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STAFFORD — As Jesse Bauta was getting the blood wiped from his face during a medical timeout, Southern assistant coach Jerry Tabbachino gave him a message that sparked Saturday night’s signature moment.

“I had blood time and as I was getting cleaned up coach Tabbachino told me, ‘You have your brothers on your back now. You gotta do what you gotta do here,’” Bauta said. “It just clicked in my head that I needed to do something big. So I went for it.”

Leading Howell’s Kyle Cocozza 2-1 at 220 pounds and riding in the top position, Bauta hit Cocozza with a Merkel and pressed him flat 14 seconds into the third period, sending the home crowd into a frenzy and propelling the Rams, No. 2 in the Shore Sports Network Top 10, to a thrilling 28-19 victory over No. 3 Howell in a Shore Conference nondivisional match.

Southern senior Jesse Bauta pinned Howell senior Kyle Cocozza at 220 pounds to fuel the Rams' 28-19 victory. (Photo by Cliff Lavelle).

“When I came up after the pin I realized we were going to win this tonight,” Bauta said.

Ironically, it was a match that wasn’t supposed to happen. When Cocozza stepped forward for Howell, Southern, leading 19-10 at the time, was set to forfeit and bump Bauta to heavyweight against Nate Litowsky. But Southern had to send its wrestler out first in the bout, and Bauta had actually stepped onto the mat ever so briefly before Cocozza was sent out. By rule, Bauta had to wrestle.

“We were trying to limit the damage they could do,” said Southern head coach John Stout on the original move he wanted to make. “I was trying to get what I thought would be a guaranteed win out of it.”

The confusion didn’t faze Bauta, however. He had faced Cocozza, who entered 12-1, in the wrestleback round of last season’s Region VI Tournament and won by fall in the first period.

“No matter who they were going to send out I knew I had to do what I needed to do for my team,” Bauta said. “I just wanted us to get this win tonight.”

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“We wrestled last year in regions and lost, but we’ve improved there and I thought it was a match we could win,” said Howell head coach John Gagliano. “We lost it, but that’s the match we wanted.”

Pat Ferraro’s 2-0 win over Stephen Boncimino at 195 pounds had stretched Southern’s lead to nine points with five bouts remaining, and a simple decision by Bauta would have given the Rams (5-0) a comfortable lead. The pin made it 25-10 and all but sealed the victory.

“The six was unexpected, and it was awesome,” said Rams senior Andrew Tonneson. “We just needed a win, and that’s all we were thinking about. I asked him if he saw him pinning this kid, and he said it’s a possibility. He went out there and he actually did it.”

Tonneson had an equally important victory nine bouts earlier when he scored a reversal at the buzzer to defeat Anthony Gagliano, 5-4, at 126 pounds in the match’s opening bout. Tonneson (11-3) was holding a 3-2 lead when Gagliano (11-1) head-locked him to his back with 20 seconds left in the bout. Gagliano got the two points to take a 4-3 lead, but Tonneson was able to quickly hip out and avoid giving up any back points. He then got in position for a reversal and finally popped his head free as time expired for the 5-4 victory.

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“It was scary,” Tonneson said. “I just remember thinking, ‘Did I really just get tricked into that sucker move?' I just had to keep fighting. I could have given up there but that wasn’t happening. I got through and got out, and I actually thought it was tied up at that point. When I ended up winning I was pretty stoked.”

“Those match-openers like that when the gym is packed and everyone is into it, those things really help, especially when you're talking about the high school athlete that rides a lot on emotion,” Stout said. “That was a great boost for us.”

Southern ended up winning the first five bouts to put Howell (11-2) in a 16-0 hole. The Rams won eight of 14 bouts in total with bonus points from Matt Wilhelm at 138 and Bauta at 220. After Tonneson’s win, Bryan Brown held off Kris Lindemann, 3-1, at 132 pounds to make it 6-0. Brown’s first-period takedown and rideout in the second period keyed the victory. Wilhelm followed with an 11-3 major decision over Josue Pierre-Louis thanks to a seven-point third period, and Zach Wilhelm topped Jack Rada, 7-1, at 145. Nick Racanelli’s 6-1 decision over David Nocks at 152 gave Southern a 16-point cushion heading into the upper weights.

