Paulsboro rarely is an underdog in a wrestling match.
But that role will fit the Red Raiders like one of those red singlets in Saturday’s highly anticipated showdown with Bergen Catholic.
In a matchup of New Jersey’s top two teams at the Palestra on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, Paulsboro will find itself in unfamiliar territory in more ways than one: Out of state and also out of its standard standing as the team to beat.
Not that the Red Raiders are complaining.
“Our kids will go out and wrestle hard,” Paulsboro coach Paul Morina said. “Something good will come out of it.”
Paulsboro seniors Santino Morina, the coach’s nephew, and George Worthy are relishing the opportunity to compete against the nationally ranked Crusaders.
“It’s great for us,” Santino Morina said. “We’re a small town. We’re Group 1. Who would have thought a team like Paulsboro, probably in the smallest town in New Jersey, would come up against a team like Bergen Catholic?”
Said Worthy: “I never thought we would wrestle a team like that. It’s great that we are.”
Paulsboro is 16-0 through Thursday and has won 66 matches in a row. The Red Raiders have won 31 Group 1 state titles since 1983 — and are heavily favored to notch No. 32 next weekend at Toms River.
This could be one of Paul Morina’s strongest teams, which is saying something. Through Thursday, the coach’s record was 694-42-4.
Paulsboro’s last loss came more than three years ago, on Jan. 30, 2016 vs. Clearview.
“It’s our heart, our work ethic,” said Worthy, a state-title contender at 152 pounds. “We all want it. We love the sport.”
Paulsboro is coming off its most impressive victory of the season. On Thursday night, Paulsboro registered pins in the final six bouts to beat Hunterdon Central, 51-16, in a clash of the Nos. 2 and 5 teams in the state, per nj.com’s rankings.
Bergen Catholic is No. 1 in the same rankings.
The Crusaders represent a major challenge to the Red Raiders, as the North Jersey non-public powerhouse is known to stack its lineup with some of the state’s top wrestlers.
Some of Paulsboro’s top wrestlers are Santino Morina (182 pounds) and Worthy as well as seniors Geno Duca (132) and Anthony Morina (195) and juniors Brandon Green (170), Gabe Onorato (145), and Jacob Perez (138).
Bergen Catholic’s lineup features defending state champions Robert Howard (126) and Jacob Cardenas (195) and six other wrestlers who are nationally ranked.
“This is our chance to show what kind of team we are,” Santino Morina said.
Paul Morina arranged the match in the summer in part to help some of the Red Raiders’ top state-title contenders get a chance to gauge themselves against wrestlers they are likely to see in Atlantic City.
Paul Morina also believed his projected lineup matched up well with Bergen Catholic — or at least with Bergen Catholic’s anticipated lineup.
Since then, Morina said the Crusaders have added six transfers, including nationally ranked brothers A.J. and Anthony Ferrari, who joined Bergen Catholic from Blair Academy in January.
The Ferraris are not eligible to wrestle in the state tournament but are expected to be in the lineup Saturday.
“To be honest with you, I looked at their lineup and I was saying, ‘With our lineup, I think we have a good shot at them,’ ” Paul Morina said. “Then the next thing you know, they got four kids [transfers] in September and they got two [more] kids [in January].
“I’m disgusted. It’s totally different. I’ll never do it again.”
Despite his team’s status as the underdog, Paul Morina said the Red Raiders will make the most of the opportunity to battle top competition before what should be a large crowd in the match between Penn’s day-night doubleheader.
The most anticipated individual bout likely will be Santino Morina vs. senior Chris Foca, who won the Beast of the East tournament in December.