By Tim Morris
The NJSIAA District 21 Wrestling Tournament will be a true test for anyone whose sights are set on Atlantic City.
The district tournament, which is at Manalapan High School on Feb. 20, is the first step wrestlers take toward their ultimate goal: Atlantic City’s Convention Hall and the state individual championships next month. Those steps are wrought with danger, as District 21 is loaded.
No fewer than six teams qualified for the state team tournament, led by a pair of state sectional champions: Howell High School, Central Jersey Group V, and Jackson Memorial High School, Central Jersey Group IV. Colts Neck High School, Manalapan High School, Jackson Liberty High School and St. John Vianney High School all qualified for the sectionals, with Colts Neck and St. John Vianney reached their respective semifinals.
Some outstanding wrestlers are going to have their seasons, and careers in some cases, come to an end in Manalapan. The top three in each weight class will move on to the Region 6 Tournament at Pine Belt Arena in Toms River Feb. 24 and 26-27.
The district tournament is also the final team championship up for grabs this season. The question in District 21 is whether anyone can break up the Jackson Memorial-Howell monopoly. The two powerhouses have owned the district this century. You have to go all the way back to Manalapan in 1997 for the last time a team other than Jackson Memorial or Howell won the district. Even though District 21 has so many talented teams this year, it still shapes up as Jackson Memorial vs. Howell.
The Jaguars are the defending champions, having edged Howell by eight points last year, 192-184.
On paper, Howell appears to have the edge, but the Rebels will need to get points from their upper weights. Their lineup is stacked from the lower to middle weights.
Jackson Memorial, as always, has quality throughout the lineup but may have more holes than in previous years. They are solid up top.
In recent years, the finals seemed like a Jackson vs. Howell dual meet. With so many talented individuals from the other teams this season, the team champion will likely be decided in the early rounds, determined by which team can get the most wrestlers through the first round and earn bonus points.
The young Colts Neck team has surprised many by being one of the Shore’s best this year, and the Cougars upset defending state champion Brick Memorial High School in the first round of the state sectionals. They have quality wrestlers, especially down low, but not the depth to challenge Howell and Jackson Memorial.
St. John Vianney, which upset Jackson Memorial in a dual meet, has the same outlook.
The returning champions include Howell’s Kyle Slendorn (113 pounds) and Anthony Gagliano (138), Jackson Memorial’s Tanner Kelly and St. John Vianney’s Calvin Beaty (220). In addition, there is former champion Kris Lindemann from Howell (145).
Below are District 21’s top wrestlers in their respective weight classes:
106: Joey King, Colts Neck; Darby Dietrich, Howell; and Luke Ecklof, St. John Vianney
113: Slendorn, Howell; Nick Pellegrino, Jackson Liberty; and Jerry Lleshi, Colts Neck
120: Mike Spino, Jackson Memorial; Nick Ciaccia, Howell; and Dyon Womack, Colts Neck
126: Matt McGowan, Jackson Memorial, Mike Plaska, Freehold Township and Dominick Esposito, Colts Neck
132: Peter Dee, Howell; Shane Mullan, Marlboro; and Ben Sammarco, Colts Neck
138: Gagliano, Howell; Khaili Haskins, St. John Vianney; and Steven Kramer, Colts Neck
145: Lindemann, Howell; Tim Hamann, Jackson Memorial; and Mike DeFaria, Marlboro
152: Jeremy Bollard, Jackson Liberty; Ronny Ghaida, Manalapan; and Jay Epperly, Jackson Memorial
160: Joe Thompson, Manalapan; Tyler Kalmowitz, Jackson Liberty; and Derrick Wiley, Matawan
170: Garret Hilsheimer, Holmdel; and Alex Pierce, Matawan
182: Kelly, Jackson Memorial; Steven Giannios, St. John Vianney; and Jake Staklinski, Manalapan
195: Beaty, St. John Vianney; Adante Davis, Jackson Memorial; and Gerald Goodman, Jackson Liberty
220: Eric Keossian, Howell; Chris Mondello, Jackson Memorial; and Chris Pondish, Jackson Liberty
Heavyweight: Micah Clark, St. John Vianney; Jared DiZenzo, Jackson Liberty; and Austin Ostrander, Jackson Memorial
King, Gagliano and Lindemann are the top-ranked wrestlers in their respective weight classes in Region 6. Slendorn, McGowan, Hamann and Clark are No. 2 in their weight divisions.
The district tournament will be held over three sessions Jan. 20. The first session — the preliminary and quarterfinals — is 9 a.m.-12 p.m. Session II is the semifinals and consolations from 12:30-3 p.m. Session III — the finals and awards ceremonies — starts at 4 p.m.