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MIDDLETOWN -- It has been an up-and-down 2022-2023 season for Howell, an uncharacteristic first month for a program that is a perennial championship contender and has been a fixture in the Shore Conference Top 10 for the last two decades.

Still, slow start and all, the Rebels have the opportunity to be exactly where they want to be when the state team tournament rolls around. Their hopeful return to form began on Wednesday night.

Trailing for the entire match heading into the last four weight classes, Howell rallied with a pin by sophomore Xavier Ortega at 120 pounds and technical falls by juniors Sebastian Ortega and Giovanni Scafidi at 126 and 132 pounds, respectively, to edge No. 9 Middletown North, 38-37, in a down-to-the-wire Shore Conference Class A North match.

The Ortega brothers and Scafidi earning 16 out of a possible 18 points in those three bouts erased a 12-point deficit and put the Rebels (9-5, 4-2) ahead by four points heading into the final bout at 138 pounds. Howell's JJ Machnik was able to hold state qualifier Justin Fearon to an 8-2 decision, fighting off his back in the second period to avoid the major decision and clinch the victory for Howell. A major decision would have tied the match and Middletown North would have won on criteria via having the most falls, 5-4. Also saving key bonus points was freshman Kylie Gudewitz at 113 pounds. After winning a girls Shore Conference Tournament title on Monday, Gudewitz lost by 21-7 major decision to Middletown North's Anthony Astorino but did not get pinned and avoided giving up any additional points in the closing seconds, which would have resulted in a technical fall and additional team point for the Lions.

The teams split the 14 bouts seven apiece with Howell receiving wins by fall from Gavin Merkel (165), DJ Henry (190), Thomas Richards (285), and Xavier Ortega (120), technical falls from Sebastian Ortega (126) and Scafidi (132), and a major decision from Kieran Bruen at 150 pounds.

For Middletown North, Colin Oden (144), Matthew Castelli (157), Christian Cueto (175), Lucas Ainbinder (215), and Brady Klinsky (106) won by fall, Astroino (113) won by major decision, and Fearon (138) won by decision.

"I think it's a huge win, definitely," Sebastian Ortega said. "We lost some early matches against teams we should have beat; we were without starters and our team, mentally, wasn't there. Once the season picked up we started being more vigilant and having a better mindset. At the end of the match, our whole team was coming together. Even though we gave up some pins we bounced back right after and maximized our points and then minimized (their) points when we had to."

"With the way we started, to pull out a tight win like that was exciting," said Howell head coach John Gagliano.

Only one of the 14 bouts did not accrue bonus points and just two bouts went the full six minutes. The fireworks started early with a flurry of pins and didn't let up. First it was Oden, a three-time region qualifier who was fifth in Region 5 at 126 pounds last season, locking up a cradle and pinning Aidan Grant in 3:17 at 144 pounds.

Howell answered at 150 with an 8-0 major decision by Bruen, a returning state qualifier, which included one takedown in each period and the bonus-clinching takedown with 1:15 left in the third period. He was able to ride out Louis Mustillo the rest of the way to put Howell on the board with four team points.

The next seven bouts all ended by fall in the second period or earlier as match took on a breakneck pace that quickly turned the lineup over to the lowerweights. Castelli, a returning district third-place finisher, pinned Devin Perez in 3:29 to give Middletown North (11-4, 3-3) a 12-4 lead. District 22 champion Gavin Merkel answered for Howell with a fall over Daniel Benbrook in 2:26 at 165 pounds and Christian Cueto responded for the Lions by pinning Russell Halvorsen in 3:10 at 175.

The fusillade of falls continued at 190 pounds with Henry, a two-time state qualifier, needing just 32 seconds to pin Evan Layfield. Ainbinder improved to 18-3 on the season with a first-period pin over Jason Willey at 215 pounds and Howell's Thomas Richards, a returning region qualifier, turned and pinned Michael Dwyer in 1:27 at heavyweight. At 106 pounds, Middletown North returning state qualifier Brady Klinsky pinned Mason Hultman in 1:10 to give the Lions a 30-22 lead with five bouts left.

Howell knew it still had three of its best wrestlers about to take the mat, but the Rebels needed to save bonus points to give them a chance at staging a comeback. On Monday, Kylie Gudewitz dominated the girls SCT at 114 pounds with two wins by fall and a 14-0 major decision over defending champion Caitlin O'Reilly of Middletown South in the championship bout. She is a rising star amongst her female counterparts, but as the starting 113-pounder on the boys team, she often has a different job. This time it was to stay off her back and limit bonus points as much as possible.

