By Tim Morris
John Gagliano would like a redo of the last four years.
“I can’t believe it’s coming to an end,” the Howell High School wrestling coach said.
The end for a senior class — the core group of Nick Ciaccia; the coach’s son, Anthony Gagliano; Kris Lindemann; Peter Dee; and Frank Leonardis — that elevated the Rebels’ program from also-rans to champions.
Before they arrived at Howell, the wrestling program was well respected but lacked the championship hardware to take their place with the best in the Shore Conference and the state. That changed during their four years. Howell won its first Shore Conference Tournament title (2014) and first NJSIAA Central Jersey sectional crowns (2014, 2016) to take their rightful place with the Garden State’s finest.
On Jan. 20 at Manalapan High School, the District 20 Tournament was the last time that Howell would assemble as a complete team and the last chance to claim another prestigious title. Dominating the tournament from the seedings to the finals, Howell easily regained the district title with 196 points. It was the program’s third during the seniors’ four years and the 11th in school history.
“This [district title] is definitely special,” coach Gagliano said. “I’ve been around them since they were kids.
“They wrestled well as a team. I’m very happy. They’ve worked hard.”
Howell had seven finalists, five champions and two others who place third. The team will send nine to this week’s Region 6 Tournament at the Pine Belt Arena in Toms River.
Anthony Gagliano and Lindemann became two-time district champions. Gagliano improved his record to 36-1 this year, winning his 132-pound final by a technical fall, 20-5, over St. John Vianney High School’s Joseph Vasile. Lindemann went to 23-1 with his major decision over Holmdel High School’s Scott Dupont, 13-0, in the 128 final. During the season, both surpassed 100 career wins.
With this year being the last chance for him to compete for a state title, Gagliano had all the motivation he needed to put everything into 2015-16. He’s wrestled aggressively throughout the season, taking the initiative at all times.
“I didn’t take a day off in training,” he said. “Sometimes I trained two or three times in a day. I kept my eye on the prize (state championship). I was not going to give up in a match.”
“He’s worked hard for four years,” said coach Gagliano, a district champion himself who handed his son the medal at the ceremony. “He knows what it takes and he keeps going. He’s made adjustments.”
Lindemann was happy to be back on the top rung of the podium after finishing third in 2015 that was preceded by his district title in 2014.
“It’s great to comeback,” he said. “It feels good. You always want to be on top.”
Lindemann was out of the lineup until mid-January because of a hyperextension of his elbow. That hasn’t slowed him down one bit.
“I feel good. Everything is positive,” he said.
As for the last four years, Lindemann said, “It’s been a great ride.”
Junior Eric Keosseian, who has dominated his weight class at 220, won his first district title by a technical fall, 21-5, over Manalapan’s Joe Marano. The Rebels’ stopper up top is 35-2.
Howell’s future was also on display in Manalapan, as sophomore Kyle Slendorn (113) and freshman Darby Diedrich (106) were also victorious.
Slendorn is now halfway to becoming a rare four-time champion, collecting his second District 21 title by pin over Jackson Liberty High School’s Nicholas Pellegrino. He’ll take a 32-5 record into the region tournament.
Diedrich won the 106 title in style, pinning St. John Vianney’s Luke Ecklof.
As a bonus, Diedrich was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Wrestler. He was quick to credit his teammates.
“I grew up wrestling with all these guys; they’re like brothers,” he said. “They push me to the limit.”
Ciaccia (120) and Leonardis (170) were Howell’s finalists, and the Rebels’ third-place winners were Dee (145) and Dan Esposito (126).
While Howell dominated the tournament, there were many other stories that played out at the tournament, led by the arrival of St. John Vianney.
Denny D’Andrea, who built Manalapan into a powerhouse in the late 1970s and early 1980s with back-to-back Shore Conference Tournament championships in 1981 and 1982, is doing the same for the Lancers. He beefed up the team’s schedule and it has paid off with six finalists and two champions: Calvin Beatty (195) and Micah Clark (heavyweight).
“We’re trying to establish a new program,” Clark said. “We’re moving forward in the right direction.”
They made their case, proving their dual-meet win over Jackson Memorial High School was not a fluke, as they edged the Jaguars for second place by 10 points, 139.5-123.5.
Clark pinned Freehold Township High School’s Taylor Larkin in his final, and Beatty scored an 8-0 major decision over Jackson Memorial’s Adante Davis.
Marlboro High School’s Michael DeFaria was unfazed by his No. 4 seed at 145 pounds.
“I don’t wrestle to the ranking,” the junior said. “I knew I was capable of winning. The key was believing in myself.”
Another key was wrestling a full six minutes, which was the reason he won his semifinal and final against the top two seeds in the final seconds.
“You can never stop wrestling,” he said. “I was hungry to get [the district title].”
DeFaria edged top-seed Dee in the semifinals, 3-2, and a late takedown in the final 18 seconds led to his 4-3 win over St. John Vianney’s Khalil Haskins, the No. 2 seed.
DeFaria’s career has been stunted by injuries. A broken arm ended his freshman year early, and injuries held him to a fourth-place finish in the district in 2015. He put those struggles behind him with his outstanding tournament.
With the championship, the Mustangs’ standout lifted his record to 22-1. He’s the first Marlboro wrestler to win a district title since 2011.
The last time a Holmdel wrestler won a district championship was 1998, but Garrett Hilsheimer broke that long streak convincingly and lived up to his No. 1 seed by pinning the Rebels’ Leonardis, the second seed, in the final.
Manalapan’s Ronny Gaida gave the home fans something to shout about by winning his 152 final in the final four seconds, 3-2. He was able to pull his leg free from the the grasp of Jackson Liberty’s top-seeded Jeremy Bollard to pull out the victory.
Freehold Township seems to have a champion every year, and Mike Plaska continued that tradition by earning a decision over Matt McGowan of Jackson Memorial, 5-2, in the final. He’s 30-2.
Jackson Memorial’s Central Jersey Group IV winners had two champions. Second-seeded Mike Spino beat top-seeded Ciaccia, 9-2, in the 120 final, and Tanner Kelly won the 182 title as the No. 1 seed, 3-0, over St. John Vianney’s second-seeded Steven Giannios.
Colts Neck High School head coach Brett Jankos, whose team went 19-5 and qualified for the Shore Conference Tournament and Central Jersey Group IV tournaments, was named by his peers as the Coach of the Year. The Cougars have four wrestlers moving on to the region tournament.
All six of the Freehold Regional High School District schools will be represented at the Region 6 Tournament. Freehold High School’s John Downey earned his way to Toms River by winning his third-place consolation match at 182 pounds.
The Pine Belt Arena in Toms River is the site for the region tournament — the last stop before the state championships. The tournament dates are Feb. 24 and 26-27. The top three finishers in each weight class will punch their tickets to Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall for the state individual championships March 4-6.