Lower's Zach Hicks (top) and Buena's Luis Rivera grapple in the 113 lb. match. Lower Cape May hosted Buena Regional in a rivalry wrestling match that decided the conference for the season. Wednesday Jan. 16, 2013. (Dale Gerhard/Press of Atlantic City)

Dale Gerhard

LOWER TOWNSHIP — Lower Cape May Regional High School wrestler Zach Hicks was standing in the gym Tuesday, waiting for the bus that would take him and teammates Eric Pruszinski and Cory Damiana to Egg Harbor Township for a practice session, when an assistant coach sidled up to him.

“Just remember, Zach,” the coach said. “Ten thousand people. Ten thousand people.”

The coach was referring to the expected daily attendance for this weekend’s state individual wrestling championship at Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall. The tournament is annually one of the arena’s most popular events. Rabid fans fill the bleachers and their cheers and boos rain down on the wrestlers.

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Hicks, a senior 113-pounder, has never been to Boardwalk Hall. He tried to smile but was clearly nervous at the prospect of having to compete in such an intimidating atmosphere.

“Zach is a pretty shy and quiet kid in front of a lot of people,” Lower Cape May coach Rocky Ciccozzi said. “He was nervous at regions (the Region 8 tournament last weekend at Egg Harbor Township), so when he heard there were going to be 10,000 people at Boardwalk Hall, he started freaking out. He was actually (getting sick) all day (Monday). I had to take him to get something to eat.”

Hicks (27-10), who said that he won’t feel intimidated once he gets to the Hall, also will be able to draw comfort from having some company. Pruszinski (29-10), a sophomore, will be competing at 106 pounds. Damiana (33-6), a junior 195-pounder, is making his second straight trip to the tournament.

This year marks the first time Lower has qualified three wrestlers for states in the same season since the program was established in the early 1970s and the first time the Caper Tigers have sent more than one in at least 25 years.

“I was the only one there last year, so it will help to have some teammates there with me,” Damiana said. “I think I can help Zach and Eric because they’ve never experienced it. The atmosphere there is crazy. The fans are so close to you and they want blood. You just have to block it out as best you can and wrestle your best.”

Lower Cape May is one of only four area teams with multiple wrestlers heading to Boardwalk Hall. The Caper Tigers and St. Augustine Prep each have three wrestlers in the tournament while Millville and Lacey Township have two apiece.

As with Lower, Lacey Township is also in unfamiliar territory. Lions senior 170-pounder Luke Fernandez and senior 220-pounder Patrick Schinder qualified with third-place finishes in Region 6. They are the first pair of Lacey teammates to make to Atlantic City since brothers Steve and Dennis Whitby advanced beyond the now-defunct Super Region in 1999. Brothers Bryan and John Stout wrestled for Lacey in the state tournament at Princeton University in 1990. The tourney moved to Atlantic City in 1992.

“I was hoping we’d have more kids get through, but I was definitely expecting Luke and Patrick to make it,” Lacey coach Tom Pfister said Tuesday in a phone interview. “Those guys have put in the work and are ready to lay it all on the line this weekend.”

Both Fernandez and Schinder got a taste of what it’s like to wrestle at Boardwalk Hall last year. They were in the stands when 2012 Lacey graduate Lex Knapp finished second at 220 pounds.

Knapp, who redshirted this season as a freshman at Rutgers University, has been helping them get ready for their competition. Fernandez (34-2) and Schinder (34-3) will be trying to join 1997 graduate Russ Witt as Lacey’s only state champion.

“Just being there watching Lex was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had,” Schinder said Tuesday in a phone interview. “I was shocked at how big Boardwalk Hall was. I learned that doing well in the tournament is more about mental toughness than anything.”

Fernandez and Schinder are just hoping to place in the top eight in their respective weight classes. That’s also the goal for Lower’s Hicks, Pruszinski and Damiana.

Lower has also had only one wrestler win a state title. Shawn Laughlin won back-to-back championships at 215 pounds in 1996-97. Laughlin finished his high school career with 61 consecutive victories and went on to wrestle for Lehigh University.

Pruszinski already has enjoyed a solid season after posting an 8-14 mark as a freshman a year ago. He finished second in District 32 tournament and third in Region 8. Hicks also finished second in districts and third in regions.

“I didn’t think I would make it this far,” Hicks said. “I thought I would be finished at regions or something, so I’m surprised to be going to Boardwalk Hall. People keep telling me it’s really big and there’s a lot of people. I’m just going to take it one match at a time and see how it goes.”

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