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POINT PLEASANT BOROUGH – Both Tyler Brignola and Mike Ponenti understood the gravity of the moment, better than most anybody in the gym on Wednesday night. They were there when Rumson-Fair Haven had just two dual meet victories, when Rumson couldn’t fill a starting lineup, when a sectional title was simply the carrot at the end of a stick a million miles away.

So with the Bulldogs on the verge of history in a state sectional semifinal match and victory depending on the outcome of their individual bouts, there was no way they were going to let that opportunity slip away.

Brignola delivered a critical 2-1 double-overtime victory over Point Boro’s Jack Bailey at 152 pounds in the 12th bout and Ponenti defeated Gavin O’Connor, 6-1, in the winner-take-all final bout at 170 pounds to give the third-seeded Bulldogs a sensational 32-31 victory over second-seeded Point Boro in the Central Jersey Group 2 semifinals.

Now, Rumson is headed to a sectional final for the first time in program history and will face top-seeded South Plainfield on Friday night.

“Honestly, it’s crazy,” said Brignola, a junior who improved to 22-4. “A couple years ago people never thought this could happen, but I knew. We had kids coming in and I’ve always had faith in this team. I’m so excited we finally got to show ourselves and make some history for the program.”

“Two years ago I remember me and a couple of the juniors were on a team with nine guys,” said Ponenti, a senior with a 15-3 record. “Coach Heller and coach Billy (George) kept working, we got guys to buy into the program and here we are two years later.”

The Bulldogs and Panthers split the 14 bouts right down the middle and it was the bonus points earned and those denied which made the difference for Rumson. Each team secured bonus points in four of seven wins: three falls and one technical fall for Rumson and two falls, one forfeit and one major decision for Point Boro.

“The kids fought their butts off in every match and I’m recalling every bout in my head and there were so many heroes,” said Rumson head coach Bryan Heller. “When it’s a one-point match like that you know that a tech fall over a major or fighting off your back and not getting pinned is the difference in the team winning. We had guys with spectacular wins like Tyler Brignola and Mike Ponenti at the end, but all those little things add up to make this such a full team effort.”

Rumson jumped out to quick 15-0 lead in the match, which began at 182 pounds, but Point Boro clawed back with four straight wins from 120 to 138 to take a 25-20 lead with four bouts left. Undefeated junior Max Brignola, ranked fourth in New Jersey, won by fall at 145 pounds to give Rumson a 26-25 lead with three bouts left. At 152, it was Tyler Brignola vs. Jack Bailey, hammer vs. hammer, in a bout both teams had to have.

After a scoreless first period, Bailey chose defense and escaped to go up, 1-0. Brignola did the same in the third period to tie the score and after a couple of close calls on near takedowns by Bailey, the two headed to sudden victory tied 1-1. In the first overtime period Bailey nearly had a takedown but Brignola was able to fight it off and send the bout to ride outs.

“You go back to that first overtime and they had us dead to rights and we have a far side power half with our legs in the air and he somehow found the power to punch it through, put the kid on his hip and survive that moment,” Heller said. “Most kids turn down and give up the takedown, but not Tyler.”

It was Brignola’s choice in the first 30-second tiebreaker and he chose defense. He got to his feet, peeled away Bailey’s grip and earned an escape to take a 2-1 lead. It was Bailey’s turn in the second tiebreaker period and off the whistle he sat out, reached back to grab Brignola’s head and went for a reversal. Now square and working off Brignola’s head, Bailey tried to spin around for the reversal but Brignola countered with his right arm and grabbed onto Bailey’s left leg, putting him on his hip and remaining in control the rest of the way for a dramatic 2-1 victory.

“I work so hard in the room, all my teammates work so hard, my brother’s on the team, longtime friends, coaches I’ve known since I was little; I can’t let them down by getting taken down like that,” Brignola said. “It was coursing through my head: ‘I can’t lose this match for my team’.”

“(Bailey) is such a strong wrestler but at that moment when we haven’t made a sectional final in our history, you think to yourself you have to pull through there. I need to make history; the team needs to make history.”

“He was extra stingy in that position and I’m super proud of him,” Heller said. “He understood the situation, dug his heels in and put the kid back to the mat. It was a fight of wills out there and he believed in himself enough to keep going.”

Brignola’s victory gave Rumson a 29-25 lead with two bouts left. If Jack Bailey would have won it would have put the Panthers in position to clinch the match with senior Ty Bailey, a two-time state qualifier, taking the mat at 160 pounds. Bailey indeed did what he usually does, locking up a cradle and pinning freshman Ryan Boyer in just 37 seconds. It was Bailey’s 24th pin of the season and gave Point Boro a 31-29 lead with one bout remaining.

