John Gagliano is normally a man of few words and not much emotion.
The Howell High School head wrestling coach is as a matter-of-fact man as they come.
However, early Saturday night, Gagliano was answering questions before they were even asked. He knew what Howell’s 28-27 win over Brick Memorial in the Shore Conference Tournament championship match at Red Bank Regional High School meant for himself, his wrestlers and those who have been associated with the program for a long time.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Gagliano, who is in his 17th season as the coach at his alma mater.
It was Howell’s first SCT championship, and it came against the program that has won the SCT a record 14 times, including twice after it defeated Howell in the championship match.
“It’s always been one of our goals,” Gagliano said. “We’ve been here to the Final Four. We’ve known what it is like. That was just like getting a monkey off our back.”
Howell has always been the team in the Shore Conference that everybody would say, “Very good program . . .”
“But couldn’t get the job done,” said Gagliano, in finishing the sentence above. “We knew that. It was us just working and setting goals right at the beginning of the year about what do we expect? We changed our schedule up a little bit and kind of really prepared for the end of the year.”
Howell (25-3) deserved the win. It won nine bouts, including all the tossup bouts. It even won a bout it did not necessarily have to contest in the next-to-last bout.
With the Rebels ahead 24-21 after they won five straight bouts from heavyweight to 126 and with his team having already won eight bouts, Gagliano and his coaching staff could have chosen to bump 132-pounder Kris Lindemann up to 138 and away from Joe Ghione, a three-time state qualifier and two-time state sixth-place finisher.
The thinking there would have been Ghione, who was wrestling his first bout since he sustained an elbow injury on Dec. 21 in The College of New Jersey’s Pride Tournament, would win against whomever Howell sent out, but then Lindemann would have been a solid favorite to beat Anthony Mitchel at 138.
However, Gagliano and his assistant coaches decided to go for the jugular even though the decision created potential tossup bouts at both 132 and 138.
“I didn’t want to (bump Lindemann up),” Gagliano said. “We were ready. I had full faith in him. He’s wrestled outstanding.”
“I was going out ’32 either way and whomever they threw out, I was going to wrestle,” Lindemann said. “I knew if I could keep it close into the second and the third (period), I would take it. I knew he wouldn’t have the energy to go all the way through, like I would have. I’ve been wrestling all season and had the energy.”
With both sets of fans making plenty of noise, Ghione came out like a house of fire and built a 4-1 lead in the first period on two takedowns. Ghione is probably at his best on his feet. Lindemann is probably at his best on the mat.
However, late in the second period, Lindemann took Ghione and then cradled him to his back twice to grab a 10-4 lead. Ghione even had to take injury time for his arm.
“I knew he wouldn’t be able to power through because his arm wasn’t at full strength,” Lindemann said. “I knew I’d be able to lock it up and run it from there. I thought I had the pin.”
Ghione had two more takedowns in the third period to close within 11-8. But, in the final seconds, Lindemann reversed Ghione and then cradled him to his back again to wind up with a 16-8 major decision win that clinched the match for Howell and set off the celebrations amongst the Rebels’ coaching staff, wrestlers and fans. Howell then forfeited the final bout.
“We can compete with the top-notch teams and kids in the state,” said Lindemann, when asked if the win showed he and his teammates can win big matches.
The Rebels won the pre-match toss and were able to get the matchups they wanted. Their coaching staff also made a key weigh-in decision when they decided to weigh Joey Schultz, the Region VI runner-up at 160 last year, in at 160. Schultz had been wrestling 170 most of the season.
That decision enabled Howell to get Schultz on Cliff Ruggiero, a two-time district finalist. Schultz defeated Ruggiero, 3-1, on a takedown with six seconds left.
Howell also won tossup bouts at 170, heavyweight and 106.
Nick Lurski bumped up and beat Connor Owen 1-0 at 170 on an escape with 34 seconds left.
Kyle Cocozza overcame an almost 64-pound weight disadvantage to beat Nick Rivera, 6-4, at heavyweight on a takedown with 10 seconds.
Pete Dee beat Giovanni Ghione, 1-0, at 106 on an escape with 40 seconds left.
This all sets the stage for even more potential drama in less than two weeks in the NJSIAA Central IV tournament. Howell, which also beat Jackson Memorial, 28-21, in the semifinals, will be the top seed. That means the Rebels will host the Brick Memorial-Jackson Memorial semifinal winner in the sectional final, as it seeks its first sectional championship.
“This is only one step. We’re not satisfied,” Gagliano said.