Hero’s Welcome: Giovanni Scafidi, Kieran Bruen Lift No. 4 Howell to Walk-Off Win Over No. 3 CBA
HOWELL – Wrestlers take losses hard, and for the top wrestlers for which there are fewer of those defeats, they take them even more personally. It is what happens after those setbacks that can define them. Finding a positive straw in the haystack of doubt is the key to moving forward and getting better.
For Howell sophomore Giovanni Scafidi, his ability to learn from a past error helped the Rebels take home a massive victory on Wednesday night.
Trailing by two points in the third period of the final, winner-take-all bout, Scafidi scored the tying takedown with 1:05 left in regulation, rode out Christian Brothers Academy’s Nick Punzi to force overtime, and then countered a shot for the bout-winning and match-clinching takedown 15 seconds into sudden victory, claiming a 5-3 win at 144 pounds that lifted Howell, ranked No. 4 in the Shore Sports Network Top 10, to a thrilling walk-off 32-31 victory over No. 3 CBA in a crucial Class A North match.
“It feels amazing, I couldn’t ask for anything more,” Scafidi said. “We knew going into this match it was going to come down to the end and whoever was in that last match was going to have to fight through. We knew we could do it.”
Scafidi, who was a region finalist last season as a freshman when he wrestled at Freehold Township, was certainly the favorite against Punzi, a senior who entered the night with a 17-19 career record. Scafidi thought he had at least a takedown and possibly back points in the first period, but no call was made and the bout went into the second period scoreless. Scafidi escaped to take a 1-0 lead but it was Punzi who struck first with a takedown in the second period to take a 2-1 advantage into the third period. Punzi chose down to start the third and Scafidi immediately cut him loose to make it 3-1.
If there was ever a time to be flustered it was now, wrestling inside of a packed gymnasium loud enough to blur your own thoughts and trailing by two points in a must-win bout in just your second dual meet at your new school. No pressure.
The last time Scafidi was in a similar situation was in last season’s NJSIAA Central Super Region 138-pound final. A call went against him and he never recovered, eventually dropping a 6-5 decision to Old Bridge’s Tyler Sagi. He was determined to not let it happen again.
“I thought back to my region final last year, was up by one with under 30 seconds left and the kid got a reversal that I thought could have gone either way,” Scafidi said. “Those last 11 seconds of that match, I didn’t know what to do. I figured out I have to keep my head and keep wrestling. That’s one thing that I’ve been trying to work on, keeping my head and not letting my emotions get the best of me. I thought back to that match and knew that I had to push through for the team.”
“That was a heck of a welcome to Howell moment,” said Howell senior and returning state champion Hunter Mays. “He was undersized but he toughed it out and dug deep when he had to. He works hard and I told him to trust that and fight.”
Scafidi delivered the clinching points but he was far from the only hero for Howell, especially late in the match. If not for junior Kieran Bruen and his heart-pounding victory two bouts earlier, Scafidi doesn’t get the opportunity to win in walk-off fashion.
At 120 pounds, Mike Edmundson saved a bonus point by losing via technical fall to CBA sophomore and returning state medalist Alex Nini. Sawyer Ostroff did one better at 126 pounds when he surrendered just a major decision to CBA senior and returning two-time state medalist Garrett Totten. Those saved points ended up being as important as any victory and at that juncture of the match it also set Howell up nicely leading 26-25 with three bouts left. But it all hinged on the 132-pound bout between Bruen and CBA freshman AJ Falcone.
For Howell to have any shot, Bruen needed to win and he came through with a clutch 4-3 decision that gave Howell a 29-26 lead with two bouts remaining. After a scoreless first period, Bruen chose defense and escaped for a 1-0 lead. Falcone was then banged for his second stalling call to give a point to Bruen. He took that 2-0 lead into the third period but the bout quickly became tied when Falcone escaped and Bruen was called for locking hands during the same sequence. Bruen looked shaken but he was able to compose himself enough to score the go-ahead takedown with 42 seconds left in the third period. Falcone was able to get one more escape to close the gap to one point but Bruen held him off in the closing seconds for the must-have victory.
“It was an amazing win for me, a big moment in my wrestling career,” Bruen said. “I wanted to go out there and get the win for my team and wrestle to the best of my abilities. I thought it was going to be a close match and it was.”
“He had a lot of pressure on him and we knew we had to win that one if we were going to win the dual,” Mays said. “I’m so happy for him. He works so hard and he deserves it.”
Bruen earned a varsity letter as a freshman and was a starter last season. He entered Wednesday night wrestling the best he has in his career after a solid showing at the prestigious Powerade Tournament last week.
“He went 3-2 out there and really opened up and wrestled well,” said Howell head coach John Gagliano. “We saw a whole different kid out there and I think that was key tonight. Like anything else, you put in a lot of time in the offseason to get ready for matches like that.”
Bruen’s victory coupled with Howell winning the pre-match flip allowed the Rebels to control the 138-pound bout. CBA sent out junior state medalist Julian George, who is coming off an excellent third-place finish at the Beast of the East. Howell bumped up Scafidi to 144 knowing that no matter what happened at 138, Scafidi would have a chance to win the match with a simple decision in the final bout. George pinned JJ Machnik in 1:00 to put the Colts up 31-29 and set up the dramatic ending.
