Rebels’ wrestlers up for challenge of continuing winning tradition

Kyle Slendorn of Howell defeats Matt Sacco of Bridgewater-Raritan in the 113 lb. weight class in the semi-finals of the NJSIAA State Group team wrestling championships at Pine Belt Arena in Toms River on Feb 14.

By Jeff Appelblatt

The graduation of a bunch of athletes could intimidate plenty of coaches, no matter the sport. Add in a change to the district his team competes in, and there seems plenty to worry about.

However, Howell High School wrestling coach John Gagliano wasn’t worried entering this campaign.

“We lost a lot of guys from last year because [of] graduation,” the 20-year coach said. “But we’ll continue to work hard and get matches under the belt.”

With more matches and more tournaments, Gagliano anticipates his team becoming stronger.

“We’ll get better as the season goes on,” he said.

Many of Howell’s wrestlers were ready to be listed as contenders before the season even began. Even though a lot of wrestlers are gone from a year ago, there are plenty who were part of the 2016 NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group V championship roster.

“We have some experienced kids,” Gagliano said before his team’s Dec. 20 bout with Nottingham High School. “We have kids that did a lot of offseason wrestling.”

That explains why the first tournament the Rebels participated in seemed relatively easy for them and and why the team’s first few dual meets were dominated by Howell.

Howell had four wrestlers finish first in the John and Betty Vogeding Tournament. Darby Diedrich won the 120-pound weight class. Dan Esposito won at 132, Shane Reitsma won at 170 and Eric Keosseian won at 220.

Jesse Liptzin (106), Luke Rada (113), Kyle Slendorn (126), Christian Murphy (160), Joe Sardina (182) and Jake Nash (heavyweight) each took home second-place medals, while Danny Schick (195) came in third.

As for the trip to Nottingham, Howell won that dual meet, 45-12. The Rebels won 10 of the 14 matches held.

The day before that meet, Howell took care of Freehold Township High School, 47-15. Howell also won 10 of 14 matches that day.

Overall, Gagliano feels it his job to continue having a first-class contender on the mats in Howell, the same way his predecessors did and the same way he did the 19 seasons before this one. And he’s ready for the usual challenge.

“I’m very excited about this year,” Howell’s coach said. “This team was competitive way back before me, and I want to keep it going.”

The Rebels took the mats for the last time in 2016 Dec. 23 against Bishop George Ahr High School. Their next meet is Jan. 3 at 7 p.m. at Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School.