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MIDDLETOWN -- A trio of promising Shore Conference freshmen made their presence felt on Saturday at Middletown High School South.

Even with weight classes leveling the playing field, finding success is not easy for a freshman wrestler in New Jersey. It's even more difficult for those entering high school as a middleweight or upperweight where most of their opponents are upperclassmen. That's what made the performances by Howell's Tanner Hodgins, Rumson-Fair Haven's Sonny Amato, and Point Boro's Jake Clayton so impressive.

Hodgins won the 175-pound championship and was voted Most Outstanding Wrestler, Clayton won the 157-pound title in the ultimate tiebreaker, and Amato scored a late takedown off a scramble to beat a returning state medalist and claim the 144-pound crown to headline the 2024 Shore Conference Wrestling Tournament.

Hodgins defeated Point Boro senior Ryan Acquisto, 12-6, in the championship bout to cap a dominant tournament. He had two takedowns and two back points to open a 6-2 lead after the first period and added two more takedowns in the second period. The six-point margin of victory was the closest match he had all tournament after winning by technical fall in the quarterfinals and by 9-1 major decision over Brick Memorial sophomore returning state qualifier Trey Tallmadge in the semifinals.

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Howell freshman Tanner Hodgins attempts to turn Point Boro's Ryan Acquisto during the 2024 Shore Conference Wrestling Tournament championship round on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024 at Middletown High School South. (Bob Badders | rpbphotography.com).
Howell freshman Tanner Hodgins attempts to turn Point Boro's Ryan Acquisto during the 2024 Shore Conference Wrestling Tournament championship round on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024 at Middletown High School South. (Bob Badders | rpbphotography.com).
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"I've been coming to watch this tournament since I was a little kid so it's definitely been a goal (to win it) for a while," Hodgins said. "I was a little upset CBA and Southern weren't here because I know they have a bunch of good guys, but it's still a Shore Conference title and it still means a lot."

Hodgins entered high school with high expectations after a great youth career that included a Tulsa Nationals championship last year and a fifth-place finish at the intermediate state tournament. He is 9-2 so far this season with both losses coming at the Beast of the East where he went 3-2 and reached the fifth round of wrestlebacks. His style is one of constant movement with an ability to adapt on the fly.

I think that's just my mentality, just go, go, go," Hodgins said. "I don't stress over if one thing's not working, I just move on to the next. I can adapt mid-match really well and I think that's one of my strong suits. I feel it out and whatever's there, I take."

Except at the Beat of the East where he competed in the 165-pound weight class, Hodgins has been up at 175 while he works his decent plan to eventually get down to 165.

Two bouts prior, Clayton won the 157-pound title when he outlasted Middletown North senior Matthew Castelli, 3-2 in ultimate tiebreaker. Castelli had an escape in the second period and Clayton escaped in the third period to send the championship bout to sudden victory knotted 1-1. In rideouts, both escaped during each tiebreaker period to set the stage for the final 30-second tiebreaker. Castelli had choice by scoring the bout's first points and he expectedly chose bottom. Castelli nearly escaped for the win but Clayton completed the 30-second rideout to earn the deciding point and claim the SCT title.

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Point Boro freshman Jake Clayton completes a rideout of Middletown North's Matthew Castelli in the ultimate tiebreaker during the 2024 Shore Conference Wrestling Tournament championship round on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024 at Middletown High School South. (Bob Badders | rpbphotography.com).
Point Boro freshman Jake Clayton completes a rideout of Middletown North's Matthew Castelli in the ultimate tiebreaker during the 2024 Shore Conference Wrestling Tournament championship round on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024 at Middletown High School South. (Bob Badders | rpbphotography.com).
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"Top isn't my strong suit but I just had to find a way to pull it out," Clayton said. "I trusted my coaches and got it done."

Clayton was seeded No. 2 and won each of his first two bouts by technical fall. He then defeated Jackson Liberty junior Jordan Ayyash, a returning region fifth-place finisher, 8-3 in the semifinals. Clayton is 14-1 on the season with his only loss coming to Southern senior Hayden Hochstrasser, who finished eighth in the state at 144 pounds last season. His initial breakthrough performance came at last month's TCNJ Pride Tournament when he came from the No. 8 seed and knocked off a returning state qualifier to win the title and earn Most Outstanding Wrestler honors.

I'm just trying to work as hard as I can and show everyone what I can do," Clayton said. "I just go out there and wrestle. I really don't get into the names. I just go out there and have fun."

