This was a matchup worthy of Boardwalk Hall, the site of Joey Olivieri’s two monumental state tournament wins.

Olivieri and Boonton’s Jason Smith, however, battled it out before 15 spectators due to Coronavirus restrictions on Smith’s home mat on Tuesday, March 16 in the season opener for both teams.

Smith recorded the victory of his career, using a leg escape to edge Hanover Park’s Olivieri, a senior, 3-2, in an ultimate tiebreaker at 145 pounds.

“It was a huge win,” Bombers coach Dave Hughen said. “Jason’s been working hard. He was one away from placing in the state tournament last year. To beat a two-time state champion… That’s great. It’ll give Jason the confidence to keep going.”

The added motivation may lead Smith to accomplish what he wants most – to become the second state champion in Boonton history (Francis Dunn triumphed at 140 pounds in 1992) and to wrestle for a Division I program.

Boonton’s Jason Smith is in command during a match versus Mountain Lakes during the 2019-20 season. Action photos by George Buzzell.

Defeating the Rutgers-bound Olivieri was no small feat. Olivieri claimed the 106-pound state title as a freshman. As a sophomore, he took fourth place at 126. Last winter, Olivieri amassed 40 wins before capturing top state honors at 132 pounds.

Smith was pleased with what he achieved as a sophomore. Making the trip to Atlantic City, of course, was the highlight.

“I proved to myself that I belonged at the state tournament,” Smith said last spring. “It was nice to make it down and get so close to placing in the top eight in the state… I’m very proud of myself for it, but I just have to keep working hard and working towards being No. 1 in the state.”

Smith, a runner-up in the Morris County Tournament, attributes his success to countless hours of practice. Sometimes, he practices twice a day – at school and then for his club team, The Edge.

Joe Fongaro and Jason Smith pose on the boardwalk during the 2020 New Jersey State Wrestling Tournament.

As a sophomore, Smith had several tough and memorable bouts, including one against Nick Franco of Paramus Catholic in Region 2. Franco prevailed, 5-1, in the last 10 seconds with a takedown. Smith, who watched film of Franco all week after that loss, got revenge in the states, recording a 3-2 decision in the third-place consolations.

The front headlock is Smith’s signature move. He employs it when his “opponent shoots a shot.”

“I sprawl back and trap his head and arm beneath my chest,” Smith explained. “I then squeeze and choke my opponent. As I am doing this, I am spinning around him and trying to score.”

Smith tried many sports before taking up wrestling in third grade. He gave basketball and football a go but found that neither one suited him. Smith was too aggressive when playing basketball and too small for football so he decided to focus on wrestling.

Since beating Olivieri, Smith has added on five more wins, including two by pin.

Fongaro thrives with mental toughness

Smith’s classmate, Joe Fongaro, is also an accomplished matman, and claimed second-place honors at the Morris County Championships and in District 7 at 126 pounds in 2020.

Fongaro made it to the Region 2 semifinals but fell to Robert Howard of Bergen Catholic, 16-7. A week earlier, Howard pinned him in 57 seconds at the districts.

“I am content with how the season turned out but I’m not satisfied and won’t be satisfied until I’m on top,” Fongaro said of the 2019-20 campaign.

He attributes his success to mental toughness and noted that the sport “is at least 90 percent mental.”

Last season, Fongaro’s toughest match was a wrestleback in the region. He was down by a point with a minute remaining and hit a five-point move to win the match.

Joe Fongaro, shown in a match during the 2019-20 season, had a stellar season as a sophomore, suffering only five setbacks. Action photos by George Buzzell.

The single leg to a dump is Fongaro’s specialty. Before “dumping” an opponent on his back, Fongaro shoots a righty single and holds onto his opponent’s arm with his left hand.

Fongaro looks up to his older brother, Dan, who wrestles for Columbia University.

“What I learned from my brother is that you can have all the skills in the world but, if you don’t have the right mentality, you will not succeed,” he said.

Another source of inspiration for Fongaro is Thomas Gilman, the former University of Iowa standout and a world silver medalist in freestyle in 2017.

“When Gilman’s on the mat, he is calm and shows a lot of confidence through his attitude,” noted Fongaro, who has been wrestling since he was 5 years old.

Fongaro, perfect after seven matches this winter, makes it a habit to write down his short-term goals. Of course, they all lead to a major goal and that is to garner a state championship.

“I thought wrestling at Boardwalk Hall was a great experience,” he said. “When I first stepped on the mat to warm up, I took a stroll around all the mats and soaked it all in.”

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