By Tim Morris
This week is why head coach John Gagliano has had his Howell High School wrestling team take on all comers.
The Rebels have traveled around the state, and facing and beating some of the best teams in New Jersey. It was all to make sure the Rebels are ready to make a run at a state championship.
“We have taken on a lot of good teams and I feel there is always room for improvement,” Gagliano said. “I think our schedule helps them prepare for what’s ahead.”
What’s ahead is the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group V tournament that begins for Howell Feb. 10 with the semifinals.
By virtue of that challenging schedule and a 23-4 record, Howell is the No. 1 seed and received a first-round bye. All roads to the Central Jersey Group V title go through Howell.
The Rebels received the top seed with 36.10 power points, followed by No. 2-seed Hunterdon Central Regional High School (33.30). Howell wrestled Hunterdon Central during the regular season and beat the Red Devils, 36-22.
The battle-tested Howell lineup is loaded in the lower and middle weights with Darby Diedrich (106 pounds), Kyle Slendorn (113), Nick Ciaccia (120), Peter Dee (132), Anthony Gagliano (138) and Kris Lindemann (145). They are all ranked in Region 6 and, except for save Lindemann — who was injured and did not return to the lineup until mid-January, going 11-1 — have amassed 20 or more wins so far.
Gagliano is having a spectacular season with a 24-1 record. During the Shore Conference Tournament, he recorded his 100th career victory. He and Lindemann are the region’s No. 1-ranked wrestlers in their respective weight classes.
The Rebels have power in the upper weights, too, with Frank Leonardis (160) and Eric Keosseian (220), who are ranked in the region. Keosseian is 23-2.
Howell will be highly motivated this week, having lost in the Shore Conference Tournament finals to Christian Brothers Academy. It was the second razor-thin loss to the Colts this season, which has left the state-ranked Rebels without a championship thus far in 2015-16. A sectional championship would be the program’s second in the last three years.
Manalapan High School is the No. 4 seed (29.30) in Central Jersey Group V, and the Braves hosted No. 5-seed Monroe Township High School (29.10) Feb. 8 in a first-round meet. The winner gets Howell Feb. 10.
The Braves (12-7) have already faced the Rebels twice and lost, with Howell winning during the regular season, 44-21, and in the Round of 16 at the Shore Conference Tournament, 49-28.
Manalapan’s lineup is led by Ronny Ghaida (152), Joe Thompson (160) and Jake Staklinski (182), who are ranked in the region. Ghaida and Thompson each have at least 20 wins.
No. 3-seed Old Bridge High School (31.90) and No. 6-seed Hillsborough High School (27.30) met in the other first-round meet. The winner traveled to Hunterdon Central Feb. 10.
The sectional finals are Feb. 12 in the home gym of the highest-seeded team. The Rebels want it to be in Howell.
Colts Neck High School (14-4) is the No. 5 seed in Central Jersey Group IV. For their first-round meet, the Cougars (29.70) drew last year’s state champion, Brick Memorial High School, which is seeded No. 4 with 31.40 points.
The Cougars have a tested lineup, led by Joe King (20-2), the No. 1-ranked 106-pounder in Region 6. The Cougars’ other ranked wrestlers are Jerry Lleshi (113), Dyon Womack (120), Dominick Esposito (126), Ben Sammarco (132) and Steven Barsky (195).
Traditional power Jackson Memorial High School (13-3) is the section’s No. 1 seed and a defending champion. The Jaguars (32.20) will host the winner of Brick Memorial vs. Colts Neck Jan. 10.
In the other half of the bracket, Long Branch High School (32.20) is seeded No. 2 and will wrestle the winner of the first-round meet between No. 3-seed Northern Burlington County Regional High School (31.80) and No. 6-seed Brick Township High School (28.80).
The Central Jersey Group III finals are Feb. 12 in the gym of the highest-seeded team.
The sectional winners will move on to the group championships Feb. 14 at the Pine Belt Arena in Toms River.