Photo gallery by Ray Richardson

TOMS RIVER -- If Southern was going to finally capture another state title and put an end to a string of heart-breaking defeats in the state finals, it was going to need a hero. The Rams needed someone to do the unexpected.

Senior Mike Racanelli was the man for the moment.

Racanelli's 2-1 victory over Peter Dee with two bouts remaining was the upset Southern needed to defeat Howell 27-24 and capture the NJSIAA Group V title in an epic meeting of Shore Conference powerhouses on Sunday night at Pine Belt Arena.

The battle within the match was between Southern's upperweights and Howell's lowerweights. The Rebels are as talented as any team in the state from 106 through 145 pounds, and Southern knew it was going to have to do damage with its standouts up top and limit bonus points down low to come away with the victory.

With the match starting at 160 pounds Southern jumped out to an 18-3 lead after six bouts, winning at 160, 170, 182, 195 and heavyweight and picking up bonus points with three major decisions. Howell's group had done its job by staying off its back, however, and after a major decision at 106, a pin at 113 and a technical fall at 120 pounds, the Rebels had quickly tied the match at 18.

Things looked dire for Southern, but sophomore Matt Barnett was victorious in a must-win bout at 126 pounds to put the Rams up 21-18 with four bouts left. Howell had senior Anthony Gagliano weigh in at 132 pounds for the first time this season in order to match him up with Southern senior Gianni Bennet, and Gagliano won 5-2 to knot the match once again.

Howell was now in the driver's seat - or so it appeared. Seniors Peter Dee and Kris Lindemann were both favored in their respective bouts at 138 and 145 pounds. If they both won, Howell would have clinched the match. In that scenario, even if Mooney won by fall at 152 pounds to force a tie Howell would have won on tie-breaking criteria via having more technical falls.

Instead, Racanelli delivered a win for the ages in one of the most difficult ways possible. Down 1-0 entering the third period, Racanelli took a 2-1 lead with a reversal. That was the easy part compared to what came next. With 1:08 left in the third period, Racanelli had to ride out Dee the rest of the way to secure the win.

The final seconds tick off the clock as Southern senior Mike Racanelli upsets Howell's Peter Dee 2-1 at 138 pounds to help the Rams win the 2016 NJSIAA Group V title. (Photo by Ray Richardson).

"Me and my brother Nick (a state qualifier and 2014 graduate) always talked about how it can be the scariest thing, to have to ride a guy out in a situation like that," Racanelli said. "It's hard to do, but if you can do it you can beat those next-level guys."

It was a frantic final 68 seconds as all of Southern's bench and crowd were on their feet in anticipation. Dee got to his feet and almost broke free with 45 seconds left, but Racanelli lifted Dee's leg high above his shoulder before bringing him back down to the mat. After a restart, Racanelli worked a leg in and forced a stalemate with 17 seconds left. In a last-ditch effort Dee briefly got to his feet before attempting a granby roll, but Racnaelli stayed with him. He tried another granby as Racanelli remained velcro-ed to him. The final seconds ticked off with Racanelli still in control and the Rams had the victory they so desperately needed.

"I would have stopped breathing before I let him get up," Racanelli said. "If I wanted the team to win, I knew had to win."

Racanelli turned to his teammates a let out a roar. He hugged head coach John Stout before assistant coach Dan Hall lifted him off the ground with a bear hug. After years of heartache and crushing defeats inside Pine Belt Arena, it was finally Southern's time to celebrate. After watching teams pull off crazy wins at their expense, the Rams now had their moment of magic.

"It was weird because I thought I'd be nervous seeing if he would ride him out," said senior Joe Toci. "But something in me knew Mike wasn't going to let him up. He's worked too hard."

As the team celebrated and posed for pictures with friends and family, the championship trophy was passed around. It eventually came to Racanelli, who stood by himself staring into the hardware he had such a big hand in bringing back to Ram country.

He was savoring the moment, still a bit in awe of what had just happened.

"I really can't describe it," Racanelli said. "It's everything everybody ever wanted."

There are plenty of memorable moments in Southern's wrestling history: Frank Molinaro winning three state titles, the program's first state title in 2005, Bryan Stout becoming the Rams' first individual state champion in 1992 and countless dual-meet victories where a wrestler pulled off a clutch win.

Now they'll remember the time Mike Racanelli got on top and stayed there to deliver a championship. They'll remember Rac's Ride for years to come.

 

Wrestling editor Bob Badders can be reached at badders@allshoremedia.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.