BERKELEY – It’s cool being Paul Kenny.
The Central Regional Middle School eighth grader is one of the world’s top wrestlers. He has a clothing line – at the age of 15 – no less. He helped the Golden Eagles’ seventh and eighth-grade team to a championship season. He will continue his career at the prestigious Christian Brothers Academy in Middletown Township. And his name is on the lips of traditional national powers Rutgers University – coached by former Jackson Memorial High School athlete and mentor Scott Goodale – and Pennsylvania State University.
“It’s great,” Kenny said. “I like it a lot. It’s fun. I have a lot more training opportunities now and it is great. I am very excited.”
Kenny has every right to be excited. His excitement will reach its apex July 31-Aug. 6 when he competes in the 17U 48KG World Amateur Freestyle Wrestling Championships in Istanbul, Turkey. If Kenny had opted to compete in the U15 Division, he would have had to settle for a title in the Pan American Games.
The 5-foot-2 Kenny has put opponents to the mat in numerous states, including Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
“Name a state and chances are I have wrestled there,” he said, “but I have never been overseas before.”
The fifth-seeded Kenny, competing at 48 kilograms, earned his trip to Turkey with two wins over second-seeded Grey Burnett of Ohio. Kenny prevailed 5-3 in bout one and 7-2 in bout two at the U17 World Team Trials, a Men’s Freestyle event at the South Point Arena in Las Vegas. Named the event’s Most Outstanding Wrestler, Kenny took down top-seeded Domenic Munaretto – the 2022 U17 world champion – 4-3 in the semifinals. Kenny was 6-0 in the tournament, which featured many of the nation’s greatest high school wrestlers.
“That award feels great,” he said. “I was really excited to get that award. I dominated most of the tournament. I am slick and gritty. I can do both. When I compete in Turkey, I am not gonna change. I will keep doing what I do. I would like to give a shoutout to my family, my coaches, my friends, my partners and my trainers.”
“When he won in Las Vegas, we were speechless,” said Ray Kenny, one of Kenny’s coaches and a former Central Regional High School wrestler. “Paul is at the pinnacle of wrestling. He did not realize how well he did. Paul is successful because he is very natural and has a feel for the sport. He is a humble kid. He’s very tough, a grinder. He is very slick and flexible. He is great on his feet and very coachable. He loves to compete at a high level.
“We’re working with him on being a bully on the mat and imposing his will on his opponents.”
“I think I can win in Turkey,” Kenny said. “I am very confident going in there. It’s exciting, very exciting to have the opportunity to compete in Turkey. I am still kind of in shock. I have watched that tournament on television for a long time – and now I am competing in it. Wrestling is very big overseas.”
Kenny will do some intense preparation at the United States Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“He will train with the best in the world – the equivalent of Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes,” Ray Kenny said. “He will see how the best wrestlers train, compete and take care of their bodies.”
Success is nothing new to Kenny. He’s a three-time Super 32 Tournament champion. He was ranked first in the nation at 106 pounds as an eighth grader by Mat Scout and flowrestling.com. He’s ranked first in his weight class by Rofkin among rising high school freshmen.
He finished his middle school career as a two-time division, two-time Ocean County and two-time O.C.I.A.L. Tri-County champion who helped his team to the divisional title. He’s a Trinity Award Winner (WOW, Tulsa, Oklahoma Nationals and Reno, Nevada, Nationals in the same year). He’s a five-time New Jersey youth state champion. And he competed on the New Jersey 14U Freestyle and Greco Roman teams that won the first-ever United States National Championships in the same year.
Paul will be accompanied to Turkey by his father, Paul, brother, Sean, and Ray Kenny.
“I don’t feel any pressure,” young Paul Kenny said. “I never get excited. I never get nervous. I like going out there and competing on a big stage. I stay calm, cool and collected.”
What does young Paul Kenny enjoy the most about wrestling?
“Winning,” he said firmly. “It proves that I put the work in and it’s very satisfying to see that the work pays off. When I lose, I try to think about what I did wrong. When I get bored, I watch the tape and work on the things that I didn’t do right.”
Paul Kenny said he can’t get enough wrestling.
“Burnout is out of the question,” he said. “I have fallen in love with the sport. I love putting in the work and winning.”
He attempts to practice twice per day, one early in the morning and one at night. He undergoes private training two to four sessions per week. Strength and conditioning sessions take place two and three times per week. He attends club practice sessions six times per week.
Kenny recalled that he began competing in wrestling at the age of five.
“I didn’t like it right away,” he said. “I didn’t like to be sweaty. My uncle said, ‘Give it another try,’ and I started liking it. I was decent. I competed with my brother, Sean, in our garage and it got me going right away.”
Central Regional Middle School coach Mike Bischoff said Kenny has a strong support system.
