Almost Famous: Four Shore Conf. Wrestlers Fall Just Short in NJSIAA State Finals
ATLANTIC CITY – The feeling of winning a state championship is pure ecstasy, but the other end of the spectrum can be devastating.
Toms River South’s Cole Corrigan stood atop the medal stand as the 152-pound NJSIAA champion on Sunday night at Boardwalk Hall, but he was the only one smiling among the Shore Conference’s five state finalists. For St. John Vianney freshman Dean Peterson, Howell senior Kyle Slendorn, Ocean senior Jake Benner and Wall junior Rob Kanniard they were left to wonder what could have been.
Reaching the state final the night before had put them one step closer to their ultimate goal. Less than 24 hours later the dream had been shattered. Finishing second in the state, especially in the talent-rich state of New Jersey - which is one of just three states to wrestler down to one champion per weight class – is an incredible accomplishment. At some point in the days and weeks to come, they will realize that. Peterson and Kanniard will use the defeats as fuel to drive them next season, while Benner and Slendorn can reflect on all-time careers at their respective programs. But on Sunday night all they could think about was wearing (figurative) silver instead of gold.
Slendorn fought back tears when describing his disappointment in falling to Camden Catholic’s Lucas Revano, 4-3, in the 132-pound state final. Slendorn held a 3-2 lead in the third period when Revano scored a reversal and held on to win, 4-3. Slendorn was a state runner-up last season when he lost to Hanover Park’s Nick Raimo, but at the time he was just happy to be there as an unexpected state finalist. His mindset this year was to at least get back to the final and try to give Raimo a run for his money.
Revano stunned Raimo in the semifinals, however, and that gave Slendorn even more hope. He was sure he would again have to tangle with Raimo in the final, and although he was more confident against the sixth-ranked wrestler in the nation, he knew the odds were still against him. With Revano beating Raimo it changed Slendorn’s mindset. He knows Revano, who is from Belmar, from training with him at Triumph Wrestling Club. His championship perspective went from ‘Maybe I can beat this kid (Raimo), to ‘I’m going to beat this kid (Revano)’. Even for the cool-as-a-cucumber Slendorn, it was a difficult loss to absorb.
Wrestling is such an unforgiving sport, and at times it is anything but fun. The workload and dedication required just to reach a state final is astounding, and that is what makes the moment of defeat so unbearable. Despite the accomplishment of finishing second, it must feel like accomplishing nothing.
Slendorn will go down as one of Howell’s all-time greats. He is the program’s only two-time state finalist and his 42-2 record this season gave him 158 career victories, tying him with Raritan’s Dan Seidenberg for the most in Shore Conference history. He is a four-time district champion, a 2017 region champion and three-time region finalist, and a four-time state qualifier. He was a major part of Howell winning back-to-back NJSIAA Group 5 championships and this season finishing undefeated and No. 3 in New Jersey.
The landing was a little softer for Benner despite losing by 11-2 major decision to Kingsway’s Quinn Kinner in the state champ vs. state champ 138-pound final. Benner was last season’s 138-pound state champ while Kinner won at 132 pounds, but Kinner showed Benner and the crowd at Boardwalk Hall exactly why he is the No. 1 wrestler in the nation and headed to Ohio State. He took Benner down immediately and turned him for two near-fall points. He turned Benner again to take a 6-0 lead into the second period and, despite a reversal from Benner, cruised to his second state championship.
Benner’s strength is on the mat where he overpowers opponents from the top position, but Benner admitted afterward Kinner could match his strength there. Kinner had the advantage at neutral, and that put Benner in a spot he hasn’t been in for two years.
Mostly written off as a state-title contender entering the tournament – he figures because of his two losses, both at 145 pounds – Benner proved he was every bit as good as when he won a state crown the year before. He pinned Camden Catholic’s Anthony Croce in just 34 seconds in the quarterfinals before taking out Pope John’s Joseph Aragona, the fourth-ranked wrestler in the country, 4-1 in the semifinals.
