Howell High School successfully defended its title while legendary programs Paulsboro High School and Phillipsburg High School were crowned once again when the NJSIAA group championships were wrestled at the RWJBarnabas Health Arena in Toms River on Feb. 11.
Howell capped its 32-0 season with its second straight Group 5 state championship. The Rebels knocked off its Shore Conference rival, Southern Regional High School, 33-15, in the Group 5 title bout.
Howell pulled away to ice the championship behind its biggest and smallest wrestlers.
Heavyweight Scott Prendergast managed a 3-2 overtime decision, and then Howell’s 106-pounder, Jesse Liptzin, followed with a pin. His fall gave the Rebels a 30-12 lead that sealed the outcome since there were just two bouts remaining.
Howell was also sparked by Shane Reitsma, who won by a technical fall at 170 pounds, and 145-pounder Kyle Slendorn, who was a winner by an 8-2 decision. Slendorn is a strong contender to win a state tournament championship next month after he had placed second in the state at 126 pounds a year ago.
Howell had advanced to the state final when the Rebels defeated West Orange High School, 53-13, in the semifinals that were wrestled earlier on Feb. 11.
Howell defeated Hunterdon Central Regional High School in the Central Jersey, Group 5 sectional final, 29-20, on Feb. 9 in Flemington. Howell had beaten Hunterdon Central in the 2017 Group 5 state final, 28-27.
The Group 5 state title comes just two weeks after Howell was upset in its bid to win the Shore Conference Tournament championship. Howell, the heavy favorite, placed second in the tournament to Saint John Vianney High School on Jan. 27 at Red Bank Regional High School in Little Silver.
In other NJISAA group finals, Paulsboro extended its state record for group championships to 31 when the longtime power from Gloucester County defeated Emerson-Park Ridge High School, 32-22, in the Group 1 final.
The other state heavyweight program, Phillipsburg, won its 22nd championship — second in New Jersey to Paulsboro — when the Stateliners defeated Long Branch High School, 35-21, in the Group 4 championship match.
Long Branch, which had beaten Highland Regional High School, 49-21, in the semifinals that day, was bidding to win its fifth state title.
Raritan High School was coasting along in pursuit of its second state title and first since 2012 in the Group 2 championship match with High Point Regional High School. However, High Point, a power from Sussex County, rallied to win the final six bouts and pulled off a 30-25 victory to win the Group 2 title. High Point started its decisive run when it was behind by a score of 25-6.
Raritan had built its early lead behind 160-pounder Anthony Aquilano and 182-pounder George Burdick, who each won by a pin.
The result crowned High Point as a state champion for the fifth time.
Raritan advanced to the final earlier in the day with its 34-32 victory over Hanover Park High School.
Bergen Catholic High School, rated No. 1 in state polls, rolled to its seventh straight and 11th overall title when the Crusaders took down Camden Catholic High School, 63-12, in the Non-Public A final.
South Plainfield High School also won its 11th state group championship when it defeated Delsea Regional High School, 48-23, in the Group 3 final.
Pope John XXIII Regional High School claimed its sixth state title — and its first since in 24 years — when the school from Sparta beat Holy Spirit High School, 48-21, in the Non-Public B title match.
Wrestlers now turn their attention to the 32 district tournaments that will be wrestled throughout the state on Feb. 16-17. The eight region tournaments will follow on Feb. 21, 23 and 24. The state tournament will then cap the season on March 2-4 in Atlantic City.