Justin Martin-Culet’s Clutch Win Helps Jackson Memorial Claim the Central Jersey Group IV Title
JACKSON -- Long Branch's Lamont Reid had just sent one half of Joe Perry Gymnasium on fire with a critical pin at 160 pounds, giving the Green Wave a two-point lead with just two bouts left in Friday's NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV final. Chants of "LB! LB!" rained down from the crowd. Jackson needed to find an answer.
The Jaguars still had senior ace Tanner Kelly left to wrestle, but someone else was going to have to come forward and deliver in the clutch. That man was seldom-used sophomore Justin Martin-Culet. Head coach Aaron Gottesman didn't hesitate to send him out in the biggest spot of the season, and once on the mat, Martin-Culet didn't hesitate either.
With the Jags trailing, Martin-Culet came through with an 8-3 decision over Vinny Vaccaro in the second-to-last bout to put Jackson back up by one and set the stage for Kelly to close out another championship. Kelly then defeated Peter Wersinger by 5-1 decision at 182 pounds to clinch a 28-24 victory and the Jaguars' second consecutive and eighth sectional championship overall.
"He's one of those kids that we knew being in a big spot wasn't going to effect him," Gottesman said. "He's one of the kids you know the pressure won't get to him."
And it didn't. Vaccaro scored the first points of the bout with a first-period takedown, but Martin-Culet escaped to make it 2-1 going to the second period. Staring the second one defense, he escaped to tie the bout 2-2, then took Vaccaro down to take the lead for good, 4-2. He was called for locking hands to trim his lead to 4-3, but even that didn't rattle him. He turned Vaccaro with a tilt for two near-fall points to go up 6-3 after two periods, and added another takedown in the third period all but deliver the Jaguars a state sectional championship.
"He's a football player, and he does this with us for the team and for the town," Gottesman said. "He's a kid you know will give everything he's got and go non stop. He made the decision easy for us."
"I had to go out there and wrestle hard for the team," Martin-Culet said. "Coming off the mat I felt like I did my job."
Jackson will now square off with defending Group IV champion Phillipsburg at 9 a.m. on Sunday at Pine Belt Arena in the NJSIAA Group IV semifinals. Phillipsburg defeated Middletown North 45-16 to win the North Jersey Section 2, Group IV championship on Friday night - it's 35th in program history - in what was likely the final match in its famed "The Pit" gymnasium. Phillipsburg defeated Jackson 38-12 in last season's Group IV final.
Trailing 22-15 with four bouts left, Long Branch drew closer when senior Mike Shohet edged Jackson senior Jay Epperly, 1-0, at 152 pounds. That led to Reid facing Kyle Johnson at 160 in a bout Long Branch needed to win with bonus points. Reid had wrestled most of the season at 170 pounds, losing to Kelly 1-0 when the teams met in the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals. Reid made 160 for the first time on Feb. 3 against Matawan, making for an interesting change in matchups in this meeting with the Jaguars.
Leading 2-1 in the second period, Reid threw Johnson to the mat and pinned him at 3:39. Reid screamed for joy while the Long Branch bench and fans erupted in celebration. The Green Wave now led 24-22, ever so close to their sixth sectional title. But Martin-Culet foiled those plans, etching his name into Jaguars' lore as a wrestler who did his job in the biggest of moments.
"This is my first time varsity wrestling, so I've never been in that spot before," Martin-Culet said. "You have to not burn yourself out before you go out there. I had to relax the first half (of the match), and once it got to 152 I started to get warm. I tried to play it like every other match."
Gottesman liked the matchup with Martin-Culet (4-6) on Vaccaro (6-7), but was prepared to have Kelly go out and secure a fall if it came to that.
"Culet is very tough, so we figured worst case he gets decisioned and we need to win by fall with Tanner," Gottesman said. "We didn't think Culet was going to lose, but you have to figure all possibilities. We believed in him enough to do his job."
A takedown in the first period was all Kelly (13-2) needed to defeat Wersinger and clinch back-to-back sectional titles. He escaped in the second period to go up 3-0 and added two near-fall points in the third period.
Injuries have forced Kelly to miss time in each of the last two seasons, including missing the first two and a half weeks of this season. He relished the opportunity to be the one to close out a state title victory.
"All that blood, sweat and tears really counted for something," Kelly said.
The first meeting between Jackson and Long Branch featured six one-point bouts and another decided by two points, so this contest figured to follow a similar pattern. Senior Adante Davis got the Jaguars started with a 3-2 win over Hunter Marhan in ultimate tiebreaker (triple overtime) at 195 pounds.
