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HOWELL — When Jimmy Slendorn stepped onto the mat with hundreds of fans going wild for the most important individual bout in Howell wrestling history, he thought of all the times he’d envisioned that very moment.

“It’s one of those situations you think about as a kid - in the back yard, bases loaded, full count,” Slendorn said. “But when you go out on the mat you have to put that out of your head and just wrestle.”

With the Rebels trailing Brick Memorial by one point with one bout left, Slendorn’s task was simple: just win. With history on the line, the Howell senior came through in the clutch, taking a 4-0 decision from Luis Bocalman at 120 pounds to give the Rebels a 27-25 victory in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV final on Friday night for the first sectional title in program history for the Rebels.

“It feels like you’re walking on a cloud,” Slendorn said. “There’s no other way to describe it. It’s euphoria.”

“It’s the best feeling, I can’t describe it,” said Howell head coach John Gagliano, himself a Howell wrestling alum. “It’s so awesome for these guys to work all year and set a goal and come out and win the sectional against Brick Memorial.

“This is an awesome day for the town of Howell to come out with a state championship.”

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The Rebels now advance to the Group IV semifinals against South Jersey Group IV champion Southern at 10 a.m. on Sunday at Pine Belt Arena on the campus of Toms River North.

Howell won eight of 14 bouts against Brick Memorial for its second win over the Mustangs in a two-week span. The Rebels defeated Brick Memorial, 28-27, to win the Shore Conference Tournament on Feb. 1. That was a first-time victory for Howell, and it set the tone for an even bigger victory Friday.

“Other times we would wrestle Brick Memorial and the thought was, 'We almost beat them, so now let’s go beat them,'” Slendorn said. “Now we knew we did it already, and we just had to go do it again, and that’s a lot easier than trying to make up for things.”

“The difference is they just believed,” Gagliano said. “In the past they weren’t sure. This time they believed it.”

Slendorn was the closer on this historic night in Howell, but as it often goes in championship matches, there were several heroes.

Junior Nick Lurski wasn’t even sure he would wrestle Friday night. It all depended on what weight Brick Memorial sent out Cliff Ruggiero at. Howell wanted Joey Schultz on him at either 160 or 170, and when Brick Memorial instead sent out Tim Santiago at 160 that meant it was Lurski’s chance.

“They said I might have to go out at 160, but they thought Ruggiero would go out,” Lurski said. “When they saw the other kid they said, ‘Lurski it’s you, get out there! You can win this one.’”

Lurski held a 3-2 lead heading into the third period in what was going to be a crucial toss-up bout regardless of bonus points. But then Lurski, starting the third period on defense, scored a reversal, found a cradle and brought the house down. Lurski pinned Santiago with 1:06 left in the third period, providing critical bonus points and cutting Brick Memorial’s lead to 13-9 through six bouts.

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“(The cradle) just presented itself so I went for it, and it happened,” Lurski said

“That was probably the best part of the match,” Slendorn said. “That was sick. I love Lurski.”

“We go through all the different scenarios, and you don’t think of that,” Gagliano said of Lurski’s clutch pin. “He just happened to find that (cradle). I don’t think I’ve seen a cradle from him all year.”

Lurski’s pin also made up for some lost ground after Brick Memorial’s Anthony Mitchel defeated Josue Pierre-Louis, 6-3, at 132 and Joe Ghione defeated Kris Lindemann, 7-3, at 138 pounds.

Just as Howell did when it won the SCT, it won in ways it never had in championship matches. In addition to Lurski’s pin, the Rebels won three overtime bouts that were obviously the difference in a two-point match. Schultz edged Ruggiero in sudden victory at 170 pounds, 3-1, on a takedown 11 seconds into the first overtime, and Stephen Boncimino topped Connor Owen, 5-3 at 182 pounds, also in sudden victory.

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“We knew where we had to win and knew it was going to be close,” Gagliano said. “We had to pull out the tight matches.”

