STAFFORD TOWNSHIP – Southern waited nearly a year to get another crack at Howell with a championship on the line, and on Friday night the Rams delivered a vintage performance to bring home another title.

A dominant win by senior Nick Pepe over Paul Jakub at 145 pounds was the key victory for Southern, which won eight bouts on its way to a 30-28 victory over Howell to claim the NJSIAA South Jersey Group 5 sectional championship.

Robert Woodcock won by fall at 138 pounds, Matt Brielmeier, Nick O’Connell and John Stout delivered major decisions and Jayson Scerbo, Luke Galan and J.T. Cornelius won key toss-up bouts to give the Rams their 13th sectional title and snap Howell’s 78-match winning streak.

"I couldn't be more proud of my team," Pepe said. "We all put in the work and the time, and we've been thinking of this since the last time we lost to Howell (in the 2018 Group 5 final). We've been waiting for this match and we did it."

"Before the match, I had one question for them: "Where else would you rather be right now?", said Southern head coach John Stout. "You get to go out and battle and have this moment to be great. People live an entire lifetime and don't get to feel what you're about to feel. I'll go to war with my guys any time."

Southern will be the No. 1 seed in the Group 5 tournament on Sunday at RWJBarnabas Health Arena on the campus of Toms River North. They will wrestle Passaic Tech in the semifinals at 2 p.m. Hunterdon Central and Watchung Hills will meet in the other semifinal and the winners will wrestle for the Group 5 title at 7 p.m.

"After every practice we end with "Group 5 state champs!'," Pepe said. "That's our final goal."

The loss for Howell was its first since a 30-29 defeat against Hunterdon Central on Jan. 7, 2017. The Rebels had won 78 straight matches and were trying to become just the second team in Shore Conference history (Long Branch) to win three straight NJSIAA group championships.

"We didn't wrestle our best and I think we left a lot of points on the board, but to [Southern's] credit, they outwrestled us," said Howell head coach John Gagliano. "The coin toss was huge. If we won the toss 152 and 170 would have been reversed."

Both teams made moves on the weigh-in sheet that sparked intrigue. Howell weighed Jakub, a sophomore and returning state qualifier, down to 145 pounds while Southern had senior John Stout, a returning Region 8 champion, weighed down at 170 pounds. With O'Connell, a Region 8 champion and former state medalist, at 152 pounds Howell like the matchups with Jakub on Pepe instead.

The move didn't surprise Southern. The Rams' coaching staff figured Jakub would come down and told Pepe to prepare for him. Stout's message to his senior was simple.

"Beat him."

Pepe wrecked Howell's plans with a dominating 9-3 decision that gave the Rams a 16-8 lead through six bouts. Jakub struck first with a takedown in the opening minute, but it was all Pepe from then on as he escaped and took Jakub down on the edge of the circle for a 3-2 lead, then scored another takedown late in the first to lead 5-3.

Pepe chose defense in the second period and scored a reversal to extend his lead to 7-3. He then put Jakub to his back for two nearfall points as the Southern crowd went berserk. Jakub couldn't get out, not in the second and not in the third as Pepe rode him for over three minutes to secure a monstrous victory.

"I knew it was a good matchup but I knew from experience I could take him down," Pepe said. "I had to stay on my offense and keep the pace up. I got the takedown and he kind of gassed out and I just kept moving. I was able to get that claw in and get a couple of backs out of it."

Southern had started the night strong with an 11-4 decision by Scerbo over Kyle Nase at 113 and a 12-1 major decision by Brielmeier over James McGee at 120. Howell responded with two straight wins to take an 8-7 lead as Shore Conference Tournament champ Neiko Malone held on for a thrilling 8-6 win over Sebastian Delligatti at 126 pounds and three-time state qualifier and former state medalist Darby Diedrich won by technical fall over Nik Lawson at 132.

