John Gagliano usually deflects any praise directed his way, and that didn't change following the greatest season in the history of Howell's wrestling program. There was plenty of congratulations to go around for Gagliano, the 2017 Shore Sports Network Coach of the Year, who guided the Rebels to heights previously unreached.

Howell filled the final spot in its trophy case by claiming the NJSIAA Group V title with an epic 28-27 win over Hunterdon Central, giving the Rebels their first state group title in program history. Then, in the individual portion of the season, the Rebels had their third state champion in program history crowned when senior Eric Keosseian won the NJSIAA 220-pound title. Junior Kyle Slendorn also reached a state final placing second at 126 pounds while sophomore Darby Diedrich finished seventh at 120 pounds to give the Rebels three state medalists for the second time and first since 1973. Gagliano was also selected as the District 22, Region 6 and NJSIAA's Wilfred E. Cann Coach of the Year.

Howell head coach John Gagliano is presented with the Wilfred E. Cann award as the state Coach of the Year. (Photo by Ray Richardson).
Howell head coach John Gagliano is presented with the Wilfred E. Cann award as the state Coach of the Year. (Photo by Ray Richardson).

“It’s something all of us are going to remember, the 2017 season,” said Gagliano, who wrestled for the Rebels and still lives in Howell. “The kids, the coaches, it was just an outstanding year. I'm so happy for all of them and so happy for this town."

Howell's first championship came when it secured the outright Class A North division title, giving the Rebels at least a share of the division crown for the 12th straight season. Then came the Shore Conference Tournament where they won their second title in program history - both coming in the last four years - with a 36-24 win over No. 2 Raritan. For good measure, they beat No. 3 Middletown North, 43-21, in the week leading up to the NJSIAA Team Championships.

The Rebels rolled to their third sectional title in program history with a 60-12 win over Williamstown in the South Jersey Group V quarterfinals, a 57-12 win over Eastern in the semifinals and a 36-24 victory over Egg Harbor in the final. Howell then topped Piscataway, 45-24, in the Group V semifinals to set up a rematch with Hunterdon Central in the Group V final. The Red Devils had served up the only blemish on Howell's resume with a 30-29 win on January 7. The Rebels won eight bouts and received a legendary win from Keosseian when he took down rival Victor Lacombe just before the buzzer sounded to win 4-3, fueling the historic victory.

The momentum of winning the program's first state title carried into the individual postseason where Howell won the District 22 team title with a Shore Conference-high eight champions and 11 region qualifiers. Diedrich, Slendorn, freshman Shane Reitsma and Keosseian each won region titles and four more Rebels advanced to the state tournament.

At the state tournament in Atlantic City, Slendorn made a great run to the 126-pound state final from the No. 7 seed. He beat West Morris's Shane Metzler, the No. 2 seed and a multiple-time state medalist, in the quarterfinals before avenging his only previous loss of the season, besting Paulsboro's Anthony Duca, 5-2, in the state semifinals.

Keosseian joined Slendorn in the state finals out of the No. 3 seed. He edged South Plainfield's Zach DelVecchio, 4-2 in double overtime, in the semifinals before whipping the Boardwalk Hall crowd into a frenzy when he pinned Don Bosco Prep's Peter Acciardi to win the state title.

Howell won five team championships in total, from the division all the way to the Group V title. Keosseian then gave the Rebels an individual champion. A team can't do much better.

The scary part is the Rebels can be even more dominant next season. Although they'll lose the Army-bound Keosseian, Howell graduates just three starters and returns seven state qualifiers. Add to that an elite feeder program and a deep and competitive wrestling room and the Rebels should be hoisting more hardware in 2018.

For the past 20 seasons the man behind it all has been Gagliano, who is the Shore Conference's all-time winningest coach with over 300 victories. He won't bask in any individual glory, but he's certainly earned the right to.


Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at 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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