TOMS RIVER — From 1965 to 2016, Howell’s wrestling program accomplished nearly everything possible in the world of high school wrestling. The Rebels won countless Shore Conference division titles and recently added Shore Conference Tournament and state sectional titles to their trophy case.

To truly be considered elite in the tradition-rich state of New Jersey, an overall NJSIAA team title is a prerequisite. Heading into this season it was the one and only accomplishment Howell had yet to achieve.

That changed in epic fashion on Sunday at Pine Belt Arena when Howell rallied to defeat Hunterdon Central, 28-27, to win the NJSIAA Group V title and secure the program’s first NJSIAA group championship.

The Rebels won eight of the 14 bouts, and when freshman Luke Rada made sure he didn’t allow Jack Bauer to win by technical fall or fall at 113 pounds in the final bout, the Rebels finally had their elusive state championship.


There were several heroes for Howell in its penultimate moment, and the biggest was senior 220-pounder Eric Keosseian defeating Victor Lacombe, 4-3 with a buzzer-beating takedown, to cut Howell’s deficit to 24-21 with three bouts left. Before that there was junior Dan Esposito riding out Vince Romaniello in ultimate tiebreaker to win 2-1 at 138 pounds. Sophomore Xavier Kelly, wrestling for all of 14 months, got a turn in the third period to defeat Bryce Hall, 3-2 at 145 pounds. Junior Jesse Liptzin provided massive bonus points at 106 pounds with a major decision to make Rada’s job a little easier.

It’s clichè to talk about a win being a ‘total team effort’, but in wrestling, state championships aren’t won without 14 wrestlers, or at least the vast majority, doing exactly what their team needs of them.

“Those guys never panicked,” said Howell head coach John Gagliano. “Hunterdon Central is a very good team and we didn’t start out the way we wanted, but we kept grinding and kept having faith.”

“We finally got here and did it,” Keosseian said. “We’ve always been a good team but we had never been able to accomplish this before. We knew it wasn’t about one guy, it’s about the whole team in these instances, about 14 guys doing their job.”

Howell’s only loss this season came to Hunterdon Central, 30-29, on Jan. 7, and the Rebels knew if they made it back to the state final they’d see the Red Devils again. Revenge and redemption were on their minds.

“We lost to them earlier in the year and that just fueled the fire,” Esposito said. “The goal was to get back here and get them.”

Hunterdon Central grabbed an 8-0 lead after two bouts as Hunter Graf won by 16-1 technical fall over Eli Orford to start the match. Howell was pinned in that bout last time, so the Rebels were actually ahead of the game by one point. A setback came at 126 where Peter Nace defeated Darby Diedrich, 8-4, reversing a 9-5 loss in the team’s regular-season meeting.

Junior Kyle Slendorn answered with a 12-3 major decision over Pasquale Vizzoni at 132 pounds, getting two takedowns each in the second and third periods, to get the Rebels on the board and cut the deficit to 8-4.

Howell needed a win from Esposito at 138, and he delivered in white-knuckle fashion by riding out Vincent Romaniello in the second tiebreaker and then again in ultimate tiebreaker for a 2-1 victory. Each wrestler had an escape in regulation and neither could score from neutral in sudden victory. Esposito chose defense to start the tiebreaker round but couldn’t get out. Then it was Romaniello’s turn to try to get out, but Esposito quickly sank in his legs to keep him down for the 30 seconds. Esposito scored first in the bout and thus had choice for ultimate tiebreaker. He didn’t hesitate to take top.

“He rode me out and I just felt more comfortable on top,” Esposito said. “I definitely had to dig deep for that one, but I knew, as a captain, there was no way I could lose there. I knew it was an important match.”

“That started to get us going,” Gagliano said. “The guys never quit and that says a lot about them, the way they just kept grinding. They knew we had to find a way to make up some points.”

Kelly was taken down early by Hall at 145, but kept it at a 2-1 deficit entering the third period. Riding on top in the third, Kelly yanked Hall over with a tilt for two near-fall points that gave him a critical 3-2 win to put Howell up, 10-8. Kelly lost by fall to Kevin Ciresa at 152 pounds in the first meeting.

