In 2019, Southern Regional proved once again that it matters not how you start the season, only how you finish it.

After absorbing some early-season defeats, the Rams regrouped at the perfect time of the year, peaking over the final two weeks to go on a sensational run that culminated with winning the NJSIAA Group 5 title. Southern throttled Phillipsburg in a 32-16 win on Jan. 26, and from there the Rams ripped off nine consecutive wins to bring home the program’s third state title.

The Rams took down two-time defending Group 5 champion Howell, 30-28, in the South Jersey Group 5 final to win their 12th state sectional title and stop Howell’s 78-match winning streak. They then polished off the championship with a 34-27 win over Hunterdon Central in the title match, cementing their status as the Shore Sports Network’s 2019 Wrestling Team of the Year.

Other notables in the final SSN Top 10 include Toms River North and Shore. The Mariners defeated Southern and Jackson Memorial in the regular season to win the Class A South division title for the first time. The Blue Devils won the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group 1 sectional title for the first time in program history, had a top-five finish at the Shore Conference Tournament, set a program-record with nine district medalists and had sophomore Jack Maida become the program’s second all-time state place-winner.

Southern Regional captured the NJSIAA Group 5 title and finishes the season No. 1 in the Shore Conference. (Photo by Richard O'Donnell; artwork by Steve Meyer).

1. Southern (20-4)

The Rams captured the NJSIAA Group 5 title with a 34-27 win over Hunterdon Central to finish the season as the Shore Conference’s only state championship team. Southern also won the District 29 team title with 11 total medalists, including champions Robert Woodcock (138), Nick Pepe (145), Nick O’Connell (152), Haven Tatarek (160), John Stout (170) and J.T. Cornelius (220). Woodcock, O’Connell and Stout then won Region 8 titles while Pepe, Cornelius, Jayson Scerbo (113) and Sebastian Delligatti (126) also qualified for the state tournament. O’Connell finished second at the state tournament while Stout and Pepe finished top 12 by reaching the fourth round of wrestlebacks. The Rams certainly lose some firepower to graduation, but they continue to prove they can reload and remain championship contenders. Scerbo, Matt Brielmeier (120), Woodcock, Ben LoParo (195), Cornelius and Jayden Smith (285) lead the Rams’ group of returners for next season.

2. Howell (24-1)

The Rebels had only one blemish on their resume, but it prevented them from winning a third Group 5 championship. Howell’s 30-28 loss to Southern in the South Jersey Group 5 final ended the Rebels’ bid to join Long Branch as the only Shore Conference programs to win three straight state titles. It also snapped their 78-match winning streak. Although Howell missed out on its ultimate goal, it was still a very good season. The Rebels won their 14th straight Class A North division title and won the Shore Conference Tournament team title with senior Darby Diedrich (138), juniors Shane Reitsma (170) and Paul Jakub (152) and sophomore Neiko Malone winning individual titles. They also had 10 District 25 medalists including champions Diedrich (138), Jakub (152), Reitsma (170), Christian Murphy (182) and Joe Sardina (220). At a loaded Region 7 Tournament, Diedrich, Reitsma and Sardina each won region titles while Jakub, Murphy, Malone (126) and junior Ethan Liptzin (106) also qualified for the state tournament. Reitsma finished second in the state at 170 pounds while Murphy wrestled back for seventh. Some heavy-hitters will graduate, including Diedrich, Xavier Kelly (160), Murphy and Sardina along with starters Pierce Gomez (145), Evan Richard (145) and Jake Nase (195), but Howell always has a new crop of freshman and junior varsity wrestlers ready to crack the lineup and continue the winning ways. Liptzin, sophomore Kyle Nase (113), sophomore James McGee (120), Malone, Jakub, Reitsma and junior Justin Wright (285) all return next season.

3. Toms River North (20-4)

The Mariners’ season was highlighted by regular-season wins over No. 1 Southern and No. 4 Jackson Memorial, which enabled them to win the Class A South division title. The thrilling victories - 32-28 over Jackson and 30-26 over Southern - gave Toms River North its first outright division title in program history and first division title since sharing the A Division title with Lakewood and Middletown in 1971. The Mariners also posted wins over No. 6 Long Branch and No. 10 Point Boro. They finished third at the Shore Conference Tournament with junior Nick Boggiano winning the 145-pound title. They finished second to Paulsboro in the District 26 Tournament where senior Nick Reilly (120) became the first wrestler in program history to win four district titles while seniors Louie Gagliardo (106) and Jack Oleske (160) also won district titles. North advanced seven wrestlers to the Region 7 Tournament where Gagliardo won the 106-pound title and Reilly, Nick Boggiano and junior Ryan Rosenthal (113) each placed third to qualify for the state tournament. Gagliardo and Boggiano each finished eighth in the state in their respective weight classes while Rosenthal reached the fourth round of wrestlebacks to finish in the top 12. Toms River North’s losses to graduation are significant with Gagliardo, Reilly and Oleske moving on, but the bulk of the team returns. Wrestlers returning in 2019-2020 include freshman Jake Rosenthal (106), Ryan Rosenthal, sophomore Alex Danelson (120), junior Mark Fedeli (132), Boggiano, junior Matt Spalletta (152), sophomore Nick Mancuso (160), junior Mike Nakano (195) and sophomore John O’Donnell (285).

