Howell grapplers wrap up third straight A North title

Staff Writer

By tim morris

The Howell High School wrestling team’s work has just begun. John Gagliano’s Rebels completed their regular season work on Saturday, capturing their third straight Shore Conference A North Division title.

Howell defeated Middletown South, 61-14, Saturday to finish the division schedule with a perfect 7-0. Jesse Manna (HWT), Zac Cunliffe (125), Eric Nomikos (140), Matt Metta (145) and Matt Ingrassia (160) all registered falls for the Rebels.

The A North title was part of a tri-meet for the Rebels, who beat Governor Livingston, 47-27, and then suffered their first loss of the year to state-ranked Kingsway, 34-26. This battle of ranked teams went down to the final match with Kingsway securing the win when Nick Bloes won by a pin at 215. The loss dropped Howell to 13-1 for the season.

Now that they have three-peated in the division, the Rebels are taking aim at winning their first Shore Conference Tournament (SCT) crown. Ranked eighth in the state, Howell entered the week No. 1 in the Shore but was awarded the No. 2 seed in the SCT behind Jackson. As a result, the Rebels faced Rumson-Fair Haven (the No. 15 seed) last night in Howell..

"Since I’ve been coaching, we haven’t gotten passed Wednesday night," said Gagliano. "It’s one of our goals this year. It’s very important for us to take the next step.

"The kids have been working very hard and they are very excited about the SCT," he added. "Being home helps. The home court advantage is a big difference."

This year’s SCT is as wide open as any in memory. The traditional Ocean County powers — Brick Memorial, Jackson, Southern, Toms River East, and Brick — have been knocking each other, which will make seeding highly difficult. Jackson (12-2), ranked ninth in the state, second in the Shore and winners of the A South Division, slipped past Howell into the top seed because of the loss to Kingsway.

While the Ocean County teams have been taking turns clipping each other, Howell and Manalapan have taken their programs to another level and are poised to make a run at it all.

"It’s going to come down to who is ready on that day and who has a good week," said Gagliano.

Howell has been good all year and the loss to Kingsway may have been a blessing in disguise. It takes the pressure of an undefeated season off the Rebels’ backs, and if any complacency may have crept in, it was removed by Kingsway. The Rebels took the mat last night knowing that they are not unbeatable.

This could be an historic year in the SCT. The last time a Monmouth County team won the tournament was 1982, when Denny D’Andrea’s Manalapan Braves, led by state champion Cary Broad (now a volunteer coach for the Braves), beat Toms River East in the final. It was the second of the Braves’ back-to-back triumphs.

It’s only fitting that Manalapan is one of the teams to beat, as is Howell. They have been Monmouth County’s best programs over the last decade and more, and if a Monmouth team is to break through, they would be deserving winners.

Howell, of course, has beaten all comers in the Shore this year, and owns a 32-30 win at Manalapan that in essence won the A North title. Gagliano’s Rebels are probably the most balanced team in the conference with no real weaknesses. They, of course, have two-time state place-winner Zac Cunliffe (119) and his brother Rod (125), a dynamic one-two punch down low. But the Rebels also have Nomikos, Josh Woodward, Scott Kirk (171), Brian Farrington (189/215), John Yard (215) and Metta up top, and John Reilly (103) in the lower weights.

The Rebels are a tough team to attack because they can score anywhere in the lineup and are especially tough up top. In the showdown with Manalapan, each team won seven matches. However, Howell got bonus points with its pinners up top, and that proved to be the difference.

Manalapan (9-1) has been equally impressive this winter, slipping only to Howell. John Verderosa’s Braves are ranked 10th in the state and have already beaten one of Ocean’s top teams — Southern. The strength of Manalapan, No. 3 in the Shore, lies in its middle weights with Sean Burns (130), Mike Gaeta (135), Joe Anastasion (140), Brenden Provow (145) and Dan Becker (152). Down low, the Braves have place-winners Dan Hilt (119) and Nick Manochio (103).

The four remaining teams after the completion of last night’s doubleheaders will advance to Southern Regional on Saturday for the SCT "final four." The semifinals will start at 3 p.m., followed by the championship at 5:30. If the top seeds advanced last night, the semifinal round will include some classic match-ups, including Jackson-Manalapan, and Howell-TR East. However, few people would have been surprised if Brick Memorial found a way to get past Manalapan, to meet Jackson in the semifinal round.