Head coach Mike Markey knew what he was getting into in Friday's NJSIAA/Rothman Orthopaedics North Jersey, Section 2, Group 3 championship – a war.
It's what his top-seeded West Essex, No. 19 in the NJ.com Top 20, group dealt with in last year's title match against Mendham, so he expected nothing short of the same test from second-seeded Warren Hills this time around.
His kids would answer the bell once again, however, in a 34-31 dog fight on their home mat in front of a packed crowd in North Caldwell.
"Warren Hills came in here with a really balanced team," Markey said. "We knew we had to get bonus points in key spots and limit them when we had to. You want to be in the driver's seat near the end of every dual match, but the Jones brothers are bonus-point machines so we knew that if we were in striking distance when we got to them, we would be in good shape."
That wish would be granted to Markey and the Knights (18-4) with a 23-19 advantage and four bouts to go.
Out trotted Darren Jones who notched a win by fall at 138 over Warren Hills (19-7) sophomore Max Pagano before Alex pinned senior Geir Nemeth at 145 to give West Essex a 34-19 lead with two bouts left.
Alex had positive energy long before the match and was itching to deliver in a clutch moment.
"I felt it coming, I had a feeling this entire day that it would come down to me," he said. "I just had a weird, gut feeling. The kid was tough, but I went out there swinging and I knew I needed a pin to seal it for my team."
Jones got an early takedown but was nearly put on his back just seconds later. As his fellow classmates chanted his name and he escaped Nemeth's hold, he eased in and got back to the mindset he has in every bout.
"I got in a little danger in the first period but I knew I would eventually pin him," he said. "I just stayed calm and composed like I always do. I don't pay attention to my opponents or their rankings. I go out there and wrestle everyone as if they're the top guy. The gym was awesome today too and that helped."
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The Jones twins were the two who ensured West Essex a team tournament title repeat, although Markey refuses to take credit away from his lower weights and junior Nick Lagreca (170).
Lagreca, freshman Joey Macrino (106) and freshman Anthony Barra (113) all held their opponents to decision wins while Jack Ruane (120) limited a feisty Jared Lee to a major decision victory. Sophomore stud Ricky Cassidy (126) won by fall and junior Carson Barry (132) gutted out a 6-5 decision win to kickstart West Essex's run.
Markey touched on their competitiveness on the big stage.
"A few weeks ago, we took a huge blow when Mike Pescatore (113) was lost for the season because of a dislocated elbow and Barra stepped right in for us as a freshman," he said. "He has been gold for us ever since and he never stops, he's so tough. Tonight's story to me is every kid who came before Darren and Alex. They fought for their lives and I'm really proud of the way they showed up."
West Essex has four freshman in the lineup, each of whom are seemingly buying into what their head coach and the upperclassmen are preaching as the year winds down.
Senior Bardhyl Gashi, No. 1 at 285 in the NJ.com individual wrestler rankings, held the tournament trophy over his head as his teammates surrounded him and started a 'not done yet' chant. Markey has emphasized mental toughness at this point in the season, and his kids wish to be the best in that department from here on out.
"We just want to keep winning and next up is groups," Jones said. "There are so many kids who want the season to be over, but not us. It's just getting started."