C.J. LaFragola and his father, Christopher, looked at the list of other wrestlers for the 184-pound weight class.
Naval Academy senior Michael Coleman, who beat the Little Egg Harbor Township resident in the wrestleback round of last season’s NCAA Division I tournament in St. Louis, stood out among the field of 32 at the Navy Classic in Annapolis, Maryland.
LaFragola, a junior at Brown University, had downed four other contenders to reach the final on Nov. 18. Standing in his way was Coleman.
After a wild third period, LaFragola got the redemption win he hoped for with an 8-6 decision.
“C.J. looked really good,” Brown coach Todd Beckerman said. “Each round he kept getting better and better with his matches. To finish the tournament beating a ranked opponent and one that he lost to at the NCAA tournament last March really shows he is progressing from his training this summer.”
LaFragola, 20, graduated from St. Joseph High School in 2015. He was The Press Athlete of the Year his senior year, and was the high school state runner-up at 182 pounds.
Before this season, LaFragola met with some of his coaches. They worked on a goal sheet, which is nothing new for a lot of teams. It’s how character is built and it gives each athlete something to strive for to get better.
Throughout the season, LaFragola shoots little self-motivating videos about his goal sheet.
“Some goals are practice goals, like doing 50 push-ups that day. The big goals are attainable but hard,” LaFragola said by phone last week. “The obvious one is All-American (top-8 finisher at the national tournament).
“My first step was to win the Navy Classic. It’s pretty cool. You write it down and don’t believe you can do it, and when it happens, it’s a great feeling. I checked it off.”
LaFragola almost didn’t get a chance to wrestle in Annapolis over the weekend.
Three weeks ago during a sparring session, 197-pound teammate Tucker Ziegler accidentally got his finger up in the eye of LaFragola.
“It was rough. There was blood and everything,” he said. “When it first happened I thought I was blind. My eye was stuck shut and I’ve never seen this happen before. My eye was bleeding. It was dripping from the eye ball.”
It held LaFragola out of physical practice for two weeks. He went back to practice on Nov. 13, and didn’t do any wrestling until two days later. So he went into the start of the Navy Classic with just three days worth of mat work.
“At that point I was just letting it fly,” he said. “Every time I had multiple guys putting their hands in my face. I kept smacking it away. They must have known something was up.”
His eye is mostly better now, but he is still getting it checked on to make sure he doesn’t have any vision problems.
With that in check, his focus now is a dominant junior season, especially since last year didn’t end the way he wanted it to.
LaFragola failed to finish in the top seven of his weight class at the Eastern Interscholastic Wrestling Association Championship, which would have earned him an automatic bid to the national tournament. Fortunately he earned an at-large bid to the field of 32.
At St. Louis, he lost a 6-0 decision in the first round before dropping a 7-4 decision to Coleman in the wrestlebacks.
“I think competing at the NCAA tournament last year was very eye-opening for C.J.,” Beckerman said. “It helped drive him to have a great summer of training to prepare for this season.”
Aside from doing more wrestling in the summer, LaFragola hit the weights to break up the monotony. He worked with Lower Cape May Regional coach Billy Damiana, who trained LaFragola in high school, and Pinelands Regional graduate Chris Nielsen, a freshman at Division III Dubuque (Iowa), among other training sessions.
He came into this season not even ranked in the top 20 at his weight class. Coleman was ranked 13th when LaFragola defeated him.
Now, Coleman is 17th and LaFragola is 16th according to InterMat Wrestling, which ranks individual wrestlers nationally in high school and college.
“I call myself the wild card because they didn’t rank me,” LaFragola said. “Gimme a break. To knock off a kid like that and technically not be ranked, maybe they’ll know my name now.”