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TOMS RIVER — After an unpredictable quarterfinal round, seven wrestlers seeded sixth or lower had found their way into the NJSIAA Region VI semifinals. When the finals were set Saturday afternoon, however, just one wrestler seeded outside of the top four remained: Brick Memorial freshman Gianni Ghione.

As the No. 6 seed at 106 pounds, Ghione had made a great run to the final with a pin of third-seeded Jeff DeLuise of Barnegat before avenging a loss to Brick’s Dan Rackliffe in the semifinals. His opponent in the championship bout was seeded fourth, but may as well have been the top seed. Christian Brothers Academy sophomore Sebastian Rivera entered the final with an undefeated record and a growing aura that looked untouchable.

Instead it was Ghione who wrestled as if he were the favorite, scoring the only two takedowns of the bout, including the winning takedown in sudden victory, to defeat Rivera, 5-3, and capture the 2014 NJSIAA Region VI 106-pound championship. Ghione was subsequently selected as the tournament’s Outstanding Wrestler as voted upon by the coaches.

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“When I came into this tournament I knew I had already lost to four kids in the bracket and it would be really tough for me to win,” Ghione said. “I knew coming in I was the underdog, but there’s a lot less pressure when you’re not expected to win. I don’t think it’s set in yet that I actually did it.”

After a scoreless first period, Ghione escaped early in the second and scored seconds later to open a 3-0 lead. Rivera escaped to make it 3-1 heading to the third period. A second stalling call on Ghione brought Rivera to within 3-2, and Ghione was later forced to cut him loose and leave the bout tied 3-3, eventually forcing overtime.

In sudden victory, Ghione threw Rivera down to his back near the edge of the circle for the winning takedown, capturing his first region title and giving Rivera his first loss this season.

“One of my first matches I got thrown to my back, and I was thinking ‘Isn’t this what that kid did to me exactly?’” Ghione said. “We were on the line, and I figured it was worth a shot. It worked out for me. We were close to going out of bounds, I was really tired and I wasn’t sure if I could get a takedown after that.”

Ghione’s region title was the 52nd in Brick Memorial history. The Mustangs would win three region titles in total on Saturday for the first time since 1994 (Dan Santaniello, Todd Palmisano, Jim Hogan) to bring their Shore Conference-best total to 53. Ghione was also part of an early string of championship bouts that electrified Pine Belt Arena.

One bout before Ghione’s victory, Howell senior heavyweight Kyle Cocozza defeated Raritan senior Pat Toal, 4-3 with a takedown at the buzzer. Toal led 3-0 in the second period with an escape and a takedown, but two escapes by Cocozza cut Toal’s lead to one point late in the third period. Cocozza lunged in for a single-leg takedown and was able to get a hold of Toal’s leg, but the Raritan senior sprawled and clamped down on Cocozza’s head as the clock ticked down. In a desperate attempt to score, Cocozza kept his head down and churned his feet, and it was enough to knock Toal flat on his back just before the buzzer sounded for a 4-3 win.

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“I looked at the clock with 13.3 seconds left and thought to myself that it was over,” Cocozza said. “But then I rethought it’s more than enough time to get a takedown.

“I was in on a shot and noticed he just sat there. I didn’t know how much time was on the clock, just that I had to keep going. I ran my feet and plowed him over. I heard the two and the buzzer, and was like ‘Holy crap, I just did it.'”

Brothers Matt and Zach Wilhelm, a junior and senior, respectively, each captured region titles for Southern on Saturday, becoming the first brothers to win Region VI titles since Andy and Nick Roy won for Wall in 2000. Matt defeated two-time champion Joe Ghione of Brick Memorial, 3-1 in sudden victory at 138 pounds, while Zach stopped previously undefeated Brick Memorial junior Alec Donovan, 3-2 at 145 pounds.

Zach Wilhelm qualified for the state tournament as a freshman and went on to finish eighth at 112 pounds. He hasn’t been back since. And while he locked up a trip to Atlantic City with a semifinal victory over Brick’s Will Scott, he wasn’t about to settle for second place, not against a wrestler who had defeated him in their past two meetings. Tied 1-1 in the third period, Wilhelm secured the only takedown of the bout to win 3-2 and capture his first region title.

“It was extremely frustrating these last two years,” Zach Wilhelm said. “I lost in wrestleback quarters my sophomore year, was winning in the third-place match and got pinned last year. The lessons I took from that are you have to keep pushing and learning from your mistakes. I came back this year and became a region champ.”

