Howell wrestlers set to continue program’s winning legacy in 2021-22

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Howell High School senior wrestler Hunter Mays practices a takedown on teammate Nick Acque during practice on Dec. 16 in Howell. Mays won the state championship at 160 pounds last season.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Howell High School 175-pounder DJ Henry drives teammate Rob Owen to the mat during practice on Dec. 16 in Howell. STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Howell High School senior wrestler Rob Wiessel takes down teammate Stephen McGuire during practice on Dec. 16 in Howell. STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Howell High School wrestling coach John Gagliano yells out instructions to his wrestlers during practice on Dec. 16 in Howell. Gagliano is in his 25th season as head coach of Howell. STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Howell High School senior wrestler Hunter Mays practices a takedown on teammate Nick Acque during practice on Dec. 16 in Howell. Mays won the state championship at 160 pounds last season.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Howell High School 175-pounder DJ Henry drives teammate Rob Owen to the mat during practice on Dec. 16 in Howell. STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Howell High School senior wrestler Rob Wiessel takes down teammate Stephen McGuire during practice on Dec. 16 in Howell. STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Howell High School wrestling coach John Gagliano yells out instructions to his wrestlers during practice on Dec. 16 in Howell. Gagliano is in his 25th season as head coach of Howell. STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF

HOWELL – Team wrestling championships are back in play during the 2021-22 season and the Howell High School grapplers are chomping at the bit to add to their school’s wrestling legacy.

Coach John Gagliano and his Rebels have their sights set on winning the Central Jersey Group V state sectional team tournament championship.

“I think if we continue to improve as the season goes on and stay healthy, we have the potential to make a nice run,” said Gagliano, who is beginning his 25th season as the coach at his alma mater. “That’s our goal.”

Gagliano said he is pleased to be back on the mat with his wrestlers following a 2020-21 season that was impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s so good to be back with all of the kids in one room,” he said. “We are definitely happy about that. We are excited to get back on the mat and compete.”

The Rebels will be led by returning state champion Hunter Mays at 165 pounds.

Mays transferred to Howell last season from Conwell-Egan Catholic High School in Fairless Hills, Pa., and went 16-0 en route to winning the state title at 160 pounds. He joined Eric Keosseian, Joey Langel and Carlos Fontanez as a state champion from Howell.

Mays will be trying to become a two-time state champion and he also wants to add a team state title to his ledger.

“I’m super pumped for this season,” Mays said. “I’m looking forward to having a full season and getting to have fans back for home matches. We have been working super hard and I think we are ready to make a run at a championship.”

Senior captain Nick Acque returns in the middle of the lineup at 157 pounds. Acque was 6-5 last season at 145 pounds and qualified for the regional tournament.

“I feel a lot better than I did last year,” Acque said about the upcoming season. “I feel good. I’m ready to go and I think we are all ready to go.”

Acque said he can tell by the way things have gone during the preseason that having everything back on the table with team championships and individual postseason championships has his teammates excited for the 2021-22 season.

“We have a good group of guys and a good core philosophy,” he said. “We are all sticking together and being there for each other. I think it’s going to be a fun team season and postseason.”

Sophomore Sebastian Ortega will lead the way in the lower weight classes at 120 pounds after a stellar freshman season. Ortega placed fifth in the state tournament at 113 pounds and posted a record of 15-3.

Junior D.J. Henry returns after going 9-3 a year ago and qualifying for the state tournament. Henry will compete at 175 pounds for the Rebels.

Senior Ian Soutar (190), sophomore Dane Colfer (215) and junior Thomas Richards (heavyweight) all return with varsity experience to anchor the upper weight classes.

Sophomore Liam Clark (106), freshman Xavier Ortega (113), sophomore J.J. Machnik (126), junior Kieran Bruen (132) and senior Rob Wiessel (144) are expected to contribute during the campaign.

Freehold Township transfer Giovanni Scafidi is a newcomer to the lineup at 138 pounds and Gagliano expects him to have success. Scafidi was 8-3 for the Patriots in 2020-21 and placed second at the regional tournament to qualify for the state tournament as a freshman.

Seniors Mike Edmundson (120) and Luke Dalton (150) are expected to have their opportunities for the Rebels as well.

Howell started the season with success on Dec. 18 by placing first as a team at the John and Betty Vogeding Tournament in Paulsboro.

The Rebels will begin their dual meet schedule on Dec. 20 by hosting Shore Conference A North Division foe Marlboro. Another division clash will follow on Dec. 22 against Manalapan.

Howell had its 15-year streak of winning the A North title, or a share of the title, snapped last winter by Christian Brothers Academy of Lincroft. The A North race promises to be another challenge this season.

Gagliano believes this is the strongest collection of teams the division has had in a long time with CBA, Middletown South, Marlboro and Manalapan, in addition to Howell, all expected to place a competitive lineup on the mat this winter.

“A lot of the teams in A North have improved a lot this year,” the veteran coach said. “It’s going to be competitive. We have to keep working hard and be ready to compete.”