ATLANTIC CITY - For nearly three months, the knowledge gained by Howell junior Kyle Slendorn in his lone loss of the season had been sitting in his memory bank, waiting to be withdrawn for the biggest match of his career.

Standing between Slendorn and the first trip to a state final for a Howell wrestler in nine years at the NJSIAA Championships on Saturday was Paulsboro's Anthony Duca, who major-decisioned Slendorn 20-9 in the John and Betty Vogeding Tournament to start the season.

Howell junior Kyle Slendorn avenged his lone loss of the season to reach his first NJSIAA final. (Photo by Scott Stump)
Howell junior Kyle Slendorn avenged his lone loss of the season to reach his first NJSIAA final. (Photo by Scott Stump)

In that match, Slendorn was not prepared for Duca's attack, but in the semifinals at 126 at Boardwalk Hall on Saturday, he was a much different version of the wrestler Duca saw back in December.

The seventh-seeded Slendorn avenged his only loss with an emphatic 7-2 decision over the sixth-seeded Duca. The kid with the big grin and the mustache of a 1970s private investigator joined teammate Eric Keosseian as the Rebels' first state finalists since Joey Langel and Harry Turner both reached the big stage in 2008.

Slendorn will face top-seeded Nick Raimo of Hanover Park in the finals, which begin at 3 p.m. on Sunday at Boardwalk Hall, after vanquishing Duca.

"Last time I didn't really know how his style was, and he was just hitting me with blast doubles,'' Slendorn said. "Then he got me off guard, he got me down in the match, and then I just started wrestling sloppy and he was just capitalizing, capitalizing, and drove the score up real high, but I kind of knew that wasn't the real score. I kind of figured this time it was going to be a lot closer."


The initial loss to Duca exposed Slendorn (42-1), who could not stop Duca's shots. He and Langel, who is now an assistant coach for the Rebels, watched the video repeatedly to fix the problem on the chance that the two would see each other again.

"We took a look at how the kid was attacking and just had to adjust Kyle's stance,'' Langel said. "(The loss) brought out a flaw in Kyle's wrestling, and we attacked it. We just made that better so that now the next time he sees him we'll know what to do and it won't be a flaw any more."

Slendorn's hips are so good that he can score on almost anybody, even the elite at Boardwalk Hall, so it was all about shoring up his defense. He drilled with Langel to patch the chink in the armor, leaving Duca grasping for a Plan B when he wasn't landing takedown shots.

"Once he stopped the double and stops his shot, we were able to get to our offense and score from there,'' Langel said.

"I know he's good with the doubles, (so I've) got to stay low on my feet, don't let him shoot, let me shoot,'' Slendorn said. "I just kept trying to stay defensive and let him shoot and I'm going to keep taking him down."

After surrendering an early takedown, Slendorn got a first-period reversal to tie the bout at 2-2 and then escaped to start the second period for a lead he would not relinquish. He added two more takedowns while preventing Duca from generating any offense. Once he got Duca off his feet, he dominated him, riding him out for the final 1:15 of the second period and much of the third period.

"We went over that match in practice just focusing on getting better off that match, so that when the time comes like this and I have to wrestle him again, I know what to do,'' Slendorn said. "That's by far my best position. Whenever I get on top of a guy I know I'm going to be in good shape."

Slendorn has become a protege of Langel, who wrestled at Rutgers after winning the 112-pound championship in 2008 to become just the second wrestler in Howell history to win a state title. The two have a similar, funky style. Slendorn's huge takedown that tied the match late in a 5-4 quarterfinal upset of second-seeded Shane Metzler looked like a Langel flashback.


"I definitely learned a lot of that funk and scrambling from him,'' Slendorn said. "It works for me, so I like it."

"When we started wrestling I noticed his style and he likes to scramble, so I went with it and said, 'I'll show you everything I know,' and it's paid off,'' Langel said. "It's nice to pass the torch."

While the emotions often pour out of wrestlers in Atlantic City after big semifinal victories, Slendorn barely acknowledged his win over Duca other than quickly sticking his tongue out while slapping five with head coach John Gagliano on his way off the mat.

Slendorn couldn't resist at least a split-second celebration after the biggest win of his career. (Photo by Scott Stump)
Slendorn couldn't resist at least a split-second celebration after the biggest win of his career. (Photo by Scott Stump)

"I always see celebrations,'' he said. "I'm not really a big fan of them, so I try not to do any celebrations."

"He's a great wrestler for these kind of tournaments because he doesn't get too high, and he doesn't get too low,'' Langel said. "Whether he wins or loses, he's going after his next match."

He'll just let his 'stache do the talking.

"I started growing it out and I then I just kept it going,'' he said. "It's pretty good luck down here."

The outstanding tournament runs of Slendorn and Keosseian have been the capper to the Year of the Rebels. Howell won the Class A North, Shore Conference Tournament and South Jersey Group V titles before capturing their first Group title with an epic victory over Hunterdon Central in the Group V championship.

The Rebels are guaranteed three state place-winners, as Darby Diedrich (120) also ensured himself a top-eight finish in the wrestlebacks. That ties 1973 for the most they have ever had in one season.

"Basically my whole career, we would end the season on a bad note,'' Slendorn said. "We were losing in the sectional finals, Group finals, whatever. This year was different, so at the end of the season it was a totally different atmosphere than the past two years. It was like we're winners now, we've won at everything. So that positive attitude kept going into the states."

"I think it really carried on to the individual stuff,'' Gagliano said. "The kids have really rallied around each other."

Now comes the ultimate test in Raimo, who is the heavy favorite.

"It's Nick Raimo, and he's one of the top five in the nation, so it's going to be a pretty big upset if I beat him, so I will pull off some more magic hopefully,'' Slendorn said.

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