Capping a highly competitive championship round was a high-octane 144-pound final between Amato and Raritan senior Zach Reilley, a defending SCT champion who was also fifth in the state at 138 pounds last season. Amato has been superb to begin his high school career with a fourth-place finish at the Beast of the East and a second-place finish at the Sam Cali Invitational. Two of his three losses have come to Blair Academy's nationally-ranked senior Logan Rozynski.

Reilley struck the initial blow with a first-period takedown and held a 2-0 lead into the second period. Amato escaped in the second period to cut his deficit to 2-1 and Reilley chose neutral to start the third period. In the final minute, Reilley initiated a shot that kicked off an intense scramble where Amato came out on top for a takedown that gave him a 3-2 lead. He then added two back points and held on to win the championship.

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Rumson-Fair Haven freshman Sonny Amato works to counter a shot by Raritan senior Zach Reilley during the 2024 Shore Conference Wrestling Tournament championship round on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024 at Middletown High School South. (Bob Badders | rpbphotography.com).
Rumson-Fair Haven freshman Sonny Amato works to counter a shot by Raritan senior Zach Reilley during the 2024 Shore Conference Wrestling Tournament championship round on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024, at Middletown High School South. (Bob Badders | rpbphotography.com).
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"He initiated the shot but if you look closely there was not a lot of push behind it," Amato said. "I thought it was an avoid-a-stall-call shot and I just kept pushing through it. I was waiting for the perfect time to attack and in this case, it was a re-attack and it worked out perfectly."

"It's so mental for me. I know I have the skills and work ethic to beat a lot of these guys, I just have to push myself to do it. This was a big one."

Amato won by fall in the round of 16 and the quarterfinals before an eye-opening 18-3 technical fall over Howell's three-time state qualifier Giovanni Scafidi. He is 15-3 on the season.

"It's definitely boosted my ego - maybe a little too much - but it's awesome," Amato said. "I felt good about today."

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Rumson-Fair Haven freshman Sonny Amato celebrates winning the 144-pound title during the 2024 Shore Conference Wrestling Tournament championship round on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024 at Middletown High School South. (Bob Badders | rpbphotography.com).
Rumson-Fair Haven freshman Sonny Amato celebrates winning the 144-pound title during the 2024 Shore Conference Wrestling Tournament championship round on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024 at Middletown High School South. (Bob Badders | rpbphotography.com).
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SCT history for Reyes, Wehner, Dibiase, Lynch

Holmdel sophomore Alex Reyes, Donovan Catholic senior Kurt Wehner, Red Bank Catholic junior Michael Dibiase, and Toms River East junior James Lynch each became the first SCT champion in the history of their respective programs.

Reyes avenged a loss this Wednesday to Rumson-Fair Haven junior Conor Delaney by scoring a 5-2 victory in the 190-pound final. Delaney defeated Reyes, 8-5, during a dual meet on Wednesday night just hours after the SCT had been seeded with Reyes earning the No. 1 seed. The rematch saw the Hornets standout hit a spladle for a takedown and two back points in the second period en route to the championship.

"It felt good. This whole week I've been in my head after losing that match and thinking about getting it back," Reyes said. "I had the same mindset going in. I was confident the first time but things didn't go my way. Today, I knew I had to wrestle confident and smart and I would be able to come out on top."

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Holmdel sophomore Alex Reyes locks in a spladle for four points en route to a 5-2 win over Rumson's Conor Delaney at 190 pounds during the 2024 Shore Conference Wrestling Tournament championship round on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024 at Middletown High School South. (Bob Badders | rpbphotography.com).
Holmdel sophomore Alex Reyes locks in a spladle for four points en route to a 5-2 win over Rumson's Conor Delaney at 190 pounds during the 2024 Shore Conference Wrestling Tournament championship round on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024 at Middletown High School South. (Bob Badders | rpbphotography.com).
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The heavy favorite at the weight would have been Brick Memorial junior Harvey Ludington, but the nationally-ranked Mustangs star did not enter the tournament due to his already-high match count. Ludington was the 175-pound state champion as a freshman and the 175-pound state runner-up last season as well as a defending SCT champion. With Ludington absent, it presented an opportunity that Reyes took full advantage of.

"As a competitor, I always want to wrestle those top guys but your eyes do kind of light up a little bit when you see the bracket and you know you're in a good spot," Reyes said. "I don't go into any match thinking I'm going to lose no matter who it's against, but it definitely made me think I had a good shot at winning this."