4. Jackson Memorial (16-5)

The Jaguars won their 10th sectional title by defeating Colts Neck, 55-8, in the Central Jersey Group 4 final before falling to eventual Group 4 champion Kingsway, 34-23, in the state semifinals. Jackson finished second in Class A South, falling to No. 3 Toms River North but earning an early-season 28-25 win over No. 1 Southern. The Jags also had a regular-season win over No. 10 Point Boro and defeated No. 6 Long Branch in the CJ-4 semifinals. Jackson finished second at the Shore Conference Tournament as senior Vin Scollo (120) and junior Kyle Epperly (195) won individual conference championships. The Jaguars won their 27th district team title by taking the District 28 championship with 12 total medalists. Epperly, sophomore Brett Blaess (106), seniors Chris McDonald (126), Carsten DiGiantomasso (152) and Brock Winston (182) and junior Brad Galassi (285) each won district titles. Scollo won a Region 7 title while Winston was third and Epperly, DiGiantomasso and Galassi placed fourth to qualify for the state tournament. After losing his first bout in Atlantic City, Epperly rallied with four straight wins to place seventh while Scollo also placed seventh. Jackson will lose five starters to graduation: McDonald, Scollo, DiGiantomasso, Winston and Leo Shimonovich (170). Epperly and Galassi lead the cast of returners for next season along with region qualifiers Blaess, junior Lance Hobbs (113), sophomore Nick White (132), sophomore Damian Lipari (138) and junior Hunter Smith (160).

5. Raritan (18-6)

The Rockets took back the Class A Central division title in 2019 for their 17th division championship in program history. Their quest to repeat as Central Jersey Group 2 champion was thwarted by powerful South Plainfield, which went on to win the overall Group 2 title. Raritan’s top regular-season win came over eventual Group 3 champion West Essex. Within the conference, the Rockets defeated No. 9 Ocean and also defeated Middletown North, St. John Vianney and Rumson-Fair Haven (twice). Seniors Anthony Aquilano (160) and Justin Acevedo (195) finished third to lead the Rockets at the Shore Conference Tournament. Raritan won the District 21 team title with junior Mike Lonnay winning the 126-pound title to lead a group of eight medalists. Aquilano and senior George Burdick (170) each finished second at the Region 6 Tournament while Acevedo was third to qualify for the state tournament. Burdick was denied a state medal when he lost in the fourth round of wrestlebacks but finished in the top 12 for the second straight year. Aquilano and Acevedo each reached the third round of wrestlebacks. Graduation will hit the Rockets hard, especially in the upper half of the lineup with Aquilano, Burdick, Acevedo, James Ecklyn (152) and Matt Spirko (285) set to leave the program. They also lose seniors Cameron Rafalko (132) and Charles Barrale (220). Lonnay and fellow juniors Vin Mangano (145, Anthony Bailey (182) and Kevin Lind (220) lead the cast of returners for next season.

6. Long Branch (19-4)

The Green Wave finished second in Class A North behind No. 2 Howell and posted regular-season wins over No. 7 Manalapan and No. 9 Shore. At the District 23 Tournament, Long Branch won the team title for the third year in a row for their 13th district team title in program history. Senior Kevin Cerruti (285), junior Ryan Zimmerman (126) and sophomores Joseph Conlon (113) and Jack Friedman (160) each won district titles to lead a group of 10 Green Wave wrestlers to reach the Region 6 Tournament. Zimmerman and Cerruti each won region titles while senior Steve Pabone finished fourth at 138 to also qualify for the state tournament. Cerruti reached the fourth round of wrestlebacks but was eliminated before he could earn a second straight top-eight finish. The Green Wave will lose some significant pieces to graduation, led by Cerruti and also including Pabone, La’Qym Morris (195), Rey Guzman (120) and Stiviny Silva (132). Zimmerman leads the group of returners along with district medalists Conlon, Friedman, junior Dylan Kelleher (106), junior Ryan Carey (145) and junior Tracey Taylor (220).

