Wrestling fans left the match agreeing, “It should have been for the state championship.”
Brick Memorial High School and Howell High School are two of the highest ranked high school teams in the state (Memorial at No. 2 and Howell at No. 8). However, they were placed in the same state section this year: NJSIAA South Jersey Group V.
That meant that the winner of the Feb. 13 sectional finals match at Brick Memorial would be the overwhelming favorite to win the state title. The Mustangs achieved that feat by beating Hunterdon Central Regional High School, 53-15, in the Group V championship.
It also meant that one of the finest teams in the state would be on the sidelines at the Feb. 15 team championships at the Sun National Bank Center in Trenton. That team was Howell.
Brick Memorial survived in a match that lived up to expectations by besting Howell, last year’s Central Jersey Group IV champions, 28-25.
“You’re never happy losing,” Howell head coach John Gagliano said after the match. “We lost a couple of close matches. We knew we would have to fight to win the close matches. Brick Memorial outwrestled us.
“Our ultimate goal was to be [at the state championships on Feb. 15].”
Howell achieved its best record this season at 26-2, but it mattered little compared to the pain of not getting the chance to wrestle for the Group V championship.
The sectional match was a seesaw affair, with the teams trading momentum.
The match began at heavyweight, where the Mustangs were favored with Nick Rivera. Brick Memorial won two of the first three matches, but Howell’s sensational freshman Kyle Slendorn neutralized those decisions by getting a pin in just 1:23 over Matt Wardlaw at 106 pounds. It was 6-6 heading into the heart of Howell’s lineup. Howell won three of the next four matches to take a 16-9 lead.
Peter Dee outlasted Luis Bocalman, 2- 1, to win their 120-pound match; Anthony Gagliano won an 8-3 decision over Luke Vescovi at 132; and Kris Lindemann picked up a bonus point with a major decision, 10-1, at 138 over Rick Davis.
The Mustangs took control, winning the next four matches from 145-170. They gained valuable bonus points with a pin by Alec Donovan over David Nocks at 152 and Rob Ruggiero’s major decision at 160 over Anthony Pozsonyi.
With three matches remaining, Howell trailed by nine, 25-16, but could still pull it out. After all, the Rebels were in the sectional finals because, against all odds, they beat Southern Regional High School, 25- 24, in the semifinals, where heavyweight Ryan Demian scored a pinfall with just eight seconds left in his match.
Howell would need those same heroics in Brick. Austin Silverstein kept those hopes alive with a gritty 6-5 decision over Joe Stowers in overtime on a reversal at 182 pounds.
Howell was down six with two matches to go.
Connor Owen put an end to the Rebels’ momentum and their goal of making it to Trenton by beating Sean Silverstein by a 4-3 decision.
Brick Memorial forfeited the 220- pound match to Howell’s Eric Keosseian for the final 28-25 score.
The drama in Brick was no match for what happened in Howell in the semifinals against state-ranked and four-time defending South Jersey champion Southern Regional.
In what Gagliano labeled “an incredible match,” the Rebels nipped the Rams, 25-24, on Demian’s pin.
The Rebels won on a night when nothing seemed to be going their way. After winning the first three matches with Slendorn, Sisolak and Dee for a 10-0 lead (Slendorn scored a major decision), the Rams stormed back to win five of the next six matches and take an 18-13 lead. Gagliano’s decision at 138 was the only Rebels win during the stretch.
Nick Lurski stopped the bleeding with a decision at 170.
Southern Regional put Howell on the ropes by winning two of the next three matches to hold a 24-19 lead heading into the final match of the night at heavyweight. Demian took the mat knowing anything less than a pin would not be enough, and his opponent, Josh Bento, knew it as well. Bento could wrestle conservatively and not take chances. All he had to do was stay off his back, which he did for 5:52.
“I had to show up for my team,” Demian said.
Through two periods, the only score was a Demian escape in the second period for a 1-0 lead.
Over the course of the year, Demian learned to be patient and not panic in situations when an opponent is just trying to block everything.
“Earlier in the season, I would get frustrated and go for the home run,” he said, adding that it cost him a couple of matches.
He was not going to let that happen when his team needed him the most.
Demian was on offense for the third period and looked for his pinning move, the power half nelson. As time clicked off the clock and Bento just stayed on the mat, Demian kept waiting for the opening. With his coaches telling him to drag Bento out of bounds and start over, he got the break he was after.
“He lifted up, and I had the opening I was looking for,” he said.
Demian got his arm underneath Bento and, in a matter of seconds, turned the Ram over on his back and pinned him to give his team a dramatic come-from-behind victory. The time of the fall was 5:52.
The Rebels’ heavyweight said he “had no idea how much time was left.”
“It was a lot of pressure, but he knew what he had to do for the team,” Gagliano said.