Wehner continued his excellent season by winning the 120-pound title with a 9-0 major decision over St. John Vianney sophomore Matthew Gould in a matchup of returning state medalists. Wehner, a two-time state medalist, was fifth in the state at 113 pounds last season while Gould was eighth at 106 pounds. The Griffins entered just four wrestlers and were still able to finish fifth in the team standings.

Dibiase won the 106-pound championship with a 4-2 victory over Colts Neck sophomore Ethan Michaels. A transfer from Wall where he won a region title and was a two-time state qualifier, Dibiase had a takedown in the first period and a reversal in the third period. He was down to 106 pounds for the first time this season after going 9-3 at 113 pounds.

Lynch became Toms River East's first SCT champion when he scored a takedown in sudden victory to defeat Donovan Catholic senior Sam Rock III, 3-1, to claim the heavyweight championship. Rock was behind Lynch with standing control during the overtime period when Lynch made a savvy move to grab one of Rock's legs from between his own legs. He brought Rock to the mat and finished off the takedown for the dramatic victory.

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Toms River East junior James Lynch reacts after scoring the title-winning takedown in sudden victory to defeat Donovan Catholic's Sam Rock III, 3-1, during the 2024 Shore Conference Wrestling Tournament championship round on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024 at Middletown High School South. (Bob Badders | rpbphotography.com).
Toms River East junior James Lynch reacts after scoring the title-winning takedown in sudden victory to defeat Donovan Catholic's Sam Rock III, 3-1, during the 2024 Shore Conference Wrestling Tournament championship round on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024 at Middletown High School South. (Bob Badders | rpbphotography.com).
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St. John Vianney crowns three champs, wins second SCT team title

St. John Vianney won the team title with a 144.5 to 134.5 win over second-place Rumson-Fair Haven. It is SJV's second SCT title and first since 2018. Juniors Anthony Knox (126), Patrick O'Keefe (132), and Cole Stangle (165) gave the Lancers a tournament-high three individual champions.

As expected, Knox rolled to the 126-pound title with a pin and two major decisions after a first-round bye. The two-time state champion and No. 1-ranked wrestler in the nation won by 16-5 major decision over Donovan Catholic senior Sawyer Ostroff in the championship bout.

O'Keefe, who is a two-time state medalist, used an escape and a takedown in the second period to defeat Freehold Township's Alexander Grant, 3-0, to win his first SCT championship.

At 165, Stangle utilized a takedown in the first period, a reversal in the second, and another takedown in the third period to win 7-2 over Red Bank Catholic's Frank Romeo and secure his first SCT championship.

Farina, Skove, DeAngelo, Dolci finish on top

Rounding out the list of 14 SCT champions are Ocean senior James Farina, Rumson-Fair Haven senior Hudson Skove, Point Boro junior Joey DeAngelo, and Toms River North senior Joe Dolci.

Farina won a marquee matchup with Wall's Donovan DiStefano, 7-3, to win the 150-pound title. He scored a takedown in the first period and added an escape and a takedown in the second to build a 5-0 lead. DiStefano escaped and secured a takedown in the third to make it 5-3, but Farina held off a late attempt at a throw by DiStefano for a reversal and a 7-3 victory.

Skove, the defending NJSIAA 215-pound state champion, neutralized the length and height advantage of 6-foot-7 Brick Memorial junior Ben Szuba to earn a workmanlike 5-1 decision.

DeAngelo won a strong 113-pound bracket with a 5-2 decision over Jackson Liberty senior Anthony Urso. After a scoreless first period, DeAngelo hit a five-point move when he reversed Urso to his back. He took that 5-0 lead into the third period before Urso hit a reversal to provide the final scoring margin. Urso had pinned Middletown North's Brady Klinsky in the semifinals while DeAngelo won 7-0 over Jackson Memorial senior Joe Weikel.

The only negative from the finals was at 138 pounds where Dolci won the championship via injury default over Howell senior Sebastian Ortega. Early in the bout with no points on the board, Ortega's leg gave out and he immediately fell to the mat in obvious pain. The athletic trainers worked on his knee and he had to be helped off the mat. Ortega is a three-time state qualifier and 2020 state medalist who is committed to Princeton. A significant injury would be a heartbreaking end to a great career and a huge blow to the Rebels' state championship aspirations. Dolci had won by major decision in the quarterfinals and semifinals to set up the matchup with Ortega.

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