, finished third at Region 3 in the 106-pound weight class, which meant he was heading to Atlantic City for the NJSIAA championships, but would need to get out of the gate quickly, if he was to have any kind of supposed success.
But Gural lost in his first match, in the preliminary round, on March 4, to a good wrestler in Gateway’s Dante Mininno of Gateway, 8-6. The loss ended his evening, and if it were a few years ago, would have ended his career, since a loss in the prelims used to mean the conclusion of a season. (A wrestler now gets to compete at least twice in A.C.)
Gural would trudge back to his hotel room, knowing that he’d have to accomplish a monumental feat the following day if his high school career would continue, with the ultimate goal of standing on the medal podium on March 6, as one of the top eight wrestlers in the state, in his weight class.
The loss to Mininno would move Gural to the hated wrestleback round, and he’d need to keep winning for the next three matches on Saturday, if he were to earn a medal in his last high school tourney.
Anthony Conte, a state champion from Belleville High in 1996, once said, “it’s actually easier to win a state championship than to finish third.”
And that’s pretty true. The path to a state title requires a wrestler win four matches, generally once on Friday, twice on Saturday and then one more that Sunday, whereas finishing third, especially the route Gural was about to take, could require winning seven times over a 24-hour period.
Gural’s head coach at Roselle Park, John Ranieri, knew that at this stage of a wrestling season, the mental factor far exceeded the physical advantage for an athlete.
“Going back to the Region 3 tournament, I remember after Chris had lost in the semis, we found him with his hood up under the bleachers,” said Ranieri. “So I sat with him and (Assistant) Coach (Craig) Frost (himself a marvelous wrestler at Roselle Park, including three NJSIAA medals) to help pull Chris out of the funk he was in. The talk was not easy, because in Chris’ mind, the season was ruined. We simply explained to him that all his goals were still in front of him. I said ‘look, you feel really low right now, but you will feel a lot worse if you are taking your wrestling shoes off for the last time in this Union (High School) locker room. You think you are at rock bottom now, but if you are in that locker two hours from now taking off your shoes for the last time, that will be rock bottom.’
“We knew he had a tough road back because the Rahway wrestler (Chris would wrestle for third place) was very tough, so we knew he had to get his mind straight and in a hurry. I suggested for him to take his hood off and get back out there and to forget about the past and move forward. I helped him believe the region was just a qualifier for the state tournament. Once qualified, we are set and will get back after our goals.”
Gural met the challenge, winning his third place bout, which qualified him for Atlantic City.
And that brings us to March 4, and the loss in the prelims at Boardwalk Hall. Ranieri had found some solace from Gural’s performance against Mininno.
“We believed Chris wrestled well in his loss to Mininno,” said Ranieri. “We used that performance to regroup and focus on winning the next position and scoring the next point.”
And that set the stage for Gural’s marvelous performance on March 5.
“That is exactly what began to happen,” recalled Ranieri. “Chris began the day winning two solid matches against (Jack) Bauer of Hunterdon Central, and (Joshua) Ferreira of Garfield. This led to a rematch in the blood round, between Chris and (Dom) Difrancescantonio of Hanover Park, who had upset Chris in the Region 3 semifinal a week earlier.”
“This time, Chris was able to score consistently, and won, which guaranteed him a place on the podium, and to have his name placed on the banner that hangs in our wrestling room.”
Remember that those first three wins were must-victories. A loss ended the season for either Gural, or the man he was wrestling. But now, having been assured a medal, he could continue wrestling, with really no more pressure. You’d think having won three crucial bouts, Gural could bask in his accomplishments?
“He was not done there,” said Ranieri, proudly. “The next match was a rematch against Mininno, the wrestler who put Chris in the wrestlebacks (on March 4). We made a few key adjustments that lead to yet another victory. (On March 5) Chris had (Michael) Kelly (of St. Peter’s Prep) the No. 16 ranked wrestler in the country, (on that Sunday morning).
“We were able to win a few key position and secure a 8-7 victory, which earned Chris a spot in the third place match.”
Gural’s winning streak would end in the third place bout, but the message had long been sent.
Chris Gural was one of the top wrestlers at 106 pounds, having gone from finishing third in the region, to losing in the state prelims, to ultimately finishing fourth in the State of New Jersey, finishing his season with a 37-6 record.
Gural, who had qualified for the state tourney in 2015, at 113 pounds, but did not win a match in Atlantic City, was very proud of what he accomplished.
“The experience was great – It showed me a lot about myself,” Gural said. “It was great to finally be among the best wrestlers at my weight. I have always had the thought and goal of being on that podium. Ever since I was younger, I knew just wishing or dreaming wouldn’t be enough. I dedicated myself to becoming the very best wrestler I could become. I had faith that my coaches would emotionally, mentally, physically and technically prepare me to make these dreams and wishes into reality. This wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without the two men that sat in my corner for the last time on Sunday.”
Winning that medal also said a great deal about the Roselle Park wrestling program. This season, the Panthers were 18-2, and won the District 10 championship, as well as the Panther Invitational, Paul Finn and Waldwick Tourneys.
Ranieri has been the head coach at RP for 14 years, after a seven year run as an assistant to legendary coach Sam Appello. As head coach, Ranieri has put together a 242-47 record and led the program to nine district championships, seven state sectional titles and three Union County crowns.
“We have a dedicated (coaching) staff, with Craig Frost, who was named the 2016 Region 3 Assistant Coach of the Year, as well as Keith Appello, Rich Greco, Nick Florio and Kevin Carroll.”
Gural’s high school wrestling career is now completed, and Ranieri couldn’t be prouder of the young man’s contributions.
“Chris is one of those individuals that you want to hold up as a model student-athlete based on his values and work ethic,” the coach said. “The combination of innate ability, strong motivation coupled with excellent study and practice habits enabled him to compile an outstanding high school record, in a rigorous academic and wrestling program. It must also be mentioned that he is able to maintain an almost constant harmony among his academic, athletic and personal affairs without evidence of strain or undue anxiety. He possesses strong leadership skills that earned him respect from our youth and high school teams.”