Southern beats Howell in instant classic as Velardi’s walk-off pin clinches South Jersey Group 5 title
FARMINGDALE – Cole Velardi had a rare lapse in judgment in the state sectional semifinals and it nearly cost Southern Regional its season. Freshmen are more prone to mistakes for obvious reasons, but Velardi isn’t your typical ninth-grader. His errors have been few and far between.
Southern survived that tight semifinal match against Toms River North to reach the sectional final and Velardi vowed that he would make it up to his teammates. He sought redemption, and that opportunity came in the biggest of moments on Friday night.
With the South Jersey Group 5 final tied heading into the final bout, Velardi delivered a walk-off pin in the first period to give Southern a dramatic 36-30 victory over Howell in an instant classic as the Rams repeated as NJSIAA state sectional champions.
“It’s the best feeling in the world, it feels amazing,” Velardi said. “Ever since I was little I thought about that, it coming down to me, and it happened tonight.”
The sectional title is the third straight and 14th all-time for Southern. The Rams will go after their second straight overall Group 5 state championship on Sunday at RWJBarnabas Health Arena at Toms River North, facing Passaic Tech in the semifinals at 2 p.m. The other semifinal pits Manalapan vs. Watchung Hills.
In the sectional semifinals against Class A South rival Toms River North, a team that handed Southern its only loss of the season, Velardi got caught in a cradle and lost 8-6 to Sergio Borda. He had defeated Borda, 9-3, when the teams met during the regular season. It was a bout the Rams figured they would win.
“He made a mistake; he’s a freshman but he hasn’t really been making many mistakes,” said Southern head coach Dan Roy. “Sometimes when you’re doing well maybe you take for granted that you beat a kid before. He allowed himself to hang in a position for too long and he got hit with a five-point move. But he stayed positive, we went over what he did wrong and it got him better.”
“When I knew I was the last match tonight I knew that I was going to redeem myself,” Velardi said. “I wanted to get after it and win it for my team.”
With the match tied at 30, Velardi (25-3) and Howell sophomore Nick Acque (18-12) took the mat in the winner-take-all bout. Velardi scored a quick takedown and went to work on his signature arm bar. The visiting crowd was on its feet and howling in anticipation. The home crowd just hoped its guy could somehow fight off what was coming. Velardi used the bar to turn Acque to his back, and at the 1:31 mark referee Ron Roberts slapped the mat. Velardi had done it. Southern had won South Jersey Group 5.
“Cole goes out in the last match and it was picture-perfect,” Roy said. “You have the team on your shoulders and that kid (Acque) is a tough kid. He stayed calm, went to a single-leg and finished, didn’t rush his bar, settled and made sure it was tight and then went. It was picture-perfect what he did.”
Velardi isn’t even in that position if not for what two veterans did in the two prior bouts. Trailing 30-21 with three bouts left, Southern needed to win all three to take the title. Junior Eddie Hummel took care of business at 132 pounds by pinning James McGee in 3:08 to cut the deficit to 30-27. The job for junior Matt Brielmeier was simple: win.
Howell weighed in freshman Isaiah Fenton at 132 for the first time this season and in winning the pre-match flip was able to get Fenton away from Hummel, who was the state sixth-place finisher at 126 pounds last season. Brielmeier is no slouch in his own right as a two-time district runner-up, but it was Howell’s best chance to get the one win it needed.
A takedown in the last 10 seconds of the first period gave Brielmeier a 2-0 lead and from there he was on his way to victory. He added a reversal in the second period to go up 4-0. Fenton scored a reversal of his own to cut it to 4-2, but Brielmeier escaped and secured another takedown to lead 7-2 heading to the third period. Knowing he had the decision in hand he played it smart over the final two minutes, surrendering only a takedown in the closing seconds to win 7-4 and tie the match 30-30.
“We needed to win those last three bouts to win,” Brielmeier said.
Was he nervous?
“Yeah, a little bit, but I knew I was able to beat that kid and that’s what we needed as a team,” Brielmeier said.
“He’s been wrestling for us since he was a freshman and he’s been on the other side of that, too,” Roy said. “He just kept grinding and grinding and got his points and at the end we knew we just had to win two matches. We didn’t have to force anything.”
Howell and Southern split the 14 bouts 7-7 but it was the Rams winning by fall in five bouts that made the difference.
“They definitely outwrestled us and they crushed us with the bonus points,” said Howell head coach John Gagliano, whose Rebels finished the season with a 24-2 record, losing to Delbarton and Southern. “They pinned us five times and you can’t win a match getting pinned five times. But it’s not just on them, we needed to score more or win another match somewhere.”
Howell came in shorthanded as senior 106-pounder Ethan Liptzin did not weigh in. Liptzin was a state tournament qualifier last season who reached the third round of wrestlebacks and had an 18-5 record this season. Gagliano revealed that Liptzin had suffered an injury and is out for the remainder of the season. Southern freshman Conor Collins (28-1) won by fall at 106 pounds, so it was a potential nine-point swing not having Liptzin available.
