BRADENTON -- Manatee's state championship week began with a trip across the Green Bridge for the Hurricanes' five Class 3A qualifiers.
The Canes loaded up a van and shuttled over to Palmetto, where they hopped out at the marina just across the Manatee River. Andrew Gugliemini likes to go big for his final week of practice and start his wrestlers off with a camaraderie-building run through Bradenton.
Among the pack of Hurricanes who ran the three miles Monday were Matt McAleer and Connor Morang. During each of the past two summers, McAleer and Morang have moved to the area from New Jersey and joined the Canes. When Gugliemini, a New Jersey native himself, gets particularly boisterous it feels familiar.
"I knew Jersey people," Morang said. "It's funny. You can kind of see it."
Juniors McAleer and Morang both found immediate success in their moves from New Jersey. McAleer is heading to the state tournament for the second straight year, and Morang parlayed a 16-0 start into a trip to state in his first year as a Cane. Both are No. 4 seeds and begin the tournament Friday at 10 a.m. McAleer, a 160-pounder, opens against Stuart Martin County's Nick Sorace and Morang, a 170-pounder, starts against North Miami's DeAndre Cherry.
Manatee's other three state qualifiers are 113-pound junior Marshall Craig, 145-pound junior Charles Small and 182-pound freshman Brandon Dossey. Craig, a No. 1 seed, opens against Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas' Gianni Gurriero. Small, also a top seed, opens against Cooper City's Liam Jones. Dossey, a No. 2 seed, starts his first 3A tournament against Weston Cypress Bay's Glen Eisman.
Lakewood Ranch also has one wrestler in the 3A field. Dylan Cameron, who set both the Mustangs' single-season and career wins records this year, is a No. 3 seed at 132 pounds and opens with Fleming Island's Xavier Sampsel. The tournament concludes Saturday with championship rounds at 5:30 p.m.
The successful transition from New Jersey wrestling to Florida for his two juniors wasn't particularly surprising to Gugliemini. His home state has a reputation as one of the top wrestling states in the country with a history far outweighing Florida's. When Gugliemini first moved to the area, he had to transfer from Palmetto to Manatee because the Tigers didn't have a wrestling program.
He perked up when he
heard McAleer would be joining the Canes before last season and began mining his New Jersey connections. He called up Louie Lazzari, the state's unofficial wrestling historian, and Lazzari looked told him McAleer posted a winning record. A year later, Lazzari had similar news about Morang.
"If you can do that in Jersey you should be real successful here," Gugliemini said. "Jersey, I would say, is one of the top five wrestling states in the nation year in and year out."
He joked with Morang, who finished third in his district last year for New Providence, about his result this season. Morang settled for third in the district behind the top two wrestlers at the weight in 3A and Gugliemini gave him a hard time.
Gugliemini's behavior, however, has made the transition easier for both the past two seasons. Although neither Morang nor McAleer fit many of the stereotypes, Gugliemini said, they both say Gugliemini reminds them of coaches they knew back home, and it starts with the coach's exuberance for the sport.
"I was impressed with how seriously everyone took it," said McAleer, who attended Colts Neck in New Jersey. "Coach Gug has a huge passion for it."
McAleer and Morang are both underdogs to start the weekend, but will be a major part of the Canes next season, when all five of the Hurricanes' state qualifiers return. Seeing these two succeed and become an important part of the Canes' success is special to the head coach.
"It's important to me," Gugliemini said. "These are my roots."
David Wilson, Herald sports writer, can be contacted at 941-745-7057 or on Twitter @DBWilson2.