By Tim Morris
The focus of Howell High School’s wrestling team is to improve every day in the wrestling room. It has helped the Rebels become one of the state’s most respected programs and to accumulate a 73-meet winning streak inside the Shore Conference A North Division over 11 years.
That focus will now be used to help them put a devastating defeat behind them.
Before a packed Howell High School gymnasium Jan. 7, the A North win streak ended in the most difficult of circumstances: via a tiebreaker. Howell and Christian Brothers Academy (CBA) were tied, 27-27, when the wrestling was over. Because CBA won eight of the 14 matches, the tiebreaker went to the Colts, whose 28-27 victory snapped Howell’s historic streak.
Rebels head coach John Gagliano gave all the credit to the Colts.
“They wrestled tough,” he said. “They got some of the matchups they wanted. We got out-wrestled. That’s wrestling.”
CBA never led at any time in the match. The Colts trailed, 27-14, with four matches remaining and had to run the table plus get bonus points to pull off the upset.
Many thought that CBA posed the most serious threat to Howell’s 10-year reign because of its senior-laden lineup, and they were proven right. The Colts were unfazed when they fell behind 10-0 and 15-3. That’s because the match began at 138 pounds and would end at the lower weights — a CBA strength. At 126 and 132, CBA had Steve Rivera and Dylan VanSickell, who are proven champions, to close the meet.
“We knew that we would end with a bang,” CBA head coach Russ Witt said.
Witt said that people should appreciate the example that Rivera and VanSickell set with the way they train and put everything into wrestling.
When Rivera was up at 126, the score was 27-20 in favor of Howell and the Colts needed bonus points if they were going to pull of the upset. He was up against Howell’s District 21 medal-winner Nick Ciaccia, which made the task difficult. However, he pulled through, scoring an 8-0 major decision that made it 27-24.
VanSickell was favored in his match with the Rebels’ Dan Esposito. VanSickell worked out a 10-3 win that left the match tied at 27-27.
Gagliano and his team didn’t need to wait for the tiebreaker to be announced. They knew that CBA had won and ended their winning streak.
Witt had nothing but praise for the Rebels following the Colts’ win.
“They are the standard,” he said. “I admire what John [Gagliano] has done. They have a class program. It’s an honor to compete against them.”
The match began well enough for the Rebels, with Anthony Gagliano winning a major decision at 138 over Carl Vasti, 13-2, and raising his record to 10-0.
The Colts then forfeited to Peter Dee at 145, and it was quickly 10-0.
Ben Kuhn got CBA on the scoreboard with a 6-4 decision over Christian Murphy at 160.
Frank Leonardis got the Rebel fans worked up with his 19-4 technical fall over Sam Houstan at 160 to extend the Howell lead to 15-3.
Chris Koutzen decisioned Jack Kirk, 5-1, for CBA at 170, and Zach Barnes countered for Howell with 4-0 win over Carmen DiGrigorio at 182.
Witt gave credit to Houstan and DiGrigorio for not giving up more points.
“Our young guys really stepped up,” the Colts’ coach said. “They went out and competed hard. They deserve as much credit as anyone.”
Jack LaCorte started what was CBA’s comeback, scoring a technical fall, 24-8, over the Rebels’ Ryan Marter.
CBA forfeited 220 to the Rebels’ undefeated Eric Keosseian, and veteran Will Oxley edged Howell’s Jacob Nash, 1-0, at heavyweight.
When Howell freshman Darby Diedrich won in overtime, 2-0, at 106 over Nick Schutzenhofer, Howell was in the driver’s seat, 27-14.
However, the Rebels were heading into the teeth of CBA’s strength at the lower weights.
The match at 113 pitted two of the very best in the state, CBA’s Richie Koehler and the Rebels’ Kyle Slendorn, against each other. Koehler won the exciting match, 8-5, to keep the Colts in it.
CBA still needed to win at 120 to give Rivera and VanSickell their chance to win it. Sam LaCorte did just that, winning a 5-0 decision over Howell’s Eli Orford. That made it 27-20, setting the stage for CBA’s big comeback and win.
The Colts are 5-3 on the season and 2-0 in A North. Howell (9-1 overall) is now 2-1 in A North. There is still the consolation of public school champion for Howell, but that is a disappointment after winning the title outright for 10 years.
Coach Gagliano mentioned that there is still a lot for Howell to wrestle for: the Shore Conference Tournament and state tournament.
“We have a lot of work to do,” he said. “We’ve got to grow.
“It’s not how you start the season but how you finish.”
On Jan. 9, Howell hosted a tri-meet, where the Rebels defeated Robbinsville High School, 49-22, and Northern Burlington County Regional High School, 48-15, to run their dual-meet record to 9-1.