BRICK TOWNSHIP — A season ago, the obstacles Ocean's Jake Benner had to navigate on Monday at the Mustang Classic was enough to psych him out before he even stepped on the mat. After a 29-win freshman season and a district championship to his name, the talented sophomore now knows he can compete with the best.

Benner came from the No. 8 seed to win one of the deepest weights at Monday's loaded Mustang Classic at Brick Memorial, capturing the 132-pound title with a 6-4 decision over St. Augustine's Reid White.

"I remember this tournament last year and he was nervous going into his matches, and that's how he wrestled," said Ocean head coach Cippy Apicelli. "This year, he believed and we all believed he was going to come here and win this thing. As loaded as the weight was - 13 seed-able kids or so - we thought he was going to come out as the best guy in the weight."

In the quarterfinals, Benner caught the eye of the crowd when he knocked off top-seeded Evan DeLuise from Don Bosco Prep, 3-1. DeLuise was the Region II champion at 113 pounds last season. Benner then defeated Wall's Nick Wagner, the Region VI fourth-place finisher at 126 pounds, 5-0 in the semifinals before closing out his fantastic tournament with a win over White, the Region VIII runner-up at 120 pounds last season.

Photo by Ray Richardson.
Ocean sophomore Jake Benner. (Photo by Ray Richardson).

"I was a little nervous at first, seeing I'm the eighth seed and wrestling the one seed in the quarters," Benner said. "But once I beat him, in my head I was the No. 1 seed. Once I beat him I knew I could get to the finals."

"A kid like him who is getting more and more confidence every day and is still young, I'd rather him come into a loaded tournament than win this without really beating anybody," Apicelli said. "Today, every kid he beat is a really good wrestler. He's at a very high level right now."

Benner was an accomplished youth wrestler who finished third in the intermediate state tournament at 112 pounds in eighth grade. He found immediate success as a freshman in going 29-6 and winning the District 22 title at 120 pounds, but admitted he had his doubts as a ninth-grader in a Spartans singlet.

"Last year when I wrestled good kids I was just trying to keep it close, and that wasn't a good attitude," Benner said. "This year I'm going out there to beat them. It's a completely different mindset. I'm looking to score a lot more points and I feel confident on my feet and on the mat."

In the final, White opened the scoring with an early takedown before Benner scored a reversal to tie the bout at two. He took control from there, scoring another reversal in the second period and adding two near-fall points for a 6-2 lead heading to the third period. White closed to within 6-4 with a reversal in the third period but wasn't able to turn Benner, who held on for the two-point win. After winning the Mahwah Tournament on opening day and scoring a technical fall in a dual-meet win over Middletown South, Benner is out to an 8-0 start this season.

"This gives me a lot more confidence," Benner said. "It puts my name out there a little bit. A lot of people are going to try to beat me now, so I'm just going to have to keep training hard to stay on top."

Benner was one of four Shore Conference wrestlers to win championships in a stacked tournament widely considered the best regular-season tournament in New Jersey. Brick Memorial junior Gianni Ghione bulldozed his way through the 120-pound bracket on his way to a second Mustang Classic title and the Most Outstanding Wrestler award as voted on by the coaches.

Ghione, the state runner-up at 113 pounds last season who will wrestle at Princeton University in 2017, smashed Paulsboro junior Anthony Duca in just 1:16. He opened a quick 7-0 lead before using a three-quarter nelson to deck Duca with 44 seconds left in the first period. Duca was the District 29 champion and Region VII runner-up at 113 pounds last season. Ghione had three pins and a technical fall during the tournament to improve to 8-0 on the season. He now has 70 career wins.

"I just figured I'd go out and just wrestle," said Ghione when asked about his plan against Duca, whom he also defeated to win the 2014 Mustang Classic. "I'm confident I've worked hard enough to get a win, and I think a lot of my changes come from me being confident in the work I've put in."

Brick Memorial junior Gianni Ghione. (Photo by Ray Richardson).
Brick Memorial junior Gianni Ghione. (Photo by Ray Richardson).

Last season Ghione made a fantastic run to the 113-pound state final against a very tough draw, and since then he's had no shortage of motivation to get back there and finish the job.

"It didn't hit me that I made state finals until about mid-July," Ghione said. "I was just sitting there like, 'Wait, hold up...'. Now I think about it all the time. I think about winning in the state semifinals and running off to hug my brother. If I'm tired during a workout I just think about how I can't get tired on the mat. There's a lot of motivation for me."

Wall junior Matt McKenzie rebounded from an upset loss at the season-opening Colt Classic to claim gold at 195 pounds. McKenzie had to wade into deep water once again with overtime bouts in the semifinals and final, but this time was able to come out on top. He scored a takedown in sudden victory to defeat St. John Vianney's Calvin Beaty 3-1 in the semifinals, and used an escape plus a takedown in double overtime to outlast Brearley's Saverio Salcfas, 4-2, in the championship bout.