Boncimino’s victory gave Howell a 15-13 lead through eight bouts, but Brick Memorial got a pin from Nick Costa over Sean Silverstein at 195 and another fall from Tyler Poling over Nate Litowsky at 220. The back-to-back six-point bouts gave the Mustangs a 25-15 lead with four bouts left. The way it shaped up, Brick Memorial needed to win at either heavyweight or 106 to close out the match.

At heavyweight, senior Kyle Cocozza came through with a 5-4 victory over Nick Rivera thanks to a reversal in the first period and a takedown in the second. Peter Dee then followed with a grueling 1-0 victory over Gianni Ghione in double overtime at 106 pounds to bring the Rebels to within 25-21. Mikey Sisolak’s 7-1 decision over Luke Vescovi at 113 pounds set up Slendorn to win the match.

“It’s one of those things where you look at the clock and look at the team score, and you know what you have to do,” Dee said. “You can’t let your team down. You get that little extra surge of energy. When it coms down to it the most a match can go is 10 minutes, and you can dig deep for 10 minutes of your life for this.”

Howell began the match with a 3-2 decision by Anthony Gagliano over Jose Bocalman at 126 pounds for a 3-0 lead. Mitchel’s win over Pierre-Louis tied the match at six before Ghione turned the tables on Lindemann to give the Mustangs the lead. Lindemann majored Ghione during the SCT final, but Ghione, who seems to be getting healthier by the match, put Lindemann to his back in the first period to fuel his 7-3 victory.

Alec Donovan then won by 18-7 major decision over Anthony Pozsonyi at 145 and Rob Ruggiero defeated Jack Rada, 5-3 at 152, to give Brick Memorial a 13-3 lead. Wins by Lurski, Schultz and Boncimino would give Howell the lead, and after pins by Costa and Poling for Brick Memorial, Cocozza and Dee won one-point bouts to put Howell in the driver’s seat. Sisolak did his job to set up Slendorn, and the senior didn’t miss.

After a scoreless first period, Slendorn picked up two near-fall points in the second period and added a reversal in the third for a 4-0 win. He tossed his head gear into the air and briefly jumped into a pile of his teammates before shaking hands for the official end of the match. That kicked off a celebration never seen inside Howell’s gymnasium.

Now comes the final push. The Rebels will wrestle Southern in the Group IV semifinals on Sunday morning, with the winner facing the Phillipsburg vs. Clifton/Hackensack winner for the overall Group IV title. Howell has lost to Southern, 28-19, and to Phillipsburg, 33-15, this season, so redemption will continue to be a theme.

“They are not satisfied,” Gagliano said. “They just have to work hard and get ready for Southern. We just wanted to have another chance.”

And now they’ve have that chance. First the Shore Conference Tournament, then the Central Jersey Group IV title. The only mountain left to climb for Howell is the mighty Group IV title, and now, more than ever, they believe they can do it.”

“Our confidence is way up,” Gagliano said. “Now we just have to do it on the mat.”

Box Score
NJSIAA Tournament

Central Jersey Group IV Final

1-Howell 27, 2-Brick Memorial 25

126: Anthony Gagliano (H) d. Jose Bocalman 3-2
132: Anthony Mitchel (BM) d. Josue Pierre-Louis 6-3
138: Joe Ghione (BM) d. Kris Lindemann 7-3
145: Alec Donovan (BM) md. Anthony Pozsonyi 18-7
152: Rob Ruggiero (BM) d. Jack Rada 5-3
160: Nick Lurski (H) p. Tim Santiago 4:54
170: Joey Schultz (H) d. Cliff Ruggiero 3-1 SV
182: Stephen Boncimino (H) d. Connor Owen 5-3 SV
195: Nick Costa (BM) p. Sean Silverstein 1:21
220: Tyler Poling (BM) p. Nate Litowsky 2:57
Hwt: Kyle Cocozza (Howell) d. Nick Rivera 5-4
106: Peter Dee (Howell) d. Gianni Ghione 1-0
113: Mikey Sisolak (Howell) d. Luke Vescovi 7-1
120: Jimmy Slendorn (Howell) d. Luis Bocalman 4-0

Records: At Howell (28-3); Brick Memorial (15-3).

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