Nick Lurski finally got Howell on the board with a 10-0 major decision over Sean Bowker, and Joey Schultz (13-0) followed with a 2-1 victory over Gerardo Jorge at 170 in a slugfest of a bout that was decided in the second tiebreaker. Schultz magically avoided a takedown at the end of sudden victory with a mad scramble to keep the bout tied 1-1, then fought through an apparent injury to escape in the first tiebreaker and ride out Jorge in the second 30-second period, cutting Southern’s lead to 16-7. Junior Austin Silverstein followed with a 4-2 win over Peyton Blauvelt at 182 pounds thanks to a set of three near-fall points in the second period. The Rebels had cut Southern’s lead to 16-10 with Boncimino, Cocozza and Litowsky, who were a combined 35-6 coming into the match, in the next three bouts.

Ferraro’s win over Boncimino on the strength of a first-period takedown made it 19-10, and Bauta’s clutch pin extended the lead to 25-10. Litowsky defeated Josh Bento 6-2 at heavyweight, but the Rams freshman avoiding giving up any bonus points to the Rebels senior was a win for Southern. Peter Dee’s 1-0 win over Frank Amiano at 106 pounds cut Southern’s lead to 25-16 with two bouts left, but Howell had to win with bonus points against both James Knoeller and the red-hot Chris Crane in the final two bouts. Jimmy Slendorn cooled off Crane with a 1-0 win at 120, but not before Knoeller clinched the match with a 9-2 decision over Mikey Sisolak at 113 pounds.

“I think we wrestled really well throughout the lineup in what was a very good, tight high school wrestling match,” Stout said. “We have a long way to go yet and there’s a lot of season left. You wrestle this match again and the close bouts could go the other way easily. We’ll be happy and celebrate this win, then move on to next week.”

The message from both Stout and Gagliano to their respective teams will be the same, albeit in different tones. It’s still just the second week of January. The Shore Conference heavyweights have proven over recent years that a regular-season result does little to guarantee a similar outcome in the postseason.

“We knew it was going to be a barnburner,” Gagliano said. “We had to gut out those real tight ones. We lost a couple close bouts we needed to go our way.”

“We’d love to wrestle them again whether it be in Shore Conference or states. We want to wrestle them again.”

“Look, Penn State beat the hell out of Iowa a couple weeks ago and Iowa didn’t fold their program,” Stout said. “This match really doesn’t hurt either of us. They’re not in our division and we’re not wrestling in the Shore Conference (Tournament), so the next time we would see them is in the state semifinals or finals. It was a great match for both teams and no one lost out on anything besides maybe a state ranking, but only the last one of those matters.”

Southern knows all too well that a regular-season dual, whether it be a win or a loss, won’t define a season. The Rams have won against some of their biggest rivals only to lose the second time around in the postseason. They’ve also suffered defeats during the year only to come back and avenge those losses when it matters most. This is a team that has been through the battles and knows what to expect. They’re also pretty darn confident in their abilities, and their track record -  eight of nine South Jersey Group IV championships and six Group IV finals appearances since 2005 - speaks for itself.

“This is going to fuel us, but we can’t let it get to us and starting thinking we’re the best already, because we’re not,” Tonneson said. “Not yet, anyway. We’ll get there.”

Box Score


No. 2 Southern 28, No. 3 Howell 19
126: Andrew Tonneson (S) d. Anthony Gagliano 5-4
132: Bryan Brown (S) d. Kris Liindemann 3-1
138: Matt Wilhelm (S) md. Josue Pierre-Louis 11-2
145: Zach Wilhelm (S) d. Jack Rada 7-1
152: Nick Racanelli (S) d. David Nocks 6-1
160: Nick Lurski (H) md. Seon Bowker 10-0
170: Joey Schultz (H) d. Gerardo Jorge 2-1 (TB-2)
182: Austin Silverstein (H) d. Peyton Blauvelt 4-2
195: Pat Ferraro (S) d. Stephen Boncimino 2-0
220: Jesse Bauta (S) p. Kyle Cocozza 4:14
Hwt: Nate Litowsky (H) d. Josh Bento 6-2
106: Peter Dee (H) d. Frank Amiano 2-0
113: James Knoeller (S) d. Mikey Sisolak 9-2.
120: Jimmy Slendorn (H) d. Chris Crane 1-0

 Records: at Southern (5-0); Howell (11-2)