Matt Wilhelm won in similar fashion, taking Ghione down in sudden victory for the only offensive points in the bout and a 3-1 victory. Wilhelm didn’t wrestler last year after winning a district title and finishing 22-11 as a freshman. The plan was to cut to 120 pounds, but when he couldn’t get there and lost his wrestle-off at 126, he decided to train at his normal weight with an eye on this season.

In the second period Ghione appeared to throw Wilhelm to his back for a five-point move, but the officials deemed he never had control and was only awarded one point for an escape. Wilhelm knew he had dodged a bullet.

“I got back up and was expecting it to be 5-1, and when I saw it was 1-1 I thought if I was going to catch a lucky break it might as well be now,” Wilhelm said.

Both brothers were more interested in the other’s championship bout.

“Going into this tournament I wanted more than anything for Zach to get out,” Matt Wilhelm said. “It was real hard on him the last two years. I knew how hard he trained, so watching that was awesome.”

“It was incredible,” Zach Wilhelm said. “He didn’t wrestle last year, so for him to come back and beat a two-time state place-winner and two-time region champ like that, and for me to win next, is incredible. You couldn’t ask for anything else.”

Following the Wilhelm brothers, Southern senior Nick Racanelli defeated St. John Vianney senior Terrence Davis, 5-1, to win the 152-pound title. It is the first region title for Racanelli and was the third title for Southern in the tournament, matching Brick Memorial for the high mark.

The Mustangs also received titles from seniors Tyler Poling (220) and Nick Costa (182). Poling, the top seed, pinned Southern’s Jesse Bauta with one second left in a bout he was leading 7-3 for his first title. Middletown North sophomore Chad Freshnock stunned Raritan’s Kyle Lynch with a pin in the 182-pound semifinals, but Costa turned the tables on him with a cradle and pin in the second period. It is the first region title and second medal for Costa, who was seventh in the state last season at 182.

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Rumson-Fair Haven junior Marcus Iwama, a state qualifier last season, came from the No. 4 seed to win the 132-pound title with a 9-4 decision over Howell sophomore Kris Lindemann. Iwama is Rumson’s first region champion since current first-year head coach Bryan Heller (130) and Patrick Berger (119) won titles in 2003.

Jackson Liberty junior Mike Russo, Point Boro senior Ryan Budzek and CBA senior Mike Oxley each captured their second region titles. Russo dominated the field at 120 pounds with a 9-1 major decision over Ocean senior Max Rallo. Budzek defended his 126-pound title with a 7-3 win over Colts Neck’s Nick Ottaviano.

Oxley outlasted Jackson Memorial senior Ken Bradley, 3-2 in the ultimate tiebreaker, to win the 195-pound title for the second straight season. Oxley was able to escape in the final 30-second rideout period to defeat Bradley for the second time this year.

Wall sophomore Brett Donner won a battle of one-loss wrestlers when he bested Howell senior Joey Schultz, 5-1, to win the 160-pound title. He is Wall’s first region champ since Andrew Marr (215) in 2010.

Brick senior Dean Sherry remained undefeated (35-0) by defeating Toms River South junior Antrez Clagon, 3-2, at 170 pounds. Sherry’s third-period takedown that snapped a 1-1 tie was the difference.

Toms River South sophomore Owen McClave won his first title with a 2-1 victory over Freehold Township senior Nick DePierro at 113 pounds. McClave was the region’s second-place finisher at 106 pounds last season. It is his third victory over DePierro this season.

At 152 pounds, Davis represented St. John Vianney’s first state qualifier and region finalist since champion Anthony Castro (130) and runners-up Kyle Pardun (135) and Mike Brogan (140) in 2004.

At 182, Freshnock is Middletown North’s first state qualifier since Brandon Vorrius in 2010.

Howell head coach John Gagliano was selected as the Region VI Coach of the Year. The Rebels won the Shore Conference Tournament and Central Jersey Group IV titles for the first time in program history this season.


Video Highlights

120: Mike Russo (Jackson Liberty) md. Max Rallo (Ocean), 9-1.

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132: Marcus Iwama (Rumson-Fair Haven) d. Kris Lindemann (Howell), 8-4.

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138: Matt Wilhelm (Southern) d. Joe Ghione (Brick Memorial), 3-1 SV

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145: Zach Wilhelm (Southern) d. Alec Donovan (Brick Memorial), 3-2

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152: Nick Racanelli (Southern) d. Terrence Davis (St. John Vianney), 5-1

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170: Dean Sherry (Brick) d. Antrez Clagon (Toms River South), 3-2

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182: Nick Costa (Brick Memorial) p. Chad Freshnock (Middletown North), 3:28

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195: Mike Oxley (CBA) d. Ken Bradley (Jackson Memorial), 3-2 UTB.

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