"I was pretty prepared to get that loss off my back and start wrestling to my full potential," McKenzie said.

McKenzie, the sixth-place finisher in the state tournament at 195 pounds last season, was upended by CBA's Jack LaCorte in triple overtime in the Colt Classic final. Coming off a football season where he was a Class B North All-Division defensive lineman for the Crimson Knights, McKenzie knows his conditioning isn't at the level it needs to be to return to his winning ways."

Wall junior Matt McKenzie. (Photo by Ray Richardson).
Wall junior Matt McKenzie. (Photo by Ray Richardson).

"I definitely need a lot of work, but I'll get there," McKenzie said.

The win put McKenzie at 7-1 for the season and upped his career win total to 77.

"(The win) was definitely important to build his confidence, but he's on track right now," said Wall head coach Brian Fischer. "He's been doing a really good job with certain things we've been working. (Being more aggressive) is one of those things. He's now starting to get stall calls on guys in the third period and is pressing the issue more in the later part of the match, not just going through the motions."

Teammate Brett Donner cruised to the 170-pound title with three pins and a major decision. The Rutgers-bound senior who is ranked 19th in the nation by InterMat made quick work of Paulsboro's Zach Richard in the final, winning by fall in just 1:23. His most impressive work actually came in a 19-10 win over Middletown North's Thomas Anderson in the semifinals. Anderson, who wrestled a very good tournament that included pinning Brick Memorial's Anthony Mitchell in the quarterfinals and placing fourth, reversed Donner to tie the bout at two early in the first period. Being scored upon flipped a switch for Donner, who proceeded to take Anderson down eight more times in the bout while allowing only escape points.

"It was like waking the sleeping giant when he got reversed," Fischer said. "He didn't like it, and to me I'm glad he didn't like that and turned it up from there."

Wall senior Brett Donner. (Photo by Ray Richardson).
Wall senior Brett Donner. (Photo by Ray Richardson).

The final bout of the tournament also produced one of the most memorable moments, as Don Bosco Prep junior Eric Chakonis stunned Brick Memorial junior Nick Rivera, 4-1, in the heavyweight final. Rivera was the state runner-up at heavyweight last season, falling to Chakonis's older brother, Zack, who is now at Northwestern University. Chakonis was fourth in Region II at 220 pounds last season. Rivera also entered the tournament ranked No. 15 in the nation.

Rivera held a 1-0 lead late in the bout when Chakonis, who was close to escaping for most of the third period, got behind him for a reversal and a 2-1 lead. He added two near-fall points in the closing seconds as Rivera desperately scrambled to escape.

At 160 pounds, Don Bosco Prep senior Kyle Bierdumpfel, the state champion at 138 pounds last season and a Beast of the East champion this season, defeated Delsea's Billy Janzer 7-0 in the final to record his 100th career victory.

Howell freshman Darby Diedrich flashed his potential in reaching the final at 106 pounds. As the No. 7 seed, he defeated Paulsboro's Geno Duca 2-1 in the quarterfinals and pinned Holy Cross sophomore Chase Mullarkey in 1:18 in the semifinals. He fell to St. Peter's Prep sophomore Michael Kelly, 6-2, in the championship bout. Kelly is ranked No. 20 in the nation.

Wall senior Joe Demuner won a thrilling semifinal bout against Howell sophomore Dan Esposito, 3-2, before falling to St. Peter's Prep senior Alec Kelly 15-0 in the final. Kelly is a three-time Region IV champion and a two-time state third-place finisher.

Middletown North sophomore Stanley Wodjylak reached the 138-pound final as the No. 7 seed. He pinned Ocean's Chris Donnelly, the No. 2 seed, in the quarterfinals before scoring a 5-2 decision over High Point sophomore Shane Kobis. He was defeated by St. Peter's Prep junior Nick Santos 6-0 in the final. Santos was a state qualifier last season and reached the Beast of the East final on opening weekend.

Other champions included Paulsboro's Nick Duca at 113, High Point's Jared Kobis at 145, Delsea's Lorenzo Ruggiero at 152, St. Augustine Prep's Jose Tabora at 182 and Holy Cross's Matt Correnti at 220. Ruggiero defeated Don Bosco Prep's Dominick Mandarino, who was seventh in the state last season, 3-2. Correnti, another key member of Rutgers' 2016 recruiting class, pinned St. Augustine's Jim Brady in 3:09 to cap a dominant tournament.

Wrestling editor Bob Badders can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook.

More From Shore Sports Network