Howell led for most of the match, starting when junior Paul Jakub (28-5) began the match with a fall over Leighton Fessman at 152 pounds. Southern answered when senior Robert Woodcock (28-1) pinned Edwin Brew at 160 to tie the match 6-6.
Howell controlled the 170-pound matchup and when Southern sent out Colin Boero the Rebels bumped state-runner up Shane Reitsma to 182 and put out Nick Cerulli at 170. Cerulli dominated with 10 takedowns to deliver a 23-8 technical fall in 3:40, giving Howell an 11-6 lead. The move allowed Howell to get Reitsma (32-1) on Stephen Jennings (18-10) at 182. Jennings was the hero of the semifinal win over Toms River North when he won by fall in a bout he was trailing, but was overmatched against Reitsma, who won by 22-7 technical fall in 4:51. Jennings did save a bonus point, however, by not getting pinned.
Southern rallied back starting at 195 when senior Ben LoParo (17-3) used three takedowns in the third period to defeat Hunter Lino, 9-3, and cut Howell’s lead to 16-9. Another big moment for Southern came at 220 pounds when senior JT Cornelius pinned George Ibram with just eight seconds left in the third period. Cornelius was expected to get bonus points but for most of the bout Ibram was keeping it close. Cornelius led 2-0 after the first period and 5-0 entering the third. It was beginning to look like Lino would save crucial bonus points, maybe even avoiding a major decision, but Cornelius didn’t panic even as time began to wind down. He took Lino down to take a 7-0 lead and a stalling call made it 8-0. The major decision, at least, was now secured but Cornelius didn’t settle for just that, working a head lever for the fall at 5:52 and trimming Howell’s lead to 16-15.
“He was doing really well with that head lever and he stayed with it and the kid went over,” Roy said. “The kid kept fighting but he took his time and kept on getting close. He was patient with it.”
Howell won at heavyweight where standout senior Justin Wright, this season’s Shore Conference Tournament champion, won by 4-0 decision over Jayden Smith. It was a net win for Southern, however, in not allowing bonus points to the state’s fourth-ranked heavyweight.
“Huge, it was huge,” Roy said. “He missed half the season recovering from a knee injury last season. It’s been good to get him back.”
Howell now led 19-15 but that was quickly erased when Collins pinned Jared DeVito at the 5:16 mark to give Southern a 21-19 lead, its first of the match. Collins was up 6-0 entering the third before scoring a reversal to go up 8-0 and then working for the fall.
Howell would win the next three bouts to take a 30-21 lead, setting up the dramatic finish. At 113 pounds, freshman Colin Bradshaw (26-6) used four takedowns in the third period for a 13-5 major decision over Pat Iacoves. Howell needed to win the 120-pound bout to even have a chance and junior Kyle Nase (25-8) delivered with the biggest win of his career, scoring a takedown with eight seconds left to defeat Jayson Scerbo, 3-1, and give the Rebels a 26-21 lead. Scerbo (17-8) reached the third round of wrestlebacks at the state tournament last season and won 11-4 over Nase when the two wrestled last year.
At 126 pounds, standout junior Nieko Malone (28-5) won by 13-2 major decision over Nick Bennet but the Southern freshman did his job by limiting bonus points. Southern had no margin for error down nine with three bouts left, but Roy knew his guys were ready for the task at hand.
“I’m so proud of these guys, just staying positive,” Roy said. “The North loss (on Jan. 14) helped us, it did. It’s better to take losses at the beginning of the season rather than the end, obviously, in any sport. We got back to basics, started working harder. Coming in (to the season) it’s, ‘Ok, we’re the defending champions, let’s go’, and then someone knocks you off your pedestal and you have to get back to work.”
“It was a long, hard process trying to get the kids to wrestle as a team and the last two weeks of the season, beating High Point, South Plainfield, Phillipsburg, that was a really good test. We ran through those teams the last two weeks and our schedule is designed for us to gradually get better and at the end pull away.”
Paul Jakub (Howell) over Leighton Fessman (Southern) (Fall 4:32)
Robert Woodcock (Southern) over Edwin Brew (Howell) (Fall 2:38)
Nick Cerulli (Howell) over Colin Boero (Southern) (TF 23-8 5:10)
Shane Reitsma (Howell) over Stephen Jennings (Southern) (TF 22-7 4:53)
Ben LoParo (Southern) over Hunter Lino (Howell) (Dec 9-3)
JT Cornelius (Southern) over George Ibram (Howell) (Fall 5:56)
Justin Wright (Howell) over Jayden Smith (Southern) (Dec 4-0)
Conor Collins (Southern) over Jared DeVito (Howell) (Fall 5:16)
Colin Bradshaw (Howell) over Pat Iacoves (Southern) (MD 13-5)
Kyle Nase (Howell) over Jayson Scerbo (Southern) (Dec 3-1)
Nieko Malone (Howell) over Nick Bennet (Southern) (MD 13-2)
Eddie Hummel (Southern) over James McGee (Howell) (Fall 3:08)
Matt Brielmeier (Southern) over Isaiah Fenton (Howell) (Dec 7-4)
Cole Velardi (Southern) over Nick Acque (Howell) (Fall 1:31)
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