Brick Memorial and Howell expected to be in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals when the season began.
The same could not be said for Jackson Memorial, which has perennially reached the semifinals since the late 1990s, and Long Branch, which won the SCT three straight seasons from 2008-2010.
Both programs suffered heavy graduation losses from last year and had question marks in their lineup.
However, both programs have answered those question marks positively — and in the case of Long Branch, have been bolstered by the addition of a significant transfer.
The semifinals and championship match of the 38th SCT — the only conference dual meet tournament in the state — will take place today at Red Bank Regional High School in Little Silver.
Brick Memorial, the No. 1 seed and the two-time defending champion, will be seeking to extend its record of SCT championships to 15. The Mustangs will wrestle surging No. 5 seed Long Branch in one semifinal.
Howell, the No. 3 seed, which has reached the semifinals for the fifth straight season, will wrestle No. 2 seed Jackson Memorial in the other semifinal. Both semifinals will take place at 3 p.m. The championship match will follow at 5:30 p.m.
Three of the four teams — Brick Memorial, Howell and Jackson Memorial — will likely be wrestling each other in less than two weeks in the NJSIAA Central Group IV Tournament. Long Branch, which is one of two Monmouth County schools (Manalapan is the other in 1981, 1982 and 2003) to have won the SCT, figures to be a major player in the Central Group II Tournament.
Brick Memorial, Jackson Memorial and Long Branch have combined for 23 SCT championships. Howell has perennially been knocking at the SCT door.
The following, with major input from Frank D’Esposito of the Web site theshoreconference.com, is a look at each of the two semifinal matches.
Brick Memorial vs. Long Branch
One of the major questions here is whether Brick Memorial senior Joe Ghione (132/138) will wrestle.
Ghione, a three-time state qualifier and a two-time state sixth-place finisher, has not wrestled since he suffered an elbow injury on Dec. 21 in The College of New Jersey’s Pride Tournament. He has weighed in at 138 each of the Mustangs’ last two match days.
If Ghione wrestles, does the Brick Memorial coaching staff take the calculated risk of having him wrestle Long Branch’s talented freshman Austin Cannon at 138? Cannon, who transferred from CBA earlier this month, has beaten two solid wrestlers this week in Ocean’s Grant Brown and Raritan’s Dylan Seidenberg.
The presence of Ghione in the lineup could make Brick Memorial a solid favorite in the match. If he does not wrestle, Long Branch, with its depth and ability to stretch the lineup, can make this a dogfight. The Green Wave would then be favored to win at 138 with Cannon and 132 would be a potential tossup.
Brick Memorial has more bonus point potential. Long Branch has shown an ability the last two seasons to grind out wins in eight or nine bout in matches. However at times, the lack of bonus points, has hurt the Green Wave.
The flip will be important in the 145-160 area. Brick Memorial probably wants to get unbeaten Alec Donovan, the Region VI third-place finisher last year at 138, on either Nick Menkin or Brandon Perez. Long Branch probably wants Menkin and Brandon Perez on Cliff and Rob Ruggiero.
Jackson Memorial vs. Howell
It is always a dogfight when these two neighbors and old rivals meet.
Howell probably has more depth, but Jackson Memorial showed in its wins against state-ranked South Plainfield and Hanover Park, it can grind out results.
A key here could be what happens from 170 on up.
Howell has a hammer at 170 in unbeaten senior Joey Schultz, the Region VI runner-up at 160 last year. Jackson Memorial junior Connor Bohringer (170/182), the District 21 champion last season, has been solid all season. He has been weighing in at 182 most of the season.
The Rebels might want to try to get Schultz on Bohringer at 182 and take their chances at 170 with Mike Christie, if Bohringer is not there.
Howell has solid wrestlers from 195-HWT, so no matter whether Jackson Memorial senior Ken Bradley, the Region VI third-place finisher and state quarterfinalist at 195 last year, wrestles at 195 or 220, he will be knocking off a solid wrestler. It is not out of the realm of possibility, Jackson Memorial bumps Bohringer up to 195 and Bradley to 220.
The 220-heavyweight matchups, if Bradley, does not bump up, could be huge. Jackson Memorial will need Brody Graham (220/HWT) to win. The best chance for that might be to get him on Nate Litowsky. Both Graham and Austin Ostrander weigh in at 220, as does Kyle Cocozza and Litowsky.