There is always drama when it comes to the week of the NJSIAA Team Wrestling Tournament.
Last week was no exception, even though the Shore Conference wound up with no state group champion for the first time since 2004.
Was this Howell’s time was one of the big questions throughout the season.
Howell has always been considered one of the best programs in the Shore, but not many people ever considered the Rebels to be on the same level as Brick Memorial, Jackson Memorial or Southern because it had trouble beating those programs in big spots.
Howell showed this month the Shore Conference wrestling community is going to have to view it in a different light because it beat Brick Memorial in first the Shore Conference Tournament final and then duplicated the feat in the Central Group IV final before a loud capacity crowd in its gym. It was Howell’s first sectional championship.
The Howell-Brick Memorial Central IV final, in which there were three overtime bouts and three bouts decided by one point, was the best match seen all season and probably the best match seen in many seasons.
Despite the Rebels’ loss to Southern in the Group IV semifinal, Howell’s two wins over Brick Memorial showed it now has what it takes to get to the level Brick Memorial, Jackson Memorial and Southern have long been at.
Wall’s run to the Central Group II championship (its first sectional championship) was something not many people outside the Wall program predicted.
In a balanced section, where five of the six teams were solid, if not great teams, the Crimson Knights had some good fortune. But at the same time, they were good enough to take advantage of the opportunity.
Odds are Long Branch probably would have edged Wall in the Central II final had its 145-pounder, Nick Menkin, not been disqualified for a slam in a bout against Jack Wishart that he was on his way to at least a win by major decision.
However, Wall put itself in position to take advantage of the opportunity because of an unexpected pin at heavyweight and Josh Glantzman’s overtime win over then-unbeaten Austin Cannon at 138.
The sectional title shows Wall, which has a predominantly young team, has what it takes to make the move from a good program to a very good one.
It was also neat to see all the pieces in the lineup come together last week for Brick as it won the Central III championship for the second straight season and the third time in six years.
The Green Dragons had major holes through the early part of the season because they did not have their entire lineup.
The return of Connor Mulligan (120/126) and Ray Fattaruso (195/220) to the lineup during the last three weeks of the season turned what was a good team into one that advanced to the Group III final before a slightly-better Clearview ended Brick’s hopes to win its first group championship.
There was also plenty of drama outside the Shore Conference this past week, especially on Sunday at Pine Belt Arena on the campus of Toms River High School North, when the group semifinal and championship matches took place.
The roar from the always-rabid and extremely knowledgeable Phillipsburg fans when freshman Robert Melise executed a Peterson and then headlocked Southern’s Jesse Bauta for a shocking pin in the heavyweight bout was a noise that will not be forgotten. As one long-time and highly-respected wrestling writer said to me on Sunday night, “There is nothing like that roar” referring to the noise Phillipsburg fans make when they see something that excites them.
After the Melise pin, observers thought there was nothing that could shock them. Then, the end to the Group II championship match between High Point and Hanover Park came.
Hanover Park, which had trounced Wall in the semifinal, appeared to be cruising to its first group championship. It was leading 33-10 with four bouts left and had won eight of the 10 bouts to that point.
Then, the improbable happened. High Point received an unexpected pin at 170. A pin at 182 followed. When it got to 33-22, one could feel something memorable was going to happen. The High Point fans seated in the stands behind press row could sense it, and started roaring like the Phillipsburg fans had two hours earlier.
Two more pins followed and High Point had a 34-33 win. Four straight pins to win a match, especially at the highest level of team wrestling, is something I’ve never seen before. It is something I’ll certainly never forget. It was quite a way to end the dual-meet season
And as colleague John Earle Livingston said, “It is hard to not like High Point. Johnny Gardner (High Point’s head coach) is one of the really good guys.”