All season, New Jersey high school wrestlers have been ending their Twitter messages with the hashtag #RoadtoAC.
They have gone months without french fries, practiced until they were drenched in sweat and competed in more than 30 matches in the hope of earning a trip to Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, the site of the annual state individual championships.
Today, more than 300 have attained that goal. Twenty-four wrestlers in each of the 14 weight classes will take to the mats for the start of a three-day tournament that is the biggest and arguably the state's most exciting high school sports event.
"There's nothing like it," said Absegami coach Shawn Scannell, who won a state championship while wrestling for the Braves in 1996. "You're in a great venue, wrestling in front of thousands of enthusiastic, passionate fans. It's a special feeling and something I'll never forget."
While more people may show up to major concerts at Boardwalk Hall, the three-day, four-session wrestling tournament is easily the most popular event on the hall's schedule.
The tournament, which has been held in Atlantic City for 22 of the past 24 years - it was held in East Rutherford for two years while Boardwalk Hall was undergoing a $90 million renovation in the late 1990s - draws more than 40,000 fans each year.
"We've been over 40,000 for at least the last eight, nine years," said Steve Timko, executive director of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, the organization that oversees high school sports in the state. "From an attendance standpoint, it's easily the most popular high school sports event in the state, and a lot of that is due to the fans.
The tournament is also great for the city.
Wrestlers, coaches and fans fill area hotels and restaurants during the weekend, providing a welcome boost during what is usually a down time in Atlantic City. That's been even more true the past two years, since the Atlantic 10 men's college basketball tournament left Boardwalk Hall after 2012 in favor of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.
"Events like the wrestling tournament do a great job of helping the city at a time (of year) when we really need it," said Jeff Guaracino, spokesman for the Atlantic City Alliance, the casino-marketing cooperative behind the "DO AC" campaign. "Boardwalk Hall has been rocking and rolling lately. They seem to have an event there almost every weekend now."
Staging the tournament at Boardwalk Hall adds to the excitement.
The atmosphere inside the arena is electric; usually eight bouts are going on at the same time on mats that fill the arena's floor. At any moment, screams and cheers erupt from the stands, especially when a particularly exciting match unfolds.
Wrestlers, coaches, fans and even referees can't help but get caught up in the excitement and tension.
"The atmosphere in Boardwalk Hall is just phenomenal," said referee Tom Reynolds, a 64-year-old retired police officer from Marlton who has participated in two state championship tournaments. "I was a little bit nervous the first time I was there, but if you don't feel that way, there's something wrong with you. It's just you, the coaches and wrestlers in the middle of Boardwalk Hall with 14,000 screaming fans. It's quite a thrill."
It can also be very intimidating for wrestlers, especially for those who are making their tournament debuts.
Local attorney Patrick D'Arcy, father of Holy Spirit wrestler Pat D'Arcy, did his best to prepare his son for the tension, pressure and distractions inside Boardwalk Hall. He started taking his son to the tournament while Pat was still in elementary school so he wouldn't be intimidated if he ever got the opportunity to compete.
"It's just a great atmosphere. There's nothing else like it," the elder D'Arcy said. "Once you're out on that mat, there's nowhere to hide. It's just you and the other guy. It provides a life lesson for those kids."
The same also holds true for the parents.
The elder D'Arcy saw his strategy pay off a year ago, when Pat earned third place at 106 pounds in the state championships. This year, he'll be rooting for his son again. Pat D'Arcy, now a junior, is seeded first in the bottom half of the bracket at 113 pounds with a 37-2 record after winning District 32 and Region 8 titles.
"When your son is out there, it's a lot different than when you're just going to watch as a fan," Patrick D'Arcy said. "You can't relax before his matches, and you can't come down afterward because he has to go back out there and do it again. It's been a great experience, but it's taken years off my life."
Absegami wrestler Chris Henchy (30-5) will be experiencing the state championships for the first time, having qualified with a third-place finish at 220 pounds in last week's Region 8 tournament.
Few wrestlers have come farther faster than Henchy. Prior to this season, the senior had never wrestled at any level and had never even gone to a match as a spectator. Tonight will mark only the second time he has been to Boardwalk Hall. His first visit was to watch the Atlantic City Boardwalk Rodeo two years ago.
"Someone showed me a picture of the (state wrestling championships)," Henchy said. "I can't wait to be a part of it."
He will have Scannell in his corner. Eighteen years ago, Scannell earned his state championship in the most exciting manner possible. He won the 171-pound title with a 2-1 decision over heralded freshman Damion Hahn of Lakewood, who went on to win three state titles.
This weekend, Scannell will try to help three Absegami wrestlers - Chris D'Alfonzo (120 pounds), William Sanz (195) and Henchy - experience the same thrills.
"Even now, every time I go back as a coach, I still get the shakes and start breathing heavy," Scannell said. "Sometimes I get so excited, I feel like I'm going out there on the mat with them. It's just an amazing event."
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