ATLANTIC CITY – Returning state champions are usually given a certain amount of respect and given the benefit of the doubt more often than not, but for most of the season Ocean’s Jake Benner has been a bit of an afterthought.

Kingsway’s Quinn Kinner is ranked No. 1 in the nation at 138 pounds. Pope John’s Joseph Aragona is No. 4. Benner, meanwhile, stumbled during the regular season with two losses, albeit at 145 pounds, and for some reason the bloom was off his rose. He wasn’t picked by many to reach the state final again and even less picked him to win the title. Well, Jake Benner is back.

A tilt for three near-fall points in the second period was all Benner needed to take down Aragona, 4-1, and get back to the 138-pound state final on Saturday night during the semifinals of the NJSIAA Wrestling Championships at Boardwalk Hall.

“I think I showed a lot of heart during that match, and I wanted to prove a lot of people wrong,” Benner said. “I won it last year and the next year I’m picked to take like fourth. I think I’m just not a good wrestler at 145. I looked pretty bad there and made a couple mistakes, and I guess that reputation stayed with me even though I cut down to 138.”

“But none of that really meant anything to me. I just wanted to do my thing, and that’s go out there and win.”

Benner was dominant in the quarterfinals, pinning Camden Catholic’s Anthony Croce in just 36 seconds. Against Aragona, Benner was great defensively at neutral and then went to work on top, his best position.

“I wasn’t going to be stupid and open up a lot,” Benner said. “I took out the No. 4 kid in the country, so that’s pretty awesome.”

Now it will be state champion vs. state champion when Benner meets Kinner in the state final at 3 p.m. on Sunday. Kinner was last year’s 132-pound state champion, is committed to Ohio State and ranked No. 1 in the country.

“He’s tough, but I’m excited for that match,” Benner said. “I’ve been looking forward to it since the beginning of the season.

Benner will be one of five Shore Conference wrestlers who will take to the center mat and try to bring home a state championship. St. John Vianney freshman Dean Peterson at 106, Howell senior Kyle Slendorn at 132, Toms River South senior Cole Corrigan at 152 and Wall junior Rob Kanniard at 160 contributed to a very successful round where the Shore went 5-for-8 in the semifinals.

Peterson defeated Westfield’s C.J. Composto, 3-1, on the strength of a first-period takedown to become St. John Vianney’s first state finalist in program history.

The 106-pound bracket was loaded but Peterson navigated his way to the championship bout from the No. 7 seed by handing Emerson/Park Ridge’s Nick Babin his first loss in the quarterfinals, 2-1, before topping Composto. He will take on Hanover Park’s Joey Olivieri in the state final.

“I’ve been dreaming since I was four-years old for this moment,” Peterson said. “My opponent, Joey Olivieri, I faced him in my first kids’ state final and beat him twice in a row for a title. I’m going to make it three times.”

Peterson entered high school with a ton of youth accolades and the expectation he would compete for a state championship. He suffered his first loss of the season in the Region 5 final, losing to Hunterdon Central’s Brett Unger in overtime. His response this weekend showcases the poise and focus which is rare for a freshman.

“That’s the difference between a good wrestler and a great wrestler,” Peterson said. “Good wrestlers can’t really come back from something like that. Great wrestlers know how to get back up on their feet and keep going.

“I didn’t think for a moment I wasn’t getting to the state final. I know my potential. I didn’t wrestle my best when I took that loss but it doesn’t matter. It’s a new tournament every week. Sometime it works out and sometimes it doesn’t, and you have to be ready for the times it doesn’t and be able to push the through.”

Slendorn also bounced back from a loss in a region final by cruising into the 132-pound final with a 5-0 quarterfinal decision over Perth Amboy’s James Rodriguez and a 6-1 win over Cedar Grove’s Anthony Clarizio in the semifinals.

Last week Slendorn saw his undefeated season come to an end when Delran’s Bryan Miraglia defeated him, 2-1, in the Region 6 final. It took just 24 hours for Slendorn to shake off the loss.

“I was 38-0 and I lost that feeling of what it’s like to lose, and I got a rude awakening,” Slendorn said. “But that loss pumped me back up and made me work a little harder during the week. (Losing) sucks but at the same time it’s human, you get that emotion in you. It hurts but it drives you. You hate it but on the other end it drives you to push yourself even farther.”

Last season, Slendorn reached the 126-pound state final out of nowhere, and he was just happy to be there. Now he won’t be satisfied unless he brings home the title.

“It’s completely different. I made the semis last year after I beat (Shane) Metzler and I was on Cloud 9,” Slendorn said. “I didn’t’ even care. I just wanted to place and I ended up taking second. This year I’m in the finals and I’m looking to win it.”

