FLEMINGTON - As senior 132-pounder Troy Gallo put the finishing touches on a 4-1 win in the NJSIAA Region V pre-quarterfinals on Wednesday night, it was a sight that hadn't been seen at Holmdel wrestling in decades.

Gallo's victory helped set the stage for the Hornets at this weekend's Region V tournament at Hunterdon Central by giving them four wrestlers still alive for a chance to punch their ticket to the NJSIAA Individual Championships in Atlantic City. That quartet is the most wrestlers Holmdel has had participating in a Region tournament since 1982.

Senior Troy Gallo (in gray singlet) picked up a win in the Region V pre-quarterfinals to give Holmdel four wrestlers still alive in the tournament heading into the weekend. (Photo by Scott Stump)
Senior Troy Gallo (in gray singlet) picked up a win in the Region V pre-quarterfinals to give Holmdel four wrestlers still alive in the tournament heading into the weekend. (Photo by Scott Stump)

"The amount of improvement we've had from my freshman year until now has been
amazing,'' Gallo said.

The individual success of Gallo along with District 20 champions Scott Dupont (152), Chris Ammirati (160) and Gallo's younger brother, sophomore Dean Gallo (138), has followed a breakout season as a team in which the Hornets won 19 matches, qualified for the Shore Conference Tournament for the first time in school history and also reached the Central Jersey Group II tournament.

"It definitely carries over the momentum,'' sixth-year coach Danny Franke said. "It's just big to have a banner year to really set the bar for the coming years as we kind of build the program. People who didn't even know we had a wrestling team are talking about us, so it's just awesome to have a whole new atmosphere."

The three district champions, all of whom will see their first action of the Region V tournament on Friday night, are the most Holmdel has had in one season since crowning five in 1982. Former wrestler Garrett Hilsheimer helped get the ball rolling last year when he won a District 21 title at 170 to become Holmdel's first district champ since 1998.

Certainly part of the reason is the state-wide realignment that moved Shore Conference wrestlers from competing in four districts to competing in 15 districts across the state. The feeling locally was that the Shore had so much talent that many quality wrestlers were taking early exits in the postseason, and if they had a chance to compete against the rest of the state in the early rounds, more of them would advance.

The numbers bear that out so far, as 39 more Shore Conference wrestlers made it to the Region tournaments this season compared to the old alignment.

The Hornets formerly competed in a loaded District 21, where strong programs like Jackson Memorial and Howell usually dominated the top of the podium. With the move to District 20, the talented Holmdel group proved the strength of the Shore by finishing third as a team behind champion Raritan and state-ranked Monroe and produced three champions.

The Hornets also moved from the formerly all-Shore Conference Region VI to Region V, although Region V looks to be one of the most rugged in the state with power programs like Hunterdon Central, Bound Brook and Delaware Valley added to the group from District 20.

"It's been better,'' Gallo said. "The level of competition isn't as hard as Region VI. There were kids that weren't even making it out of districts that would've been in contention to make it to states in other regions, so I think it's awesome we're getting more opportunities."

Gallo took advantage of his opportunity on Wednesday night to keep his season alive after losing in the pre-quarterfinals last year. He scored early on Sayreville's Trevor Mastorio then picked up a stalling point and an escape while riding Mastorio out for long periods to squash any of his offense. The win was the 117th of Gallo's career, which is the school record.

Gallo (34-5) will now face fourth-seeded Aidan Dillon of Pingry on Friday night in the hopes of getting another crack at Raritan star Russell Benson, the No. 1 seed, who beat Gallo in the District 20 final.

"I think I've beaten him once since seventh grade," Gallo said. "That would be my perfect way to end my senior year."

Dupont (34-3) enters as the No. 5 seed at 152 and faces fourth-seeded Francis Dillon of Pingry, the brother of Gallo's opponent. He has an added incentive to get the win because he currently has 99 career victories, so it would also be a milestone.

Dupont will have a tall order on Saturday if he pulls out the win, as lurking in the semifinals would almost certainly be top-seeded Stephan Glasgow of Bound Brook, a Rutgers recruit who is the defending state champion at 152 and ranked No. 5 in the nation by FloWrestling.

Dean Gallo (29-7) will face another No. 1 seed from Bound Brook on Friday in Robert Cleary, and Ammirati (33-4) will tangle with yet another stud from Bound Brook, undefeated top seed Mekhi Lewis.

While it will be an uphill battle to reach the semifinals, it's all about just making it to Atlantic City for the four Hornets. No Holmdel wrestler has advanced to Atlantic City since John Mullan in 1986, according to Franke.

The Hornets certainly have a good shot to end that drought, especially given that a rule change has allowed the top four finishers in each Region to qualify, compared to the top three under the previous system.

"Making it to Atlantic City has been my dream since I was a little kid,'' Dupont said. "Same thing with Troy, same thing with Chris."

Holmdel has only had two state place-winners in its history, and that was Mullan in 1983 and heavyweight Mark Buczynski in 1981, both of whom finished seventh/eighth.

A growing feeder program at the youth level in Holmdel has been crucial in the Hornets' improvement. The four wrestlers still alive in the postseason are all club wrestlers, so it's a year-round commitment to them. They also are natural workout partners because of their proximity in weight classes, so they push one another in practice.

Holmdel had eight 20-match winners this season, including Ammirati's freshman twin brothers, so the feeder system is also helping to create depth throughout the lineup.

"Now every year we're going to have good freshmen coming in from the rec program,'' Troy Gallo said. "I can't wait to come back and see all the younger guys doing great."

The aim is to get to the point where qualifying for the SCT and state tournament and sending multiple wrestlers deep into the individual tournament is the norm rather than the exception.

"We're just going to keep trying to set the bar,'' Franke said.



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