By Tim Morris
John Gagliano has one more week to enjoy the company of his full Howell High School wrestling team that includes a senior class that elevated the program to unprecedented heights.
“We’ve had a good run with this group,” he said. “I’m going to hate to see them go.”
When the senior class — led by Nick Ciaccia, Anthony Gagliano, Kris Lindemann and Frank Leonardis — came to Howell, they were coming to a long-established winning program. But it was a program that still lacked the respect it deserved because it was said the Rebels couldn’t win the big one.
Thanks to the seniors, that can no longer be said. For the second time in the last three years, Howell captured an NJSIAA sectional championship — this time in Central Jersey Group V. And on Feb. 14, it became the first Freehold Regional High School District team to advance to the group championship finals.
The moment proved not to be too big for these Rebels, but they couldn’t get past perennial state power Southern Regional High School in the Group V finals. The Rams won a memorable match that came down to the final bout, 27-24, to deny Howell its bid for its first state championship.
“We were right there,” coach Gagliano said. “We had the matchups we wanted. You can’t take anything away from [Southern]. It was a great high school match.
“I’m very proud of the kids. They overcame a lot and made a nice run at the end. They battled all year.”
Howell, which routed Old Bridge High School, 44-16, in the Central Jersey Group V finals, beat North Jersey II Group IV winner Bridgewater-Raritan High School in its Group V semifinal, 48-19. Leonardis (160) and Lindemann (142) scored pins and Anthony Gagliano (132) had a technical fall in the victory.
With Southern disposing of the other sectional champion, Clifton High School, 48-21, its its semifinal, Group V had an All-Shore Conference final between teams with a postseason history in which each has had success against the other.
The Group V final began at 160, playing to the Rams’ strength. They won the first four matches, three by major decision, to lead 15-0. Eric Keosseian put Howell on the board with a decision at 220. Southern followed with a decision at heavyweight, and it was 18-3 entering the lower weights — Howell’s strength.
Darby Diedrich began the comeback with a 13-3 major decision over Dylan Cardell at 106.
Kyle Slendorn gave Howell momentum, pinning Owen Kretschmer in 30 seconds in their 113-pound match.
Ciaccia kept it going with a technical fall at 120 over Nick Pepe (16-0) to tie the match at 18-18.
Southern restored some order at 126 with Matt Barnett winning by a 7-1 decision over Dan Esposito, but Gagliano tied it again with his 5-2 win over Gianni Bennett.
A 2-1 win by Mike Racanelli over Peter Dee at 138 put Southern back on top, and Lindemann tied it again at 24-24 with his 7-4 win over Teddy Caporinno at 145.
The final came down to the 152-pound weight class, where Southern’s returning District 24 champion Pat Mooney delivered a 4-2 decision over Christian Murphy to seal Southern’s second state championship.
There seemed little doubt from the way Howell wrestled in the state tournament that the Rebels were going to be in the finals. In the sectional, they beat Monroe Township High School, 49-19, before the 44-16 romp over Old Bridge.
“It’s nice to have gotten it together when it counts,” Gagliano said after Howell beat Old Bridge. “It’s very special for these kids.”
Old Bridge didn’t stand a chance in the Feb. 12 finals in Howell. The meet started at 113 pounds, which was right in Howell’s wheelhouse. Slendorn opened things up with a 12-4 major decision and Ciaccia followed with a pin at 120. It was 10-0 Howell and there was no looking back.
Dee, Gagliano and Lindemann turned it on with three straight pins. It was 28-3 and the rout was on. Leonardis added another pin to the Howell victory.
“The team came together for this win,” Ciaccia said.
It’s now onto what coach Gagliano called “Season Two,” the NJSIAA District 21 Championships at Manalapan High School Feb. 20. There is one final team championship at stake as wrestlers take their first steps toward the state individual championships in Atlantic City.
“We have one more goal — [winning District 21],” the coach said.