The task was straightforward for Ponenti and there isn’t another guy Heller trusted more to bring it home. Ponenti took O’Connor down and led 2-0 after the first period. He added another takedown and was awarded a point for O’Connor’s second stalling violation in the second period to build a 5-0 lead. He played it smart in the third, adding an escape and giving up only a penalty point for fleeing the mat to win 6-1 and send Rumson to the sectional championship match.

“It felt great and I couldn’t have done it without the other guys we put on the mat doing their job,” Ponenti said. “At the end of the day, I was the guy who had to get the job done. No one on our teams tries to be extraordinary, we fall back on our training. Coach Billy and coach Heller put us through all these scenarios in practice. We drilled this exact scenario on Tuesday.”

“It’s been a long time coming but it feels great to be going to the sectional championship.”

“He’s a program kid who’s looking to be in the military later in life, and he’s a leader for us,” Heller said. “He’s the guy who is Mr. Reliable for me all the time. He took the mat with laser-focused vision.”

Rumson weighed in standout sophomore Shay Addison (27-1, 2nd in SCT at 160) up at 170 pounds and bumped him up to 182 to start the match where he pinned Nick Rebimbas in 1:44. Junior Jack Kelly (25-3) pinned Andrew Witkowski in 54 seconds at 195 to give Rumson a 12-0 lead and senior Liam Horan followed with a 3-0 decision over Josh Henderson at 220 to stake the Bulldogs to a quick 15-0 advantage.

Point Boro got on the board at heavyweight when junior Patrick Frawley outlasted James Greeley, 6-4 in ultimate tiebreaker. A second stalling call on Greeley with five seconds left in the third period forced sudden victory and after a scoreless period at neutral and both wrestlers earning escapes in the tiebreaker period, the bout went to a third overtime. Frawley had choice since he scored first in the bout, chose defense and hit a reversal to win 6-4 and trim Rumson’s lead to 15-3.

Rumson forfeited to Lucas Torre at 106 pounds and Point Boro drew closer at 15-9. At 113 pounds, sophomore Aidan Shaughnessy delivered a 20-4 technical fall in 4:08 against Lucas Sabo to stretch Rumson’s lead to 20-9.

Point Boro would win the next four bouts to take a 25-20 lead and set up the dramatic conclusion. James Latendorf used three takedowns and two reversals to defeat Tristan Izzo, 10-6, at 120. Charlie Latendorf scored eight times in the third period for a 10-2 major decision over Logan McGinn at 126. A takedown with 22 seconds left gave Latendorf a 9-1 lead but McGinn escaped with 15 seconds on the clock. With one second left McGinn was called for stalling, which awarded one point to Latendorf and secured the major.

Freshman Jack Thompson followed with a first-period pin over freshman Tyler Izzo at 132 pounds to give Point Boro a 22-20 lead. At 138, junior Peter Karras hit a five-point move in the final 10 seconds of the first period to fuel a 6-3 win over Alex Simpson, giving the Panthers a 25-20 advantage.

Three of the final four bouts went to Rumson and now the Bulldogs are one win away from a sectional championship. To do so they’ll have to get through South Plainfield. The 2020 version is not a vintage Tigers team, but there is a reason the program has won 16 sectional titles and 12 group titles in its history.

“We’re ready for the sectional finals,” Brignola said. “We’ve been wanting this for a long time.”

“I’m very excited for the kids to have this opportunity,” Heller said. “They’re going to wrestle in another hostile gym in a dark space and we’re going to see what we’re made of once again. I believe in my kids when they take the mat.”


Box Score

182: Shay Addison (RFH) p. Nick Rebimbas 1:44

195: Jack Kelly (RFH) p. Andrew Witkowski 0:54

220: Liam Horan (RFH) d. Josh Henderson 3-0

285: Patrick Frawley (PB) d. James Greeley 6-4 3OT

106: Lucas Torre (PB) by forfeit

113: Aidan Shaughnessy (RFH) tf. Lucas Sabo 4:08 (20-4)

120: James Latendorf (PB) d. Tristan Izzo 10-6

126: Charlie Latendorf (PB) md. Logan McGinn 10-2

132: Jack Thompson (PB) p. Tyler Izzo 1:15

138: Peter Karras (PB) d. Alex Simpson 6-3

145: Max Brignola (RFH) p. Connor Robinson 1:04

152: Tyler Brignola (RFH) d. Jack Bailey 2-1 2OT

160: Ty Bailey (PB) p. Ryan Boyer 0:37

170: Mike Ponenti (RFH) d. Gavin O'Connor 6-1

Records: at Point Boro (14-4); Rumson-Fair Haven (15-3).


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


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