“Paulie comes from a wrestling family that has supported him, his brother, Sean, and his cousin, Eddie, since they were young boys,” Bischoff said. “They have sought out the best coaches, practice partners and tournaments. They turned their garage into a home wrestling room where they train with their uncle, Ray, and other area wrestlers.”
Ray Kenny, a CBA assistant coach and Paul Kenny’s uncle, was the co-captain of the Bischoff-coached Central Regional High School team which won the NJSIAA South Jersey Group III championship in 2005. It was Central’s first sectional title in school history in the sport. That team and the 2006 club will be inducted into the Central Regional High School Athletic Hall of Fame in the fall.
Paul Kenny won the Super 32 Tournament in 2017, 2019 (he was named the event’s Most Outstanding Wrestler) and 2021. He captured the Trinity Award after winning the Kickoff Classic and the Tulsa Nationals in Oklahoma and the Reno World title in Nevada.
“They are three of the toughest tournaments in folk wrestling,” Ray Kenny said.
Bischoff said he is impressed with young Paul Kenny.
“Paulie’s maturity over the past year is evident in the way he trains and prepares himself for every match,” Bischoff said. “Off the mat, Paulie is much like any other student-athlete his age. The differences are his work ethic and love of the sport. What he does is important to him and he prepares himself in the necessary fashion. Most kids his age won’t train as hard in a week the way he will in a day. Paulie brings mental preparation to the mat. Wrestling isn’t for everyone, but it should be. The support of his family is a huge source of his success.”
Ex-Central Regional High School standout Maurice Worthy, a two-time state champion for the Golden Eagles, an NCAA finalist at West Point and the owner of Maurice Worthy’s Legacy Wrestling Academy, has also played a large role in the success of young Paul Kenny. Worthy was a high school teammate of his dad.
“It was a small, individually focused club,” Bischoff said. “My sons, Kellen and Nathaniel, trained there at the same time and it was an overall positive experience for everyone. Maurice was a teammate of Paulie’s father, Paul, in high school. You can’t have a better man teaching your young ones as they begin their wrestling careers. For the Kenny boys, that was just the beginning.”
Ex-Rutgers standout Anthony Ashnault and Rutgers assistant coach Joey Pollard also work with young Paul Kenny. He is a member of the Elite Wrestling Club in Jackson, which is run by Steve and Sebastian Rivera. Steve Rivera competed for Manalapan and CBA and was a New Jersey state champion and a two-time Division III national champion.
Sebastian Rivera competed for CBA, Northwestern and Rutgers. He was a New Jersey state champion. The former Northwestern University and Rutgers athlete was a five-time All-American who was fifth at the Freestyle World Championships.
Ashnault won four New Jersey state titles at South Plainfield. He was an NCAA national champion, a four-time Big Ten Conference champion and a four-time All-American.
Among Kenny’s other coaches are Billy Ashnault, Scottie Winston, Vinnie Dellefave, Joe Burke, Cory Cooperman and Damion Logan.
Now the CBA head coach, Billy Ashnault was a three-time NCAA qualifier at Rutgers. Winston, a former Jackson Memorial standout, won three New Jersey state titles. He was a four-time NCAA qualifier at Rutgers. Dellefave was a two-time New Jersey state champion. He was a four-time NCAA qualifier at Rutgers. Burke was a two-time All-American at Seton Hall University.
Cooperman was a four-time national prep school champion at Blair Academy and a three-time All-American. Logan was a three-time New Jersey state champion and a two-time All-American at the University of Michigan. Working closely with Kenny on his strength and conditioning is Kevin Higgins, a speed and strength coach at Stonefitt Performance in Red Bank.
Bischoff said he is not surprised at the success of young Paul Kenny, who won by either pin or technical fall over each middle school wrestler he went against in two seasons.
“Anything is possible when you’re anything but typical (the motto of Bischoff’s middle school and high school teams),” he said. “Why should we be surprised when someone accomplishes his goals? I think it’s more surprising that Walter Payton never scored a touchdown in the Super Bowl. Is it surprising that Paulie won the 17U age division when he is only 15? Perhaps. But that drive and that self confidence are what pushes him to a level of success far exceeding his peers.”
The Golden Eagles tasted plenty of success at the middle school level.
There was the O.C.I.A.L. Blue Division team title. There were Red Division champions in Sean Kenny (90 pounds), Killian Coluccio (110), Paul Kenny (115), Sullivan Hawkes (138) and Sam Yuka (144). There were Ocean County champions in Sean Kenny, Coluccio, Paul Kenny and Hawkes. And there were Tri-County champions in Sean Kenny, Coluccio, Paul Kenny and Hawkes. They bested champions from Monmouth and Middlesex counties. The team’s assistant coaches were Chris Clerico and Mike Monetti.
