ATLANTIC CITY - St. Augustine Prep senior wrestler Jack Clark lived up to the hype again Saturday evening.
Clark, considered one of the best high school wrestlers in the country, wowed an announced crowd of 10,673 at Boardwalk Hall with another impressive performance in the 152-pound semifinals of the state individual wrestling championships.
The Washington Township resident dominated previously unbeaten Trenton Central senior Maazlah Bethea, registering a 15-5 major decision to earn a berth in today's finals.
"This atmosphere is amazing," said Clark, who attended the private McDonogh School in Maryland before transferring to St. Augustine for this year. "I've been coming here to watch every year since I was a little kid, and I always dreamed about wrestling here. This means a lot to me."
Clark (27-0), who is headed to the University of North Carolina, hopes to become the first Cape-Atlantic League wrestler to win a state title since Holy Spirit graduate Mac Mancuso won one as a sophomore in 2007. Clark is also bidding to become just the second St. Augustine wrestler to stand atop the podium. Bobby Malatesta won the 123-pound crown for the Hermits in 1985.
He will face a top challenger today, however. Hunterdon Central senior Gary Dinmore (41-2) reached the finals for the third straight year on Saturday with a 5-3 decision over Delbarton's Joseph Tavoso in the semifinals.
"I know all about him and I'm looking forward to wrestling him," Clark said. "But I wasn't focused on that until now. I had to get to the finals first. It wouldn't have mattered if I had gotten upset before I got there.
"I've been trying to stay focused on every match as it comes. I feel the pressure before my matches, but once they start I block all that other stuff out and just wrestle. I don't care if the guy I'm wrestling is 0-20 or 20-0. I give everyone the same respect."
Clark has still managed to impress the other wrestlers and fans during the tournament.
He enters today's bout having outscored three opponents by a combined 43-12 and he piled up those points against highly regarded foes who owned a combined record of 97-10 when they wrestled him.
At one point during his match against Bethea, who entered the match at 37-0, one front-row fan turned to his friends and said, "Wow, that St. Augustine kid is a beast."
Clark had no trouble handing Bethea his first loss of the year, registering six takedowns, a two-point near fall and earned a stalling point in six minutes while limiting Bethea to five escapes.
After the match, Clark's biggest worry was a red gash that he somehow sustained under his right eye.
"I have no idea how that happened," Clark said. "But it hurts. It burns."
His efforts have been all the more impressive because he had to sit out the first 30 days of wrestling season after transferring. But as the postseason has progressed, he's been hitting his stride and appears to be at his peak.
Hermits coach Bill Ward can't wait to see how he performs today.
"I've got the best seat in the house to watch him," said Ward, who finished second at 145 pounds in 1985. "I knew Jack was very good before he got here, but he still impresses me. He's just so methodical and technical with his moves and from a wrestling standpoint, he's as mentally tough as they come.
"I really don't even coach him during his matches. He just does everything on his own."
After Saturday's bout, Clark stuck around to watch a few other matches as a fan, then retreated to Tropicana Casino Resort to have some dinner, hang out with friends, take a bath and get some sleep.
It's a ritual he's been following all weekend and he doesn't want to change it now.
"I can't wait for (today)," Clark said. "I'm ready to go."
Contact David Weinberg: