ATLANTIC CITY - Hammonton High School senior Phil Bakuckas' performance throughout the grueling, three-day state individual wrestling tournament impressed not only thousands of fans at Boardwalk Hall but also his opponent in Sunday's final.
Bakuckas, however, was left to make the trip back to Hammonton disappointed and wondering what could have been.
Bakuckas became the first Hammonton wrestler to reach a state final but fell short of becoming the school's first state champion, losing a 7-3 decision to Bergen Catholic sophomore Johnny Sebastian at 160 pounds before a crowd of 10,546.
"I came up short," Bakuckas said after the match. "I was right there, but I can't be disappointed. In a couple days it will hit me that I actually took second out of all the wrestlers at 160 (pounds) and I'll realize it was a pretty good accomplishment."
Bakuckas was 16 seconds shy of becoming The Press area's first champion since Southern Regional's Glenn Carson in 2009 and the Cape-Atlantic League's first since Holy Spirit's Mac Mancuso in 2007.
Bakuckas was the No. 5 seed in the bottom half of the bracket at 160, Sebastian No. 1 in the top half.
They were scoreless after one period, each jockeying for position in tie-up after tie-up. Bakuckas opened the second period with an escape to take a 1-0 lead.
Holding on to a 1-0 lead after getting called for a stalling warning late in the second period, Bakuckas opened the third period in impressive fashion, tilting the defending state placewinner for a two-point near-fall and a 3-0 lead.
But Sebastian appeared to get stronger as the match continued.
The Bergen Catholic sophomore escaped to make it 3-1 and then drew within one as Bakuckas was hit with a second stalling call and Sebastian was awarded a point with 20 seconds left in the match.
"I was probably calmer at the end of the match than I was at the beginning because I knew what I had to get done," Sebastian said. "I just kept going and listening to my coaches and everything worked out great. I knew it was all or nothing the last 30 seconds so I had to give it all."
Sebastian finally caught Bakuckas off guard and took him to his back for a near-fall with just 16 seconds left.
"It sucks to come up 16 seconds short like that, but I know I was right there with the best of the best," Bakuckas said. "To be wrestling in the finals, in an arena like this, it was great. It's an amazing feeling. To finish in the top two in the state feels pretty good."
Bakuckas had won all 41 matches he wrestled this season entering Sunday's final, having won District 30 and Region 8 titles along the way. He also set the school record for career wins, breaking older brother John's mark with 132.
None of that was of any consolation to Bakuckas immediately following the match.
"He is the marquee wrestler in our program," Hammonton coach Dave Mauriello said. "He's the winningest wrestler in school history. He finished up 41-1 this year and he is the first state finalist in school history, so certainly a lot of great accomplishments.
"I know he is disappointed with the outcome, but in a week or so when the wounds all heal I think we'll all be able to appreciate what a tremendous effort and the career that he had."
Bakuckas showed throughout the tournament why Rutgers University gave him a scholarship to wrestle there next season.
Forget stumbling into the final. Bakuckas charged through the front door.
He opened the tournament with a technical fall win against Kittatinny's Kieran Gerrity in the prequarters. Bakuckas followed that up by dismantling bottom bracket No. 1 seed Vin Favia of CBA in a 9-2 decision and then beating second-seeded Region 7 champ and state placer Robert Schlitt of Haddonfield.
Bakuckas' march to this season's state title started, coincidentally enough, with a loss to Sebastian in last year's tournament.
Sebastian pinned Bakuckas in the first period in a Friday night prelim.
"I remember it was a close match just like it was here," Sebastian said. "I was up 2-0 or 2-1, and I was able to hip into him and pin him.
"It's pretty wild how the year before two great kids can wrestle each other in the elimination round and then the next year they end up wrestling each other in the finals. He's a great kid and a wonderful wrestler. I'm pretty sure he's going to Rutgers next year and he's going to do a great job there."
A group of about 30 friends and family members gathered at Bakuckas' Hammonton home following the match in celebration of his achievement.
"They all supported me," Bakuckas said. "They knew I worked as hard as I could to get to that position. They didn't criticize me at all. They helped me get through this tough day.
"It really hasn't hit me yet. I was right there. I remember looking at the clock and seeing 16 seconds and then he caught me and took me to my back. I'm sure the next couple of days I will look back and realize just how big an accomplishment this was."
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