Bakuckas makes Hammonton history

ATLANTIC CITY - Hammonton High School senior Phil Bakuckas didn't plan on getting much sleep Saturday night.

He thought he would be too excited, too amped up, in anticipation of trying to win a wrestling state championship today at Boardwalk Hall.

"I tried to take a nap (Saturday) afternoon, but it never happened," Bakuckas said with a laugh. "I'll try to relax (Saturday night), but I doubt it. One of my goals before the season started was to win a state championship, and now I'm one win away."

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He'll try to earn that win this afternoon, when he takes on Bergen Catholic sophomore Johnny Sebastian in the 160-pound final.

The bout is a rematch from last year's state tournament.

Bakuckas (41-0) and Sebastian (39-2) met in the preliminary round one year ago. Sebastian pinned him in the first period and wound up finishing fifth. Bakuckas was eliminated.

"I'm expecting a very tough match from Phil," Sebastian said Saturday. "I know he's going to be coming out full force after what happened last year. But we're both always on the attack, so it's going to be a good match. I guess it's going to come down to whoever really wants it."

Bakuckas proved he wants it Saturday, delivering a pair of impressive victories in the quarterfinals and semifinals. The fifth seed in the bottom of the bracket, he started with a 9-2 decision over top-seeded Christian Brothers Academy senior Vin Favia. Then Bakuckas earned a 5-2 win over Haddonfield senior Robert Schlitt, the third seed.

In both matches, Bakuckas received plenty of support from a large contingent of Hammonton fans, including older brothers John and Mike, as well as other supporters from South Jersey.

But he didn't acknowledge the cheers until after both matches. Upon beating Schlitt, he hugged Blue Devils coach Dave Mauriello and assisant coach Paul Mauriello, Dave's father. Then he pointed to the stands before heading toward the back of the arena, where he also shook hands with Sebastian.

"Truth be told, I think Phil was a little star-struck when he came here last year and saw all the people and everything," Dave Mauriello said. "Not this year. He's been focused on just taking one match at a time.

"This is something we've been talking about since Day One of the season. I always try to stress the team aspect of the sport, but Phil and I talked about reaching this point. I think it's great."

Win or lose, Bakuckas already has made history.

He owns the school record with 131 career victories - John Bakuckas, a 2009 Hammonton graduate had the old mark at 122 - and is the first Hammonton wrestler to reach a state final. Jim Ciarlante came the closest, finishing third at heavyweight in 1992.

But Bakuckas very much would like to set one more mark and win a championship.

"I was one and done last year," Bakuckas said. "I'm looking foward to wrestling Sebastian again. I'm hoping to get a little payback this time."

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