The Rams' first big punch came at 132 pounds when Woodcock pinned Pierce Gomez in 2:47 to provide crucial bonus points and give Southern a 13-8 lead. Then came Pepe's win that turned the tide toward the black and gold.

"That lit us up," O'Connell said.

The momentum kept building at 152 where Galan controlled Evan Richard to the tune of a 6-2 decision that stretched Southern's lead to 19-8. Galan entered the bout with a 6-8 record while Richard was 5-2. It was a match Howell needed to have, and Galan knew it.

"I knew I had to keep the momentum going and make sure we kept rolling because that's a big part of matches like this," Galan said. "I just tried to stay calm and do what I do best; getting on a single leg and trying to push the pace a bit."

"Luke Galan was the nail in their coffin, I believe," Stout Sr. said. "To go out there and win that bout...that was a huge win, a career win for him."

At 160 pounds O'Connell got the matchup he too had been waiting a year for. During last season's Group 5 final, O'Connell was upset by Howell's Xavier Kelly. Friday night was his chance at payback and he delivered a 13-5 major decision that gave Southern a 23-8 lead.

That one hurt, a lot," O'Connell said. "If we won the toss I was going to wrestle him so I was excited when we won (the coin flip). We chased him up. I knew I was going to get my revenge."

Southern weighed Stout down at 170, but winning the flip allowed them to dictate the matchup at that weight. With the Rams in control, they bumped Stout to 182 where he's wrestled most of the season and sent out Haven Tatarek against Howell junior Shane Retisma, a returning state medalist ranked No. 1 in the state. Reitsma won by 19-3 technical fall to cut Southern's lead to 23-13, but Stout won by 13-5 major decision over Jake Nase at 182 to make it 27-13 with four bouts left.

Senior Christian Murphy gave the Rebels life when he threw and pinned Ben LoParo early in the third period at 195 pounds to make it 27-19, but Cornelius won 6-2 over Joe Sardina at 220 pounds to put Southern on the brink of victory. Cornelius nearly clinched the title when he hit a headlock and threw Sardina to his back in the first period. Sardina avoided getting pinned but the five-point move was the difference in the bout.

Howell now needed to win by fall in the final two bouts to win. Howell's Justin Wright won 5-0 over Jayden Smith at heavyweight but the bout never went to the ground and Smith was never in danger. The result clinched the match for Southern and allowed the Rams to forfeit to Ethan Liptzin, who would have been heavily-favored, at 106 pounds. The revenged they'd been seeking for the past two years was finally theirs.

"We had some slip-ups (losses to Jackson Memorial and Toms River North in Class A South and nonconference defeats against High Point and South Plainfield) but we kept working hard in practice and bringing our best every day," Galan said. "All that adds up to what we got tonight."


Box Score

1-Southern 30, 2-Howell 28

Jayson Scerbo (Southern) over Kyle Nase (Howell) (Dec 11-4)
Matt Brielmeier (Southern) over James McGee (Howell) (MD 12-1)
Nieko Malone (Howell) over Sebastian Delligatti (Southern) (Dec 8-6)
Darby Diedrich (Howell) over Nik Lawson (Southern) (TF 18-3 2:43)
Robert Woodcock (Southern) over Pierce Gomez (Howell) (Fall 2:47)
Nicholas Pepe (Southern) over Paul Jakub (Howell) (Dec 9-3)
Luke Galan (Southern) over Evan Richard (Howell) (Dec 6-2)
Nicholas O`Connell (Southern) over Xavier Kelly (Howell) (MD 13-5)
Shane Reitsma (Howell) over Haven Tatarek (Southern) (TF 19-3 5:02)
John Stout (Southern) over Jake Nase (Howell) (MD 18-9)
Christian Murphy (Howell) over Ben LoParo (Southern) (Fall 4:40)
JT Cornelius (Southern) over Joe Sardina (Howell) (Dec 6-2)
Justin Wright (Howell) over Jayden Smith (Southern) (Dec 5-0)
Ethan Liptzin (Howell) over Unknown (For.)


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