Pascack Valley’s Tommy Chiellini stars at Sam Cali tournament by Sean Farrell of The Record
One voice was all Tommy Chiellini heard.
There may have been thousands of fans cheering from the crowd as the PA announcer called his name onto the mat.
But Chiellini wasn’t listening.
The Pascack Valley senior blocked it out as he made his way toward the spotlight at West Orange High School. Everything was just background noise before his championship match at the Sam Cali Battle For The Belt. The pep talk from his dad Ken was the only thing that had resonated on Sunday.
“He’s definitely my biggest fan,” said Chiellini, whose father was a two-time state qualifier. “He’s always in my corner. And even though he can’t be on the mat, he’s the closest person out there. I hear him all the time.”
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Chiellini appreciated that support after another championship win on Sunday. He continued a magical season with a 4-3 decision in the finals at 182, defeating a worthy opponent in Delbarton’s Kieran Calvetti. The Indians’ wrestler likes not having to cut as much weight this year, and even went out for pizza and root beer floats after Saturday’s opening rounds.
But Chiellini believes that a more carefree approach has been the biggest difference this season. His dad calms him down before each match, often reminding him that with hard work, the rest will take care of itself.
“It’s a mental thing,” Chiellini said. “I’m calmer out there and have less nerves. That’s definitely helped a lot. Being nervous hurt my performance in the past, but now I learned to calm myself down.”
“In this type of sport, that’s what you need,” coach Tom Gallione said. “You need somebody to support you. You’re going to have major ups and downs, a lot of highs and a lot of lows.”
Chiellini’s story has a little bit of both.
He began his high school career at Don Bosco and won about 20 matches as a freshman. But the low point came as sophomore with an undefeated season that didn’t go quite as planned. He only got in 11 matches for Pascack Valley because of the transfer period, then a hand injury kept him out of the state tournament. But everything clicked last year when Chiellini rolled off 40 wins and set a school single-season record.
“He wrestles like he’s still a lightweight, but now he’s at 182 pounds,” Gallione said. “He’s still got that quickness, which is a huge advantage.”
Garfield’s Michael Filieri was the only other Bergen County winner at the Sam Cali event, named for the Don Bosco and Rutgers wrestler who passed away in a 2016 car crash. The national tournament grew to 37 teams in its second year, but kept to its roots with nine from North Jersey. Champions were given a scholarship and a large golden belt adorned with Cali’s picture. The idea of the tournament was to honor Cali’s selfless attitude and give back to a community that gave so much.
“I can’t change what happened in my life,” said his mother, Theresa. “But I can change the lives of others.”
For Chiellini, a career on the mat was almost inevitable. His uncle and cousins all wrestled and he was brought into the sport around age 6. After watching at Boardwalk Hall as a little kid, he made his Atlantic City debut last season, falling one win short of the podium.
“I try to be as aggressive as I can and keep the pace moving,” Chiellini said. “As far as I can go stamina-wise, I’m going to use it all up. I like to come off the mat gassed. It shouldn’t be easy.”
It’s hard to find someone in North Jersey who’s changed team history quite like Chiellini. As strong as Pascack Valley has been, a sectional title was missing on its resume until last season. The program had also gone 17 straight years without a region or county champion before Chiellini’s golden 2018 season. Even with that sterling reputation, Chiellini insists that his legacy shouldn’t be about that he’s done on the mat.
It’s always been about the people standing in his corner.
“As much as I’m out here winning, it’s from the practice room and from my partners,” Chiellini said. “They’re the ones getting me there. I don’t really want to be remembered as anything special other than a good wrestler who did well. I want to be remembered with the team I was surrounded by and for the wins we had together.”