2022 Shore Sports Network Wrestler of the Year: Howell’s Hunter Mays
Last year, it was definitely plausible to say that Hunter Mays snuck up on the rest of New Jersey. By the time everyone realized just what they were dealing with after Mays moved to Howell from Pennsylvania, it was too late to even try to make any counter adjustments. Mays stood tall at Phillipsburg High School as the 2021 160-pound NJSIAA state champion with a perfect 16-0 record.
That wasn't going to be the case this season. Everyone knew who Mays was and he now had a target on his back. Could he do it again in a weight class filled with great challengers? The answer turned out to be, unequivocally, yes.
In his second and final season wearing the Howell singlet, Mays completed a meteoric stint in New Jersey by winning the NJSIAA 165-pound state title at Boardwalk Hall, using a late takedown to win 5-4 over Bergen Catholic's Nick Fea. He finished without a loss against New Jersey competition, became the first Howell wrestler to win two state titles, and was unstoppable nearly every time he put his foot on the line.
Four Shore Conference wrestlers won individual state titles in 2022, but for his dominant season and tremendous career, Mays is our selection as the Shore Sports Network Shore Conference Wrestler of the Year.
Mays went 40-1 this season en route to his second state title and was a force from start to finish. He won by fall 19 times, delivered eight technical falls, won by major decision four times, and received three forfeits. His only wins by decision came in the state semifinals and championship bout and during the Powerade Tournament.
"He was obviously good coming in and he's just so competitive, he wants to win and there's no stopping him," said Howell head coach John Gagliano. "He's all about being the best."
The best is exactly what Mays was during his two years at Howell. After transferring from Conwell Egan Catholic High School in Pennsylvania where he was a state qualifier as a sophomore, Mays blossomed into a nationally-ranked wrestler who took New Jersey by storm. He pushed a relentless pace on his feet and was equally as vicious on top. He could take you down 10 times to win by technical fall or take you down once and tilt you into oblivion in the first period.
"He gets in on your legs and you're not getting that leg back," Gagliano said. "And he's really tough on top, too. He turns you and he wants to keep scoring. He gives you everything. He's so explosive and powerful."
Howell traveled to Canon-McMillan High School outside of Pittsburgh in late December to compete at the Powerade Tournament, a national-level tournament featuring many of the best teams in the region. It was there that Mays suffered his only high school loss of the last two seasons when he was defeated by Blair Academy's Lorenzo Norman, 2-0, in the semifinals. Mays ended up wrestling back for third while Norman was defeated by Fea, 7-5 in sudden victory, in the championship bout.
"That match we had three takedowns on the line that we just didn't have the room to finish," Gagliano said. "But he didn't doubt himself after that match. It just made him train harder."
Mays was untested from January all the way through the state quarterfinals, securing 21 straight wins by bonus points. Along the way, he helped Howell win a share of the Class A North division title, claim the Central Jersey Group 5 sectional title, and reach the Group 5 final. Mays had two first-minute pins and a technical fall in the finals to win the District 22 title and rolled to the Region 6 title in similar fashion with a pin, a major decision, and a technical fall.
The state tournament began with Mays winning by technical fall in the first round, by fall in the second round, and by technical fall again in the quarterfinals. In the semifinals, he scored two first-period takedowns and held on for a 6-5 win over Delbarton's Louis Cerchio. The championship match pitted Mays against Fea, who had defeated the one wrestler to best Mays over the last two years.
Mays struck first with a takedown in the opening 30 seconds and led 2-1 heading to the second period. Fea escaped to tie the bout 2-2 and then secured a takedown of his own with 55 seconds left in the period. He rode Mays out the rest of the period to take a 4-2 lead into the third. Mays worked to get free and did so with 1:12 left in regulation, making it 4-3. He pressed forward for the go-ahead takedown and after biding his time near the edge of the circle, Mays finally secured the winning takedown with 13 seconds on the clock.
"He has the expectations of being the best in whatever tournament he's in no matter what," Gagliano said. "There's no, 'I just want to place' His mind doesn't work that way. Going into college it's going to be the same mindset. He wants to be a national champ. And it's in his preparation. He trains to win."
Mays enjoyed the Garden State so much he has decided to stick around for at least the next four years. He will continue his career at Rider University. Especially because the 2021 season, Mays' junior year, was shortened by the Covid pandemic, his career in New Jersey went by like a flash. But like a bolt of lightning, there was no mistaking his power and fury.
"It went so fast," Gagliano said. "It was just so great to have somebody of that caliber and to win it twice. It was great for the school and great for the town."