During December's Mustang Classic when Jake Benner was mowing through the 138-pound bracket like a buzzsaw, Ocean head coach Cippy Apicelli tried to convey how special of a year this could be for his standout junior.

"Tell me why he can't win it all (a state title)?", Apicelli asked. "He's at another level this season."

Apicelli knew from the start Benner had the goods to win a state championship, but even he couldn't have predicted the epic fashion in which Benner would prove him right.

Benner, the 2017 Shore Sports Network Wrestler of the Year, delivered in the clutch to capture the NJSIAA 138-pound state championship with a 7-6 win over Bergen Catholic's Gerard Angelo. Down 6-2 in the third period, Benner pancaked Angelo to his back for a five-point move and held him down for for the final 1:23 to become the second state champion in Ocean program history. He joins two-time state champion Nick Menditto as the only Spartans to stand atop the medal stand at the state tournament.

Ocean's Jake Benner has his hand raised after winning the 138-pound NJSIAA state title. (Photo by Ray Richardson).
Ocean's Jake Benner has his hand raised after winning the 138-pound NJSIAA state title. (Photo by Ray Richardson).

“I’ve been coaching multiple sports since 2008 and that’s the best moment of my coaching life ever,” Apicelli said in the aftermath of Benner's victory. “It’s absolutely unbelievable. I’m speechless.”

Benner and Howell's Eric Keosseian both won state championships this season, but what set Benner apart was his dominance. He went 42-1 to set the program record for wins in a season, and among those 42 victories were a Shore Conference-best 29 wins by fall. He also recorded three major decisions and received two forfeits to gain bonus points in 81 percent of his wins. He won by fall in the District 24 final to win his third district title and won by fall in the Region 6 final for his first region crown. He even won by fall in the state semifinals, decking Cranford's Tom DiGiovanni in 1:54. He and Bound Brook's Mekhi Lewis were selected as co-Most Outstanding Wrestlers at the state tournament.

“He’s good in all positions and when you feel comfortable he feels even better,” Apicelli said.

Benner's profile rose significantly at the Mustang Classic, which is generally regarded as one of the best in-state tournaments during the regular season. He won by fall in his first two bouts, majored Wall's Nick Wagner in the semifinals and cruised past Kingsway's Trace Kinner, a state medalist, 11-4, in the final.

Apicelli also wrestled Benner at three different weights consistently during the season, often bumping him up to 145 and 152. It was up a weight where he suffered his only loss of the season, a 4-0 defeat to Middletown North's Stanley Wojdylak, but it did not dissuade him or slow him down one bit. He won his next 30 bouts of the season to take home the ultimate prize.

Benner is the first underclassmen from the Shore Conference to win a state title since Toms River South’s B.J. Clagon won the first of his two championships in 2012, so he'll enter next season as a favorite to repeat.

Benner's win also helped seal the deal for a Division I scholarship offer from Rutgers. Benner accepted and offered a verbal commitment in the week following the state tournament.

Benner will enter his senior season with a 107-10 record, putting him within striking distance of Kyle Kiss's program record of 139 career victories.


Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at bob.badders@townsquaremedia.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. 


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