Sean Kenny, a Trinity Award winner and a brother of young Paul Kenny, is a five-time Super 32 finalist. He was sixth at the United States Open. He won three New Jersey state titles. He was a freestyle national champion. He was a two-time Tournament of Champions winner. Teammate Ed Figueroa was a two-time finalist at the Super 32.
Ranked first in the nation among incoming freshmen at 106, Coluccio won the USAW New Jersey state title. He was an NHSCA Middle School national finalist. The winner of two Tri-County titles, he’s a four-time USAWNJ freestyle state champion. Ranked seventh in the nation among incoming freshmen, Hawkes placed sixth in New Jersey.
“We try various ways of instilling confidence in our wrestlers,” Bischoff said. “We don’t want anyone stepping on the mat believing we don’t have a chance to win. The only difference between one kid from another is in the level of preparation. This falls on the coaches and the wrestlers themselves. You can’t be upset losing to a wrestler who has sacrificed and trained harder than you were willing to do.
“The young wrestlers fed off the confidence of the coaches and more experienced team members. The attention they received from their administration, teachers and school community all helped lead to a successful season,” he said.
Bischoff said Clerico and Central athletics director John Scran were creative, helping the Golden Eagles to a successful season.
“Give a shoutout to coach Clerico and Mr. Scran, who six years ago decided to put two mats out for each match,” Bischoff said. “At the time, we were the only middle school to do this. The ‘A team would wrestle its match on one mat – this is the match that is scored – and the ‘B’ team would wrestle on its own mat with a separate official. We believe that what our athletes do is important and that every kid deserves a chance to compete in a real match under real conditions so they learn the proper rules and procedures.
“B matches in other places are contested with up to 10 athletes at a time in an uncontrolled battle royale of sorts. It’s disorganized and offers no real wrestling benefit. Today’s ‘B’ wrestlers might be tomorrow’s champions. Mike Denver, who wrestled for us, was a ‘B’ kid in middle school. He wound up being a three-time All-American and an NCAA champion for The College of New Jersey. You never know …”
Bischoff’s teams have lived by the slogan since 2003-04.
“We want our teams to believe they are no different than any other student-athlete their age,” he said. “Again, the only difference is how much time and effort you are willing to put in to be successful. You can’t put in a less than stellar effort and expect positive results in this sport. We want our athletes to rise above people’s expectations of them. We want them to take the mat knowing that they are representing their coaches, their team, their school and their families and to take pride in that. How do you want to be remembered?”
The season began last Nov. 14 – two days after the death of former Southern Regional High School wrestler Kellen Bischoff, a National Honor Society member and the son of Mike and Patty Bischoff – at the age of 19. Enter Clerico and Monetti along with volunteers, who filled the void. Bischoff returned to the sidelines the following week.
The Golden Eagles downed Jackson schools McAuliffe and Goetz, and looked forward to taking down Southern, the unbeaten Red Division champion. Two days before the match against Southern, coach Bischoff suffered a spinal stroke that left him paralyzed and in a wheelchair.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “we fell short in our match with Southern, giving up a couple of pins that we weren’t expecting. I watched the match from my hospital room, proud of the effort and perseverance the team displayed in the face of adversity.”
Six years ago, Bischoff and Clerico took over the middle school program after coaching the high school team for many years.
“Our first priority was to rebuild the numbers in the program and to get our group of inexperienced wrestlers to be competitive,” Bischoff said. “Just as that was happening, COVID-19 came and set our numbers back to barely 20 team members in 2021. Just three years later, we have nearly 60 team members and 10 of them are females. Many people don’t realize that women’s wrestling is the fastest growing sport in America.”
How To Help
Paul Kenny’s clothing line states, “Welcome to the PK Store! The line sells Paul Kenny wrestling gear to fund the trip to Turkey. Thank you for visiting my store and supporting me in my journey to take on the world!” It can be found at baileysprinting.com/custom-stores/paul-kenny-wrestling/category/t-shirts-46018/
A GoFundMe page has been organized by Ray Kenny to aid his nephew and other family members.
“To achieve his goal of representing the United States at this year’s World Championships, Paul will need financial assistance to enable him to work with the finest coaches, training partners, nutritionists and clubs and facilities in Colorado,” Ray Kenny said on the page. “Your support will also help his family with travel expenses to Istanbul as his father, Paul, who also wrestled for Central Regional High School, and brother, Sean, was sixth in the United States Open Championships, have been with him every step of the way.
“As a bonus, Paul will have the educational opportunity to sightsee and learn first hand about the culture of the Turkish people and that of other wrestlers from around the world. No amount is too small and your donations will help Paul achieve his dream of becoming a WORLD CHAMPION!”
The page’s goal is $10,000. Here is the page: gofundme.com/f/help-paul-kenny-become-a-world-champion.