7. Manalapan (25-5)

The Braves finished third in Class A North behind No. 2 Howell and No. 6 Long Branch. Their top regular-season wins came over No. 8 Shore and No. 9 Ocean. Manalapan reached the Central Jersey Group 4 sectional final before losing to Hunterdon Central. Senior Alex Baran (138) captured a Shore Conference Tournament individual title while junior Matt Benedetti finished second at 170. The Braves were second at the District 20 Tournament with Baran, Benedetti (160), senior Paul Santomarco (152) and junior Hunter Konstantoulas (126) winning individual championships. Manalapan sent 10 wrestlers to the Region 5 Tournament. Baran and Benedetti were second in Region 5 while Santomarco took third and Konstantoulas and sophomore Gavin Claro (182) took fourth to reach the state tournament. In Atlantic City Benedetti reached the semifinals before finishing sixth at 160 pounds to become Manalapan’s first state place-winner since 2015. Santomarco reached the fourth round of wrestlebacks to finish in the top 12 while Baran reached the third round of wrestlebacks to conclude a season where he set the single-season (43) and career (123) wins records at Manalapan. Baran, Santomarco and district medalists Kareem Ghaida (132), Andrew Keller (145) and John Montgomerie will graduate but the Braves bring back the rest of their lineup next season, led by Benedetti, Konstantoulas, Claro, juniors Dylan Waller (170) and Matt Kovacs (285) and sophomores Chris Balzano (106) and Calvin Burke (113).

8. Shore (25-2)

It was a memorable winter in West Long Branch as the Blue Devils turned in the best season in program history to finish ranked in the Shore Conference Top 10 for the first time. Shore captured the Class B Central division title by defeating rival Point Beach but it was the second win over the Garnet Gulls that made history. Shore beat the three-time defending sectional champions, 45-19, to win the Central Jersey Group 1 title for the first time in program history. Along the way, Shore also defeated West Deptford and No. 9 Ocean. The Blue Devils finished fourth at the Shore Conference Tournament with sophomore Jack Maida (106) and Al DeSantis (138) finishing second and sophomore Mike McGhee (145) taking fourth. At the District 20 Tournament, Shore finished third and had a program-record nine medal winners, including champions Maida, DeSantis, McGhee and Taylor Sousa (195). Maida (2nd at 106), McGhee (3rd at 145) and DeSantis (4th at 132) qualified for the state tournament out of Region 5. Maida reached the state semifinals before finishing sixth to become the Blue Devils’ second state medalist in program history and first since 2002. Shore will lose a handful of starters to graduation with Matt Klemser (113), Ian Smith (152), Jack McCrae (160), Brendon Denovaes and Sousa but bring back an exciting young core led by Maida, DeSantis, McGhee, sophomore Cade Torres (220) and freshmen Gabe Scalise (120) and Jamie Mazzacco (170).

9. Ocean (15-8)

It was an adverse season for the Spartans, but in the end, they still found a way to secure multiple championships. Ocean wrestled without standout junior Alex Poniros for most of the season because of a shoulder injury, and even when he was in the lineup he wasn’t close to being fully healthy. His return in the state team tournament, however, helped Ocean defeat Hopewell Valley, 32-20, to win the Central Jersey Group 3 title. The Spartans also won a share of the Class B North division title with Middletown North and Colts Neck. Ocean then won the District 24 team title, giving them a third district team crown in a row and its 17th overall. Sophomores Demetri Poniros (113) and Joe Teresi (285) won individual titles and the Spartans had a program-record 12 medalists. Alex Poniros and junior Jack Nies (132) placed second at the Region 6 Tournament while Teresi and Demetri Poniros were third and senior Anthony Esposito (160) was fourth to qualify for the state tournament. Teresi was the only Spartan to win a match at the state tournament and finished in the top 12 by reaching the fourth round of wrestlebacks. Ocean brings back most of its starting lineup with just Esposito and district medalists Will Tisony (120), Ryan Moran (182) and Dino Poniros (220) exiting via graduation.

10. Point Boro (11-7)

The Panthers won the Class B South division, their third in a row and 28th division title overall. A 32-29 win over Lacey was the key victory along the way, and that victory paired with a 36-33 triumph over Middletown North helped Point Boro grab the 10th and final spot in the rankings. The Panthers were seventh at the Shore Conference Tournament with senior Billy Borowsky winning the 220-pound title and junior Ty Bailey (145) and senior Spencer Robinson (152) finishing third. At the District 23 Tournament, Point Boro finished second with Jack Bailey, Ty Bailey, Robinson and Borowsky winning individual titles and sophomore Nick Torre (113) and Scott Franceschini (195) finishing second. Ty Bailey and Borowsky each finished second at the Region 6 Tournament to qualify for the NJSIAA Tournament. Borowsky reached the third round of wrestlebacks and Bailey advanced to second round of wrestlebacks. Robinson, Borowsky and Paul and Scott Franceschini will graduate, and although those are tough losses the Panthers bring back standouts such as Torre, Jack Bailey and Ty Bailey plus a large sophomore class that will look break through next season.

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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