Red Bank Catholic High School’s Sabino Portella is the first wrestler to reach state finals in 47 years. Rich O'Donnell photo
Red Bank Catholic High School’s Sabino Portella is the first wrestler to reach state finals in 47 years. Rich O'Donnell photo

It’s been 47 years since Red Bank Catholic High School’s Tom Seitz reached the NJSIAA wrestling finals.

Now, more than four decades later, the school is celebrating the same accomplishment – earned by sophomore Sabino Portella.     

“It’s awesome making history,” said Portella, who reached the state finals April 24.

 Said RBC wrestling coach Joe Gallagher, “As a freshman, I knew he was talented, but he kind of took the world by surprise.”

“He has a very solid wrestling background but he played other sports as well [including lacrosse last spring], so he came in under the radar.”

Support Network

Gallagher said Portella’s father – a staple in the community as owner of Enzo’s Pizza & Subs – and the entire family have supported the young athlete every step of the way.

“Sabino’s [maternal] pop-pop goes to the matches with his mom. His grandfather is a Vietnam War veteran [who] sits there with his veteran’s hat on and cheers,” Gallagher said.

“It’s hard to explain how great a kid he is. He is the real thing genuinely on and off the mat,” Gallagher said.

There’s no denying how real he is on the mat – and on the football field for that matter – as he played on the RBC varsity with his freshman brother Lorenzo, a starting lineman, last fall.

Portella started both sports around kindergarten. He wrestled club for Triumph and Jersey Shore, and when it came time for high school, he opted for Red Bank Catholic. Athletics was only part of the reason he decided on the school.

“I appreciate a Catholic education a lot. I definitely take pride in it,” he said.

Portella – who is an altar server in Red Bank’s St. James Parish – says God plays an important part in his life.

“Before every match, I make the Sign of the Cross,” Portella said. “I always grew up like that. [Faith is] always something I rely on. [God] is always there.”

On the Mat

As a freshman 160-pounder, Portella went 33-6 with 23 pins and a technical fall. He was a District 22 runner-up and Region 6 champion, while going 3-2 in the state tournament. After losing to Allentown’s Nick Golden, 3-1, in the district final, he beat him 3-2 on a late takedown in the region final. 

“As a freshman, I knew he was talented, but he kind of took the world by surprise,” Gallagher said, reviewing highlights that lead to Portella’s recent accomplishment. “He has a very solid wrestling background but he played other sports as well [including lacrosse last spring] so he came in under the radar.

“He had made the states, he’s very good, but he didn’t place and when you don’t get on the podium, people forget even though making states as a freshman is awesome,” Gallagher continued.

This year, Gallagher tried to load the abbreviated regular-season schedule with tougher opponents to increase the competition heading into the post-season. There were no districts this year and wrestlers were chosen for the regions by coaches based on criteria.

Portella, who wrestled in the Central Region, finished the year 16-1 with six pins, a technical fall and major decision. His only loss came in the 170-pound state final to Paramus High’s nationally ranked Aaron Ayzerov, who will wrestle for Columbia next year.

En route to the state tournament, Portella had to go through a gauntlet of talented wrestlers to become RBC’s first two-time region champ since Seitz, who actually called Sabino prior to the states to offer support.

As the Central Region’s third seed, Portella defeated Hunterdon Central’s second-seeded Norman Cella in an ultimate tie-breaker in the semifinals, then topped Rumson-Fair Haven’s Shay Addison, 3-1, in the title bout. Both wrestlers were returning state place-winners.

“Portella’s attitude was so good and his growth and maturity of understanding the plan; people were blown away,” Gallagher said. “He has as much offense as anybody in the state, he’s so athletic and he can hit every shot. … We wanted to just keep the match close and his patience and maturity and willingness allowed him to stick to the plan. He took a shot with 10 seconds left against Addison and hit it for the win.”  

The Sabino Show continued at states, which were held in Phillipsburg instead of the usual venue in Atlantic City. As a third seed, he pinned Bound Brook’s Brett Miller, beat Addison again, 2-0, in the quarterfinals and hit a four-point move in overtime to win a 5-1 tie-breaker decision over Bergen Catholic’s Justin Onello in the semis.

Against Ayzerov, Portella trailed 8-0 with 25 seconds left and told Gallagher “it would be embarrassing” if he lost by a major decision of eight points or more. So he went out and earned two points to avoid that.

“He set his mind to get something out of it,” Gallagher said.

Portella also felt good about winning against Addison twice after losing to him last year in the Holmdel Classic. “Those were ones I really wanted,” he said.

Aside from Ayzerov, Portella felt his toughest foes were Cella and Onello because they’re both strong and “were in good position the whole time. It was hard to get them out of position. That’s why both matches went into double-overtime; it was really hard to take them down.”

Although he didn’t win a state title, Portella knows he has two more shots. For now, being RBC’s first finalist in 47 years is a nice prize.

“I knew [Seitz] was the only guy to do it, but I wasn’t thinking about anything like that when I was there,” he said.