*Photo gallery by Ray Richardson*

ATLANTIC CITY — A loss in the NJSIAA state wrestling finals can, and often does, leave a wrestler devastated and inconsolable. But after having his Cinderella run end in the 126-pound state championship bout, a smile remained with Howell junior Kyle Slendorn.

Slendorn made a great run to the final out of the No. 7 seed by taking out the No. 2 seed and avenging his only prior defeat along the way, but he ran into a buzzsaw in the form of Hanover Park sophomore Nick Raimo, the No. 5 126-pounder in the country, and suffered a 10-4 loss.

“I had a great tournament and I can’t walk away from this being mad,” Slendorn said. “That kid is unbelievable. I can’t be mad with how I wrestled today. I took second in the state and I’m happy.”

Howell's Kyle Slendorn was still smiling on the medal stand after finishing second in the state tournament at 126 pounds. (Photo by Ray Richardson).

Raimo, who was the state runner-up at 120 pounds last season and entered high school with the rightful tag of "phenom," took Slendorn down three times in the first period for a 6-2 lead. A reversal in the second period gave him an 8-2 advantage and another takedown in the third period secured him the state championship. All Slendorn could manage was four escapes. He experienced first-hand the hype surrounding Raimo.

“Now I know why he’s ranked where he is,” Slendorn said. “I got in on a shot and he didn’t move. He’s so strong, it’s crazy. The one time he tossed me and just crunched up my whole chest, it was ridiculous.”

Raimo has various attacks, but he likes to make his opponents come to him, where he ties up and sets up his offense. Slendorn’s plan was to stay away from Raimo’s under-hooks, but it was easier said than done.

“We game-planned to stay out of those and how to get out, but when you get in there it’s a totally different story,” Slendorn said.

Slendorn didn’t change his style in the final just because it was Raimo. He went with what got him there, and that was to stay on the attack.

“He likes to stay away and capitalize on under-hooks and stuff like that, so I probably could have stayed away and made it a close match,” Slendorn said. “But I’m in the state finals and I want to win it, and that’s not my game. I couldn’t do that. I had to go out there and wrestle.”

After reaching the state tournament as a freshman and then coming within one win of an all-state finish as a sophomore, Slendorn broke through in a big way during Howell’s banner season. He captured his third district title and won a Region 6 championship for the first time, earning a top-eight seed in the state tournament. In the quarterfinals he beat two-time state medalist and second-seeded Shane Metzler (West Morris), 5-4, and then beat Paulsboro’s Anthony Duca, 7-2, to reach the state final. Duca was Slendorn’s only loss to that point, handing him a 20-9 thrashing on opening day.

Howell's Kyle Slendorn avenged his only loss when he beat Paulsboro's Anthony Duca in the state semifinals. (Photo by Ray Richardson).

“It was great, especially avenging that loss, and I couldn’t think of a better way to do it than in the state semifinals,” Slendorn said.

“He’s such a good kid and works so hard, so to see him achieve a goal of placing and getting to the state final, I couldn’t be happier,” said Howell head coach John Gagliano.

Slendorn and teammate Eric Keosseian each reached the state finals, and Keosseian brought home the 220-pound state title to become Howell’s first state champ since current assistant coach Joey Langel in 2008. It put the stamp on a season where the Rebels won their second Shore Conference Tournament title and captured the NJSIAA Group V title for the first time in program history. Gagliano was also selected as the New Jersey Wrestling Coaches Association Coach of the Year.

Howell returns seven state qualifiers next season, including Slendorn and sophomore Darby Diedrich, who finished seventh at 120 pounds.

“It’s something all of us are going to remember, the 2017 year,” Gagliano said. “The kids, the coaches, it was just an outstanding year.”

“The whole team, just about everybody did they best they could,” Slendorn said. “It was a historic year. In just about every category we set a record. We’re thinking about being the No. 1 public school in the state next year. We’re just going to keep going up.”


Wrestling editor Bob Badders can be reached at badders@allshoremedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.