A three-month wait to start the 2021 season may have been tough, but Howell High School wrestling coach John Gagliano knew administrators at the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association made the right decision to wait until March to allow wrestlers to hit the mats in the face of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The high school wrestling season traditionally starts just after Thanksgiving.
Waiting until March gave New Jersey’s wrestlers the best chance to compete safely during an abbreviated campaign and to have a chance to reach the state tournament.
Gagliano wanted his wrestlers, especially his seniors, to have a final chance to win a medal at the state tournament.
Senior Nieko Malone (126) was one of two state tournament qualifiers who returned to the Rebels’ lineup from a year ago, with sophomore Colin Bradshaw (113).
Seniors Kyle Nase (132), Paul Jakub (152), Nick Cerulli (182) and Hunter Lino (195) are also working hard to reach the state tournament, which will take place at the end of April in Phillipsburg.
“We have a really nice senior group. It’s great for the kids that they have been able to have some dual meets and will have a chance to compete in an individual tournament,” Gagliano said.
This season, Malone and Jakub each won their 100th career bout. Malone achieved the milestone in Howell’s season opening dual meet on March 16 against Long Branch and Jakub achieved the milestone on March 30 against Middletown South.
“I’m very happy for them. They are both such great kids and they have worked really hard over the last four years,” Gagliano said.
Jakub is 6-0 this season. After qualifying for the state tournament during his freshman and sophomore seasons, Jakub missed out on a third trip to the state tournament due to injury in 2020.
Lino and Nase each finished fourth in the 2020 Region 7 tournament and just missed advancing to the state tournament. Both wrestlers, who are the 2021 team captains, are determined to advance to the 2021 state tournament, Gagliano said.
Cerulli, who was 22-10 in 2020, also has his sights set on advancing from the regional tournament to the state tournament.
The district tournaments, which traditionally open the post-season individual competition, are not being held this year. Committees will select wrestlers to participate in region tournaments and competition will determine which grapplers advance to the state tournament.
Gagliano said Lino, Nase and Cerulli have been big parts of the Howell program for four years and the veteran coach said he is pleased they will have one final chance to reach the state tournament.
Newcomer Hunter Mays (160) has fashioned an 8-0 record and is in line to be selected to compete in the region tournament.
“We have a good number of kids who can qualify for the region tournament and (possibly reach) the state tournament. We are thankful to have a season and for our wrestlers to have a shot at individual success,” Gagliano said.
On March 23, Howell had its streak of 34 straight Shore Conference A North Division dual meet wins ended by Christian Brothers Academy, 33-23. After losing to the Colts, the Rebels won their next four dual meets.
After defeating Middletown North, 53-21, on April 3, the Rebels owned an 8-1 dual meet record despite never having their full lineup in place due to COVID-19 contact tracing and other reasons, Gagliano said.
“The kids are doing a great job and making the best of the situation,” the coach said.
The Rebels will not compete in the Shore Conference postseason pod competition. Gagliano said a decision was made to bypass that event and to “focus on the individual part of the season.”
The NJSIAA region tournaments will be held on April 17-18 and the Rebels are waiting to hear which members of the team will be selected to participate in that event.
Gagliano said several dual meets could be added to the schedule prior to the region tournament.
The coach said he is proud of the way his wrestlers have handled the unique circumstances during the 2021 season and hopes some of them can win a medal at the state tournament.
“We want to make sure we are healthy for the end of the season. Hopefully we will have some guys make a great run in the postseason tournaments,” Gagliano said.