SCT wrestling is up next for A North champion Rebels

Staff Writer

With their eighth consecutive Shore Conference A North Division title behind them, the Howell High School wrestling team takes aim at this week’s Shore Conference Tournament (SCT).

The Rebels were seeded No. 4 and will get to host a double-header on Jan. 31 beginning at 5 p.m.

For head coach John Gagliano, it’s a matter of resetting priorities as the Rebels set their sights on the postseason tournaments.

“As the season progresses, we are always trying to set the bar higher in this extremely competitive Shore Conference,” said Gagliano, whose team is 18-2 in dual meets.

How competitive is the Shore Conference? In the most recent New Jersey Wrestling Writers Association poll, Toms River High School South (4), Brick Memorial High School (5), Jackson Memorial High School (12), Howell (15) and Long Branch High School (18) were all ranked in the top 20 in the state.

The SCT is one title that has eluded the program. Howell was a finalist last year, falling to Brick Memorial.

Howell will entertain the winner of the Jan. 29 opening-round match between Lacey Township High School (20) and Neptune High School (13). The other quarterfinal at Howell will pit No. 12 seed Manalapan High School and its state-ranked heavyweight, John Appice, against No. 5 seed Brick Township High School.

The winners of these Round of 16 matches will wrestle in the quarterfinals at 7 p.m., and the winner will advance to the SCT semifinals on Feb. 2 at the Pine Belt Arena in Toms River.

The top three seeds in the tournament are Toms River South, Brick Memorial and Jackson Memorial.

If the seeds hold up, Howell will have to go through No. 1 Toms River South to reach the finals. The semifinals will start at 3 p.m. and the finals will follow at 5:30 p.m.

The Rebels put the finishing touches on their A North crown by beating Colts Neck High School, 49-17, on Jan. 23 in Howell.

Josue Pierre-Louis (138 pounds), Joey Schultz (160 pounds), Joe Sportiello (heavyweight) and Mikey Sisolak (106 pounds) scored pinfalls for Howell in the title-clincher. On Jan. 26, Howell lost for just the second time when No. 5-ranked Phillipsburg won in Howell, 33-18. One of the highlights of the evening was Ben Esposito’s 4-3 decision over Anthony Jackson at 132 pounds. The senior remained undefeated on the season (24-0).

“Ben Esposito is a tremendous individual who is always focused on doing a great job on and off the mat,” said Gagliano. “He is also our team captain. Ben is having a lot of success on the mat because of all his hard work in the offseason to prepare for his senior year.”

Gagliano is not one to take credit for all the success the Rebels have enjoyed under his watch (11 division titles in all, and two NJSIAA District 21 championships).

“I really believe that it is a combination of things for our success,” he said. “I think my assistant coaches (Todd Going, Jason Brandl, Chris Provow and volunteer coaches Jason Ecklof, Rich Famularo, Mike Verrochi, Zac Cunliffe and Harry Turner) go above and beyond to help these kids reach their goals, as well as the preparation that is instilled in the kids from the middle schools and Predator Club.”

Still, it is his steady, guiding hand and dedication that brought statewide recognition to the Howell program.

Despite the loss to the Stateliners, the Rebels are peaking. Freshmen Anthony Gagliano and Kris Lindemann have solidified the lineup at the lower weights. Newcomers Stephen Boncimino (195 pounds) and Sportiello have given the upper weights a needed boost.

“I think the team in general is very balanced and has really matured the last couple of weeks,” Gagliano said. “With the additions of some of our outstanding freshmen and sophomores, they have filled in very nice to the team. They have been together wrestling for years in the Predator Club and are just great kids and are a pleasure to have.”

Of course, veterans like Jimmy Slendorn (106/113 pounds), Esposito, Jack Rada (138 pounds), Ashanti Maurice (145 pounds), Schultz (160 pounds), Matt Lindemann (152 pounds) and Nate Litowsky (182 pounds) have provided steady leadership and victories.