She trailed just 2-0 at the end of the first period at 113 pounds, but Astorino ramped up his attacks in the second period with a reversal, two takedowns, and three near-fall points to take an 11-2 lead into the third period. He continued to take Gudewitz down, adding five more takedowns in the third period, but Gudewitz was able to stay off her back and prevent Astorino from getting the pin or the additional point needed for a technical fall in the waning seconds of the bout. The win put Middletown North up 34-22 with four bouts left.

"She is so tough and she never gives up, and that's what she's like in the wrestling room," Gagliano said. "She always wants to compete. Even taking a loss like that, she never gave up. It made a big difference having her do what she did. She did her job."

Howell's rally then began at 120 pounds when Xavier Ortega, a District 22 and Region 6 champion last season, piled up four takedowns and three near-fall points before pinning Tyler Oden in 2:30. The fall trimmed Middletown North's lead to 34-28 with three bouts remaining.

At 126, Sebastian Ortega, a 2021 state medalist who reached wrestleback round 4 at least season's state tournament, scored a quick takedown and then went to work on talented sophomore Jacob Portman, turning him three times for a total of six back points to take an 8-0 lead heading to the second period. He reversed Portman in the second period and turned him again for three back points, but Portman countered with a reversal on the edge of the circle. Ortega answered with a reversal of his own and turned Portman again for two back points to secure a 17-2 technical fall at the 4:00 mark.

Howell now had the chance to take the lead with a victory and Scafidi did exactly that with a dominant 26-11 technical fall over standout Middletown North freshman Nicholas Wall. Scafidi, a two-time state qualifier who reached wrestleback round 4 last season, scored a whopping nine takedowns and two back points in the first period for a 20-8 lead. He tacked on three more takedowns in the second period for the technical fall at 3:01. Howell 38, Middletown North 34 with one bout left.

"We didn't know if we were going to be close enough but we knew what we had coming up on the backside," Gagliano said.

"We've been in that situation before, including last season, and we brought home some big points at the end of matches," Sebastian Ortega said. "We try to stick to the same mindset: just keep scoring."

The math was simple at 138 pounds. A win by major decision over better would win the match for Middletown North. Fearon knew what he had to do, and so did Machnik, and it was that battle of priorities that ultimately decided the match. Machnik started with a takedown but Fearon escaped and then took Machnik down to lead 3-2 after the first period.

Fearon scored a reversal in the second period to go up, 5-2, and then put Machnik to his back for two near-fall points. Machnik was able to maneuver his way out of a dire situation and survive to the third period trailing 7-2. Machnik chose the down position in the third period but he was never able to get out. A stalling point awarded to Fearon made it 8-2 and the Middletown North sophomore did everything in his power to work for the turn, but Machnik held his ground, limited his opponent to a standard decision, and clinched a much-needed victory for him and his teammates.

"I think they are starting to come together," Gagliano said. "We started off not the way we would like but they are really working in the room and coming together as a team, which we didn't see as much in the beginning. It's starting to click."

"The team morale has definitely picked up," Sebastian Ortega said.

We are into the third week of January when it's simultaneously early and late in the team portion of the season. There's plenty of time to get things in order for a run at a state sectional crown, but the home stretch is nearing. The Rebels are currently fourth in power points in Central Jersey Group 5 with postseason rival Hunterdon Central presently occupying the top spot. It will take gritty wins for the Rebels to add another championship to the trophy case. Wins just like the one earned on Wednesday night.

"We'd rather peak at the end," Gagliano said. "I definitely like the direction we're going."


Box Score

Howell 38, No. 9 Middletown North 37

Colin Oden (Middletown North) over Aidan Grant (Howell) (Fall 3:17)
Kieran Bruen (Howell) over Louis Mustillo (Middletown North) (MD 8-0)
Matthew Castelli (Middletown North) over Devin Perez (Howell) (Fall 3:29)
Gavin Merkel (Howell) over Daniel Benbrook (Middletown North) (Fall 2:36)
Christian Cueto (Middletown North) over Russell Halvorsen (Howell) (Fall 3:10)
DJ Henry (Howell) over Evan Layfield (Middletown North) (Fall 0:32)
Lucas Ainbinder (Middletown North) over Jason Willey (Howell) (Fall 1:11)
Thomas Richards (Howell) over Michael Dwyer (Middletown North) (Fall 1:27)
Brady Klinsky (Middletown North) over Mason Hultman (Howell) (Fall 1:10)
Anthony Astorino (Middletown North) over Kylie Gudewitz (Howell) (MD 21-7)
Xavier Ortega (Howell) over Colin Oden (Middletown North) (Fall 2:30)
Sebastian Ortega (Howell) over Jacob Portman (Middletown North) (TF 17-2 0:00)
Giovanni Scafidi (Howell) over Nicholas Wall (Middletown North) (TF 26-8 0:00)
Justin Fearon (Middletown North) over JJ Machnik (Howell) (Dec 8-2)



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