By: Ben Chadwick '23 and Tim LeCras
It was unusually quiet in the Saint Joseph High School hallways on a Friday afternoon in early March. The school, however, wasn’t empty. Peering into one of the many classrooms, you would find the students and teachers glued to their TVs. They weren’t watching a movie or a video for class, instead, they were watching their classmate Nico Calello compete against the best wrestlers in New Jersey for the second time in two years during the 2022 NJSIAA Wrestling Championship Quarterfinals at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City.
The March 2022 event capped a two year run into the record books for Calello. His third place finish in 2021 and sixth place finish in 2022 capped an amazing two years as a Falcon, which included countless regular season, GMC Tournament, District and Regional match victories and two podium finishes in the state championships.
More importantly for the Saint Joe’s community, he put the Saint Joe’s wrestling program on his back and put the Falcons back on the wrestling map. How did it happen? It started with a program rising from the ashes.
Rising from the Ashes
25 years after the decision to end the wrestling program, former Saint Joe’s president Justin Fleetwood and athletic director Michael Murray made the decision to bring the program back from the ashes. Head coach Michael Carbone was the first piece of the puzzle. Following a long career at Woodbridge High School, Carbone embarked on what could easily be the biggest challenge of his life - building a program from scratch.
“When I came to Saint Joe’s, I wanted a full staff and stressed having something the kids can call their home, not just rolling out a mat in the gym,” Carbone said. “I knew the first year was going to be tough and I told [athletic director] Mike Murray to not judge me on years one or two, judge me on years three and four, because ‘you’ll see where we’re going.”
Once Carbone was in place, his first true task was putting a squad together. Anthony Bistany ‘22 was the first official “commit” to the program. He was followed by David Rosenfarb ‘22 and Giovanni Alejandro ‘23.
Carbone and company turned a 5-15 record in the program’s inaugural season into an impressive 16-9 record at the end of year two. Despite the success, the program needed a lynchpin to put them over the top. That turned out to be Nico Calello.
Finding the Lynchpin
Nico Calello was introduced to wrestling at an early age thanks to his father, Pasquale Calello.
“My dad would take me to high school matches as a kid,” Calello said. “This really got me interested in the sport and made me want to get into it.”
He started wrestling competitively as a 5-year-old. From an early age, it was clear that he had the potential to turn into something great. As a fifth grader in Edison, he went 13-1 in the 70-pound weight class.
When it came time for high school, Calello decided to attend Watchung Hills Regional High School, where he dominated the mat as a sophomore, going 25-3 during a split season in the 106- and 113-pound weight classes.
Despite the success, he made the decision to transfer to Saint Joseph High School.
Calello said: “I knew Coach Carbone and all of the other coaches on the staff because I was thinking of going to Saint Joe’s from the beginning of high school.”
The tone of the Saint Joe’s program changed the day Calello stepped foot inside Woodburn Hall. Aside from the pedigree of a successful sophomore campaign, Calello brought a “calm, cool and collected” mentality to the program. More importantly, his “self-motivated, workman mentality” created a feeling in the wrestling room that the team had yet to experience.
Carbone recalls the team’s first practice leading into the 2020/2021 season. Calello was teamed up with Bistany, Alejandro and Rosenfarb, each were in higher weight classes. Yet, he dominated them.
“He was non-stop with these guys,” Carbone said. “When you think he has to have given up, he just kept going and going. And not only was he making himself run through a wall and not quit, but he was also making those guys keep up with it. He was making those three better with him.”
In just its fourth year since reinstating the program, the Falcons finished with a 20-4 record and a second place finish in the GMC Tournament. Four Saint Joe’s wrestlers participated in the championship rounds of the county tournament, with Calello taking first in the 120-pound weight class. The results kept getting better.
The Falcons went on to win the NJSIAA District 19 tournament, their first since 1977. When all was said and done, six Saint Joe’s wrestlers advanced through Region 5 and onto the NJSIAA Individual State Wrestling Championship Tournament in Atlantic City: Calello, Alejandro, Evan Mendez, Vincent Genna, Brian Christie and Jake Tulli.
Calello led the pack with a sixth place finish, but Alejandro also made a splash, finishing one victory short of a medal.
Once the season ended, the 30,000 foot view of the program’s accomplishments started to take shape in the form of media accolades.
Calello and Carbone swept Greater Middlesex County “Wrestler of the Year” and “Coach of the Year” from both the Home News Tribune and The Newark-Star Ledger.
“The awards and accolades showed that the media is paying attention to Saint Joe’s,” Calello said. “It wasn’t easy getting anyone to pay attention to Saint Joe’s in the first couple of years. It showed that we were in the wrestling circuit now.”
Almost three decades after the decision to shut down the wrestling program, the unexpected happened. The once abandoned program was back and better than ever.