Slendorn figured if he made the final he would once again see Hanover Park’s Nick Raimo, who defeated him in last season’s 126-pound state final. Raimo is ranked in the top 10 in the nation, committed to Arizona State and the odds-on favorite to win a second state title. Camden Catholic’s Lucas Revano had other ideas, however, stunning Raimo, 3-2, after a late takedown by Raimo was waved off. Interestingly enough, Revano is from Belmar and wrestles with Slendorn at Triumph Wrestling Club.

“He’s there over the summer and we spar a lot in there, so we know what each other likes to do,” Slendorn said. “It throws me off a little bit because I definitely though it would be Raimo, but it’s not going to affect me much. The main thing is to stay on my game no matter who I’m wrestling.”

One year after finishing fourth at 152 pounds as a sophomore, the high-scoring Kanniard is in the 160-pound state final after 9-5 semifinal win over Hasbrouck Heights’ Matthew Dallara. Kanniard also had a 14-5 major decision over Robbinsville’s Garrett Bilgrav in the quarterfinals. He is Wall’s first state finalist since Drew Doyle at heavyweight in 2007.

“I’ve been dreaming about this moment for so long, I couldn’t let it slip through my fingers,” Kanniard said.

Kanniard will take on two-time state champion and three-time state finalist Shane Griffith of Bergen Catholic in Sunday’s championship final. It will be Kanniard’s high-scoring offense vs. the stingy defense of Griffith in a great contrast of styles.

“If I go out there and wrestle the best I can, the only one who can beat me is me,” Kanniard said. “It doesn’t matter who is at the weight. It’s where I feel good and it’s the weight I’m going, and hopefully tomorrow the weight I’ll win.”

One year after the bitter disappointment of losing in the quarterfinals and against in the blood round to leave Atlantic City without a medal, Corrigan is in the midst of writing the perfect redemptive ending. A takedown in the first period was all the offense he needed to defeat Ewing’s Lavinsky Collins, 3-0, to reach the 152-pound state final. He also had a 3-2 victory over Paulsboro’s George Worthy in the quarterfinals.

“I’ve been focused all year long to get this goal and it’s all coming together now,” Corrigan said. “I’ve visualized this moment from a very young age.”

As the No. 4 seed, Corrigan figured if he reached the semifinals it would be against the top seed, Bergen Catholic’s Gerard Angelo. Collins, however, stunned Angelo with a 3-1 overtime decision in the quarterfinals. Corrigan knew his chances were better against Collins, but seeing Angelo go down also helped him stay focused.

“It reinforced my thought that anyone could be beat, and that’s the mentality I try to have,” Corrigan said. “I can be beat too, so I just try to stay composed.”

Corrigan will meet Phillipsburg’s Brian Meyer in the state final.

Lacey’s Luke Gauthier lost to Delsea’s Nick Bennett, 8-6 in sudden victory overtime, in the 145-pound semifinals. Gauthier rallied to tie the bout at six with a takedown late in regulation, but Bennett scored the winning takedown, albeit in controversial fashion, as time expired in overtime. Lacey Tom Pfister pleaded with the officials that time had expired before Bennett secured the takedown, but the call was upheld.

St. John Vianney’s Nick Caracappa lost by 10-2 major decision to Bergen Catholic’s Chris Foca in the 170-pound semifinals, while Rumson-Fair Haven’s Nick Addison lost by 15-0 technical fall to the No. 1 seed, Hasbrouck Heights’ Michael O’Malley, in the other 170-pound semifinal.

A total of 21 Shore Conference wrestlers will bring home state medals with 16 wrestlers still alive in the wrestlebacks in addition to the five finalists.

Brick Memorial’s Vin Santaniello will wrestle for seventh at 106 pounds.

Howell’s Jerry Lleshi will wrestle for seventh at 113 pounds.

CBA’s Richie Koehler and Colts Neck’s Joey Kings are in the consolation semifinals and can still finish as high as third and no lower than sixth.

Ocean’s Alex Poniros will wrestle for seventh at 132.

Holmdel’s Scott Dupont became the Hornets’ first state medalist since 1983 and is in the consolation semifinals with a shot to finish third at 152 pounds.

Howell’s Shane Reitsma won by 8-0 major decision over Freehold Township’s Kyle Hillermeier to reach the 170-pound consolation semifinals. Reitsma will wrestle Caracappa next while Hillermeier will wrestle for seventh place.

Middletown North’s Nicko Cofone advanced to the consolation semifinals at 182 pounds.

Long Branch’s Peter Wersinger will wrestle for seventh at 195 pounds.

St. John Vianney’s Steven Giannios defeated CBA’s Cameron DiGiorgio, 7-3, to reach the 220-pound consolation semifinals. DiGiorgio will wrestle for seventh.

Long Branch’s Kevin Cerruti will wrestle for seventh at heavyweight.


Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.


Submit Your Nomination For The Shore's Greatest Sports Personality