Back in Black: Southern pins Hunterdon Central for NJSIAA Group 5 state title
TOMS RIVER – It was a shaky start to the season for Southern, but by the end when it mattered most, the Rams were unstoppable.
Consecutive arena-rattling falls by juniors Ben LoParo and J.T. Cornelius at 195 and 220 pounds late in the match completed a sensational late-season run by Southern as the Rams defeated Hunterdon Central, 34-27, to capture the NJSIAA Group 5 title on Sunday night at RWJBarnabas Health Arena.
Legends are made in the postseason, and on Sunday night it was LoParo who came through with an unforgettable moment that will be talked about for years to come in southern Ocean County. A pin by senior John Stout at 170 pounds gave Southern a 19-15 lead with five bouts left and Haven Tatarek followed with a 4-3 decision at 182 pounds to make it 22-15. The Rams were in good shape but needed a win at 195. They got that and a whole lot more.
LoParo was trailing 1-0 to Brandon Donoghue late in the second period when the two went out of bounds with 12 seconds left. Before returning to the center of the mat, LoParo received one last bit of motivation from Southern head coach John Stout.
“Stout looked at me and he said ‘wouldn’t it be a great time to have a career-defining moment?’,” LoParo said. “And I was like, ‘yeah, it would be a good time’.”
Directly off the restart, LoParo blasted through Donoghue with a high-crotch, lifted him up and took him straight to his back. He quickly secured the head and pressed Donoghue’s shoulders to the mat, securing the fall with one second left in the second period. Southern’s bench went bananas, LoParo was euphoric and the Rams were on their way a to another state championship.
“When he went out of bounds that last time I told him these are the situations that change lives,” Stout said. “Make something happen.”
“I just went back to my basics, got to my high-crotch and once I got his head I knew I was going to finish it,” LoParo said. “I’m just happy I pulled through for my team.”
Hunterdon Central’s strength is in the lower half of its lineup, and with the match starting at 113 pounds the plan was to limit the Red Devils’ down low and then go to work up top. Hunterdon Central lead 12-9 through the 145-pound bout, and although that included Pasquale Vizzoni defeating Nick Pepe, 7-2, at 145, the Rams were in a good spot if the upperweights could come through.
“It wasn’t talked about but we all knew; it was exactly the same situation as Howell (in the South Jersey Group 5 sectional final). The upperweights had to pull through,” LoParo said. “I got pinned vs. Howell and I told all the guys I’d make up for it and I did.”
Southern now led 28-15 with three bouts left and only needed a win of any kind by Cornelius at 220 pounds to clinch the championship. He wasted no time sending the Rams to the title by hitting a headlock on Salvatore Brito and finishing off the pin in just 56 seconds to set off a black and gold celebration for the Rams’ third NJSIAA group title in program history.
“I knew I had to go out and do everything I needed to,” Cornelius said. “I can’t even begin to describe how amazing it was.”
The fall by Cornelius put Southern up 34-15 with two bouts left, enabling the Rams to forfeit the final two weights at 285 and 106. They knew they needed to make sure the match didn’t come down to the final weight where Hunterdon Central had state medalist Brett Ungar lurking.
“We just had to try to mitigate as much damage as we could down low early and then these guys came through up top bigger than we even thought,” Stout said. “We thought J.T. could pin and give us that 13-point (with two bouts left) but we weren’t expecting John to pin and certainly weren’t expecting Ben to pin.”
Senior Nick O’Connell won by major decision at 152 pounds while Jayson Scerbo (113), Sebastian Delligatti (132) and Robert Woodcock (138) each won by decision as the Rams took seven of the 12 contested bouts.
Southern is a perennial powerhouse in New Jersey and is known for its tough, relentless style that always has it in contention for championships. To write off the Rams would be a mistake no matter the circumstances, but it didn’t look like a vintage Southern squad early on.
The Rams began the season No. 2 in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 and No. 5 in New Jersey, but fell to Class A South rival Jackson Memorial, 28-25, on Dec. 19 and then lost to High Point, 34-28, two days later. On Jan. 15, the Rams were defeated by Toms River North, 30-26, to give them multiple division losses for the first time since 2015 while ending their reign as division champs. A week later they lost to eventual Group 2 champion South Plainfield, 33-21. These were hardly bad losses considering the opponents, but it showed there was plenty of work to be done.
Four days after the loss to South Plainfield, Southern’s transition to the dominant team of the past two weeks began. The Rams waxed Phillipsburg, 32-16, taking nine bouts from the Stateliners and reminding everyone how dangerous they can be. Among the nine wins was O’Connell majoring state medalist Cody Harrison, 11-3, to take over as the new No. 1-ranked wrestler in the state at 152 pounds.
From there, Southern won six straight matches to build momentum heading into the South Jersey Group 5 final. In front of a raucous crowd in their home gym, Southern took down top-ranked Howell, 30-28, to win their 13th sectional title and halt Howell’s 78-match winning streak. On Sunday, Southern crushed Passaic Tech, 49-12 in the Group 5 semifinals, before taking out Hunterdon Central for the title.
“I knew we were going to win it, even then I knew we had it in us,” Cornelius said. “We just had to turn it up. Once we beat Phillipsburg I knew we were going to win a state title.”
“We’re probably the hardest working team in the practice room,” LoParo said. “There’s nobody in the state that works harder than us. We have unbelievable coaches who will stay after practice for hours if you want. It all showed today with a state championship.”
For Stout, it was as unique a season as he’s ever had in his 18 years as Southern’s head coach.
“It’s something I’ve never experienced before as a coach,” Stout said. “I’ve had great teams who have had great runs and done exactly what they expect them to do. I felt these guys could have this kind of year but at the beginning, it didn’t look that way.”
“This is a really special group of kids. They’re always positive, never hung their heads and everything we asked of them they gave us back and more. They weren’t hard to motivate. They wanted to leave their mark on this school and they have.”
Southern 34, Hunterdon Central 27
113: Jayson Scerbo (S) d. Nick Canonica 7-1
120: Colton Washleski (HC) d. Matt Brielmeier 5-1
126: Jack Bauer (HC) p. Christian Rivera 0:32
132: Sebastian Delligatti (S) d. Tanner Peake 5-2
138: Robert Woodcock (S) d. Anthony Romaniello 11-5
145: Pasquale Vizzoni (HC) d. Nick Pepe 7-2
152: Nick O'Connell (S) md. Vincent Romaniello 14-4
160: Norman Cella (HC) d. Luke Galan 3-0
170: John Stout (S) p. Dan Furmato 3:59
182: Haven Tatarek (S) d. Kyle Barrett 4-3
195: Ben LoParo (S) p. Brandon Donaghue 3:59
220: JT Cornelius (S) p. Salvatore Brito 0:56
Hwt: Ryan Joyce (HC) by forfeit
106: Brett Ungar (HC) by forfeit
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