This time Ciresa squared off against Nick Sulkowski at 152, and despite getting thrown to his back and nearly pinned in the first period, Sulkowski held Ciresa to a 10-2 major decision which put Hunterdon Central back on top, 12-10.

Howell’s sophomore/freshman tandem of Christian Murphy at 160 and Shane Reitsma at 170 came through with major decisions to give Howell an 18-12 advantage. Murphy used a reversal, three near-fall points and a point for a second stalling call to win 12-2 over Chris Taylor. Reitsma, who is undefeated as a freshman (32-0), scored seven points in the second period on his way to a 13-4 major over Dan Fumato.

Hunterdon Central had firepower coming, however, and would win by fall in the next two bouts to take a 24-18 lead. Julian Heiligtag pinned Rashaun Hansford in the early seconds of the first period at 170 to tie the match at 18, and Michael Iodice followed by pinning Danny Schick in 3:50 at 195. Howell needed a win badly to stay in the match, but the odds on paper weren’t in the Rebels' favor.

At 220 it was strength vs. strength with Keosseian taking on Lacombe in a matchup of state medalists from last year. Lacombe had won both meetings, however, pinning Keosseian in the fourth round of wrestlebacks during the state tournament last year and earning a 5-1 decision this year. Keosseian had to find a way to break through, and he did.

Trailing 3-1 after Lacombe secured a takedown on the edge of the circle with under a minute left, Keosseian escaped to make it 3-2, then brought Lacombe to the mat just before time expired for the crazy and critical victory.

“I shot in on a dive double and I felt him resting, like he thought I was going to give up right there,” Keosseian said. “I peaked out, got behind him and got the two. I knew I had to redeem myself in this match. He beat me in states and again early this year, and I knew I had to come back and beat him.

“Eric was huge,” Gagliano said. “He wanted to get back and get that match again, and I’m so happy for him.”

Senior heavyweight Jake Nash followed with a 7-0 decision over Angelo Crespo to give Howell a 27-24 lead with two bouts left, and Liptzin’s 13-5 major decision over Anthony Romaniello put Howell up by four going into the final bout. Liptzin’s win wasn’t a reversal of a previous result, but instead a literal major improvement of his 2-0 win during the regular season.

All that was left was for Rada to lose small so Howell could win bigger than ever. The Rebels freshman did his job by holding Bauer to a decision, kicking off a celebration years in the making.

“We put in so much work during the season to get here and we had 14 guys who knew what we had to do,” Nash said. “It’s awesome. There’s no better feeling in the world than being state champs.”

Slowly, Howell has erased years of frustration at the hands of teams deemed to be just a notch above them. The Rebels eventually did it to win the Shore Conference Tournament in 2014 and have now won two in three years. They got past Southern and Brick Memorial to win state sectional titles. This time it was Hunterdon Central, a program making its 14th appearance in an NJSIAA state final. Now, there’s no denying Howell is among New Jersey’s elite.

“100 percent,” Gagliano said. “This was our ultimate goal to get here, to win it, and for these boys to do this, for this town, it’s just awesome.”


Box Score

Howell 28, Hunterdon Central 27

120: Hunter Graf (HC) tf. Eli Orford 4:00 (16-1)

126: Peter Nace (HC) d. Darby Diedrich 8-4

132: Kyle Slendorn (H) md. Pasquale Vizzoni 12-3

138: Dan Esposito (H) d. Vincent Romaniello 2-1 UTB

145: Xavier Kelly (H) d. Bryce Hall 3-2

152: Kevin Ciresa (HC) md. Nick Sulkowski 10-2

160: Christian Murphy (H) md. Chris Taylor 12-2

170: Shane Reitsma (H) md. Dan Furmato 13-4

182: Julian Heiligtag (HC) p. Rashaun Hansford 0:19

195: Michael Iodice (HC) p. Danny Schick 3:50

220: Eric Keosseian (H) d. Victor Lacombe 4-3

Hwt: Jake Nash (H) d. Angelo Crespo 7-0

106: Jesse Liptzin (H) md. Anthony Romaniello 13-4

113: Jack Bauer (HC) d. Luke Rada 6-3


Wrestling editor Bob Badders can be reached at 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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