Ocean head coach Cippy Apicelli says Benner is the No. 2 wrestler in program history, behind only two-time state champion Nick Menditto. He is the Spartans’ only four-time district champion, is a two-time Region 6 champion, a three-time region finalist and the program’s all-time wins leader with a 146-13 career record. He will head to Rutgers next season and the title of ‘state champion’ will follow him. No one can ever take that away from Jake Benner.
Wall’s Rob Kanniard was in a similar situation as Benner in that he was also taking on the No. 1 wrestler in the country in the state final. Kanniard, Wall’s explosive and high-scoring 160-pounder, made his way to the state championship bout one year after taking fourth at 152 pounds. He was Wall’s first state finalist since 2007, but to become the Crimson Knights’ first state champion since 2002 he had to go through Bergen Catholic’s Shane Griffith. Now a three-time state champion and a four-time state finalist, Bergen Catholic head coach Dave Bell said Griffith is arguably the greatest wrestler in program history. That is saying a heck of a lot considering four-time undefeated state champion Nick Suriano is a BC graduate.
Kanniard and Griffith were locked in a 1-1 tie in the third period and Kanniard was wrestling well. The two took turns slipping out of takedown attempts in a matchup that had the crowd on the edge of its collective seat. But then, Griffith did what Griffith does: find a way to win. He took Kanniard down and put him right to his back for a five-point move that gave him a 6-1 win. Kanniard was the underdog, but he wasn’t looking at it like that. He was there to win, not just keep it close. He tossed his headgear to his coaches and jogged off the mat wearing the disappointment all over his face.
“I thought I was in it the whole time,” Kanniard said. “When I go into a match I don’t think anyone can beat me so I was going out there thinking I was going to win. This sucks right now. I’m not happy. My dream was to be a state champ and coming up short hurts.”
Being a junior means Kanniard gets one more shot. There’s a good chance he’ll be the favorite this time next year. For the next 362 days, that’s all he’ll be thinking about.
“Losing today is just going to put a fire under me to make me work harder and motivate me to be on top next year,” Kanniard said.
Kanniard will enter his senior season as a three-time district champ, two-time region champ, three-time state qualifier and two-time, top-four finisher in the state tournament. He is 119-10 in his career.
Peterson’s prevailing emotion was more anger and frustration than malaise following his 6-3 loss to Hanover Park freshman Joey Olivieri in the 106-pound state final. Tied 3-3 late in the second period, Olivieri was awarded a takedown in the closing seconds that Peterson and the SJV coaches vehemently disagreed with. Instead of the score being tied heading to the third Olivieri now had a 5-3 lead. He chose defense, Peterson was called for stalling with 1:20 left, he cut him loose and that was it.
Peterson has three more years and will surely be a state title contender for the remainder of his high school career, but for a kid with a truckload of youth accolades who had designs on being a four-time state champion from the moment he entered high school, it was a punch to the gut.
The 106-pound weight class was a gauntlet with four nationally-ranked wrestlers in Olivieri, Emerson-Park Ridge’s Nick Babin, Bergen Catholic’s Nick Kayal and Delbarton’s Nicholas Nardone. Peterson beat Babin, 2-1, in the quarterfinals and Westfield’s C.J. Composto beat Kayal, 3-1. Peterson then bested Composto, 3-1, in the semifinals. He proved he’s among the best in New Jersey, he just fell short in the final. Peterson commented after the semifinals how the difference between a good wrestler and a great wrestler is their ability to bounce back after a loss, which Peterson did after losing to Hunterdon Central’s Brett Ungar in the Region 5 final.
Now that mentality will be put to the ultimate test. There isn’t a tournament next week to seek immediate redemption. It will be a 362-day path back, but he’ll be better because of it. They all will.
Losing in a wrestling state final is crushing, no doubt. But for Peterson, Slendorn, Benner and Kanniard, there are plenty of reasons to keep their heads held high. The Shore Conference tips its hat to you. To Slendorn and Benner, thank you for the memories. To Peterson and Kanniard, we’ll see you next year. Same time, same place, different result.
Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at email@example.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.