It was a gutsy win for Howell, which won four bouts decided by two points or less, received pins by Mays at 165 pounds and sophomore 106-pounder Liam Clark, and major decisions from junior DJ Henry at 175 pounds and freshman Xavier Ortega at 113 pounds. The Rebels won eight bouts and did so without the services of sophomore Sebastian Ortega, a returning state medalist. Ortega weighed in at 120 pounds but did not take the mat. Gagliano said Ortega “was banged up a bit” and should be back on the mat soon.
The race for the Class A North division title is far from over with fifth-ranked Middletown South still on the schedule for Howell, but overcoming CBA was a major hurdle to clear. It was also a revenge win after CBA won last year’s dual meet and, in the process, snapped Howell’s 15-year streak of winning the A North championship.
“It means so much to us,” Mays said. “We’ve been thinking about this match since we lost to them last year. Everybody did their jobs and it was a total team effort.”
“We were definitely the underdogs and they’re (CBA) a very good team,” Gagliano said. “We told the team it was going to be 14 kids that are going to win this match.”
The match began with CBA junior Tyler Barrett, who was a region champion as a freshman and a fifth-place finisher in the super region last year, working a fall in 2:57 over Howell’s Gavin Merkel at 150 pounds to stake the Colts (3-1, 3-1) to a quick 6-0 lead. Junior Zander Silva, a two-time state qualifier, followed with a 17-9 major decision over Nick Acque in which he secured seven takedowns, including one in the final 30 seconds to clinch a bonus point.
Howell got on the board at 165 when Mays made quick work of Daniel Menake with a pin in 59 seconds. Henry then won by 15-2 major decision over Nick Stump at 175 with three takedowns in the first period, three near-fall points in the second, and an escape, takedown, and three back points in the third.
With the match tied at 10 through four bouts, we entered the land of toss-ups. At 190 pounds, Ian Soutar grinded his way to a 3-2 win over Peter Grippo to give Howell a 13-10 lead. Soutar’s takedown in the second period supplied the only offensive points scored in the bout. At 215 pounds, CBA junior Robert Canterino provided six critical points when he turned and pinned Dane Colfer in 3:06 to give the Colts the lead back at 16-13.
The heavyweight bout between Howell’s Thomas Richards and CBA’s Taig Sheehy was a fulcrum in last year’s dual when Sheehy won 2-1 on a locking hands call. Wednesday’s bout followed a similar script but this time it was Richards who eked out a 2-1 victory in overtime to tie the match at 16. Richards, who outweighed Sheehy by nearly 80 pounds, escaped in the second period to take a 1-0 lead. Sheehy chose down in the third despite the weight disparity and Richards rode him out, but a locking hands call on Richards tied the bout at one and forced overtime. Sheehy had a stalling warning in the second and was called for stalling again in sudden victory, giving the winning point to Richards.
The celebrating of Richards’ win had barely concluded when Clark, just 27 seconds into the first period, hit a headlock and whipped CBA’s Tyler Venet to the mat for a quick pin that gave Howell a 22-16 lead. Ortega then controlled the 113-pound against Vin Principe with offensive points in all three periods, including a takedown and two back points in the third to lock up a 10-0 major decision and put the Rebels (2-0, 2-0) up 26-16 with five bouts remaining.
With Sebastian Ortega out of the lineup, the task for Edmundson and Ostroff was both simple and daunting: limit bonus points against a pair of state medalists. They both did their jobs and saved a total of three extra points. Without that, this story is about CBA winning the match. It speaks to the unique nature of a wrestling dual meet where a wrestler can lose by 15 points and still be one of the heroes.
“The kids we expected to win were going to win and – we're not going to win 14 bouts – the kids who are going to lose need to keep bonus down and fight for every point because that’s going to be the difference, and it was,” Gagliano said. “Even getting teched can be a big bonus for us. Every match point makes a difference.”
After a 2020 season that featured a limited schedule and half-empty gyms due to Covid protocols, Wednesday night was a sight to behold and a reminder of how great the sport of high school wrestling can be. The gym was packed, the Howell student section was rocking, and two top-five teams in the Shore duked it out until overtime of the 14th and final bout. The individual state tournament is the crown jewel of the sport and maybe all of the NJSIAA’s championship events, but big-time dual meets are the heartbeat. It was pumping strong on Wednesday night in Howell.
No. 4 Howell 32, No. 3 CBA 31
150: Tyler Barrett (CBA) p. Gavin Merkel, 2:57
157: Zander Silva (CBA) md. Nick Acque, 17-9
165: Hunter Mays (Howell) p. Daniel Menake, 0:59
175: DJ Henry (Howell) md. Nick Stump, 15-2
190: Ian Soutar (Howell) d. Peter Grippo, 3-2
215: Robert Canterino (CBA) p. Dane Colfer, 3:06
285: Thomas Richard (Howell) d. Taig Sheehy, 2-1 (SV)
106: Liam Clark (Howell) p. Tyler Venet, 0:27
113: Xavier Ortega (Howell) md. Vin Principe, 10-0
120: Alex Nini (CBA) tf. Mike Edmundson, 5:07 (22-7)
126: Garrett Totten (CBA) md. Sawyer Ostroff, 14-4
132: Kieren Bruen (Howell) d. AJ Falcone, 4-3
138: Julian George (CBA) p. JJ Machnik, 1:00
144: Giovanni Scafidi (Howell) d. Nick Punzi, 5-3 (SV)
Check back for an expanded photo gallery by Richard O'Donnell
Howell vs. CBA Wrestling