Long Branch took the lead with wins in the next two bouts. Long Branch senior Joey Jasio used a first-period takedown to beat Chris Mondello 3-2 at 220 pounds and tie the match 3-3. With Jackson senior heavyweight Austin Ostrander out with an injury, Long Branch now had a big advantage with senior John Tomlinson, and "Big John" needed just 16 seconds to flatten Devin Martinez and give the Green Wave a 9-3 lead.
Long Branch was without freshman 106-pounder Ray Guzman, but fellow freshman Stiviny Silva filled in admirably in a 2-1 double-overtime loss to freshman Carsten DiGiantomasso. In the SCT loss to Jackson, Long Branch won by decision at heavyweight and lost by fall at 106, so the Green Wave were already in a better position.
Sophomore Chris Dean won by 9-2 decision over Jeremiah Nash at 113 pounds to give Long Branch a 12-6 lead, but not giving up bonus points to Dean, who was the District 23 runner-up at 106 pounds when he wrestled for Shore Regional last season, was a win for Jackson.
A takedown with 10 seconds left in the 120-pound bout gave senior Mike Spino an 8-0 major decision over Carlos Irizarry and cut Long Branch's lead to 12-10, and junior Matt McGowen built a 9-0 lead in the first period before decking Isaac Shohet with a defensive pin in 2:35 at 126 pounds. Jackson now led 16-12 halfway through the match.
T.J. Conlon scored a 4-2 victory over Ryan Bohringer at 132 pounds to pull Long Branch to within 16-15, but saving bonus points against Conlon (21-2) was another win of sorts for the Jaguars. Mike Christie then shut out Danny Rios, 6-0, at 138 pounds to put Jackson up 19-15. In another key matchup at 145 pounds, junior Tim Hamann (20-3) clipped senior Danny Mullan (19-4) with a 1-0 decision to give Jackson a 22-15 lead.
The graduation of a stellar senior class had Jackson in a bit of a rebuilding mode entering the season, but the Jags remained among the Shore's best as the postseason neared. Through the SCT quarterfinals their two losses were to Southern (South Jersey Group V champs and ranked No. 4 in NJ) and Delsea (South Jersey Group III champs, undefeated and ranked No. 2 in NJ). The theory that you have to enter the state tournament hot was put to the test by Jackson, however, when it lost its last three matches before the playoffs began. The Jaguars lost to eventual champion CBA in the SCT semifinals and were also blown out by South Plainfield, a top-10 team in NJ and the Central Jersey Group III champs. The loss that had many shaking their heads was a 30-29 defeat to unranked St. John Vianney.
That defeat served as fuel for their state tournament run, however.
"Definitely," Kelly said. "We were looking for blood after that."
"Sometimes a loss can wake you up," Gottesman said. "I think we were able to learn from that match and fix some things. I'll take a loss to Vianney to win a sectional title."
A great trade, no doubt.
When the season started Jackson had to find a way to bridge the gap after losing seven starters that accounted for 161 wins, five district medals, three region medals and one state medal. How many of those accolades will be won by this roster is yet to be determined, but what Jackson proved on Friday night was the strength of its program.
"We knew this would be somewhat of a rebuilding year based on our graduating class," Gottesman said. "Some of these kids have never saw varsity time in the past, so for us to come from where we were in the beginning of the year to where we are now is a testament to the coaching staff and to the work ethic of the kids. We've come far in three short months. They believed in what we taught, what we've been telling them, and it paid off with a sectional title. I could not be more ecstatic."
Central Jersey Group IV Final
1-Jackson Memorial 28, 2-Long Branch 24
195: Adante Davis (JM) d. Hunter Marhan 3-2 UTB
220: Joey Jasio (LB) d. Chris Mondello 3-2
HWT: John Tomlinson (LB) p. Devin Martinez 0:16
106: Carsten DiGiantomasso (JM) d. Stiviny Silva 2-1 2OT
113: Chris Dean (LB) d. Jeremiah Nash 9-2
120: Mike Spino (JM) md. Carlos Irizarry 8-0
126: Matt McGowen (JM) p. Isaac Shohet 2:35
132: T.J. Conlon (LB) d. Ryan Bohringer 4-2
138: Mike Christie (JM) d. Danny Rios 6-0
145: Tim Hamann (JM) d. Danny Mullan 1-0
152: Mike Shohet (LB) D. Jay Epperly 1-0
160: Lamont Reid (LB) p. Kyle Johnson 3:39
170: Justin Martin-Culet (JM) d. Vinny Vaccaro 8-3
182: Tanner Kelly (JM) d. Peter Wersinger 5-1
Wrestling editor Bob Badders can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.