FLEMINGTON – At the start of the season, all eyes were fixed on January 6, the date Howell and Hunterdon Central were supposed to meet in the highly-anticipated rematch of last season’s epic NJSIAA Group 5 final victory by Howell.

The match never happened, though. Hunterdon Central, now in the same section as Howell, canceled despite being in Howell’s gym that day for a match against Kittatinny. Maybe the Red Devils didn’t want to show their cards yet, or maybe they just wanted to better their chances at securing home-mat advantage, which they ultimately did for Friday’s Central Jersey Group 5 championship match inside the Hunterdon Central Field House.

But in the end, there would be no revenge for the Red Devils, only a repeat for the Rebels.

Senior standout Kyle Slendorn rallied for a sensational 10-6 victory over Hunter Graf in a battle between state medalist in the penultimate bout at 132 pounds, while one bout earlier sophomore Luke Rada scored a critical 9-2 decision over Anthony Romaniello as Howell won the final five bouts to prevail over Hunterdon Central, 29-20, and claim the Central Jersey Group 5 state sectional championship.

Howell defeated Hunterdon Central, 29-20, to capture the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group 5 championship.
Howell defeated Hunterdon Central, 29-20, to capture the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group 5 championship.

An 8-0 major decision by freshman Brett Ungar over Howell’s Jesse Liptzin at 106 pounds gave Hunterdon Central a 20-13 lead with five bouts left, but the combination of senior Jerry Lleshi, junior Darby Diedrich, Rada, Slendorn and senior Dan Esposito combined for 16 pounds down the stretch to deliver the Rebels their third straight sectional title and fourth in the last five seasons.

Howell will face North 1, Group 5 champion West Orange in the NJSIAA Group 5 semifinals at 9 a.m. on Sunday at RWJBarnabas Health Arena on the campus of Toms River High School North. The winner will then face the winner of the Southern/Watchung Hills match in the state championship at 2 p.m.

“We had a great season but it was lacking that big match,” Slendorn said. “We had South Plainfield but, nothing against South Plainfield, it was over early so we really weren’t tested all season. Coming in here it was maybe a little iffy how we were going to perform under the spotlight. I know our guys work hard and we put all the effort in the practice room. Under the lights, it brings out something else from people.”

In a massive moment with the match still hanging in the balance, Slendorn elevated his performance with an all-time win in Howell lore. It started out rocky for him, however, as Graf took him down twice in the first period to take a 4-1 lead. Slendorn started his comeback with a hard-fought takedown in the second period to cut Graf’s lead to 4-3 going into the final two minutes. Slendorn then chose defense and escaped to tie the bout, 4-4, and an illegal head-scissor on Graf in a scramble gave Slendorn one point and a 5-4 advantage. Graf stayed aggressive and took Slendorn down again, and this time put Slendorn to his back for a split second. It wasn’t enough to produce any near-fall points, but it did generate cheers from one side of the gym and gasps from the other side as Graf took a 6-5 lead.

Howell’s best wrestler was losing with a minute left in the bout, but if there was anyone worried Slendorn was not one of them.

“Kyle never panics no matter what’s going on or what’s on the line,” said Howell head coach John Gagliano. “As much as it was tight he was still calm and he still knew what he had to do.”

Slendorn stayed active from the bottom and used his experiences from countless hours working with assistant coach Joey Langel to work his way free and reverse Graf to his back. The five-point move nearly produced a pin and, in the end, gave Slendorn a 10-6 victory that put Howell up 26-20 with one bout left.

“I just kept moving,” Slendorn said. “He had boots in, and my coach, Joey, is a big leg-rider so I’ve been there a thousand times before in the room. I know with the legs you can’t stall, you have to keep moving and trying to create openings, and I guess I created that opening and snuck out and got him on his back.”

The win clinched the match for Howell, as even if Hunterdon Central won by fall in the final bout to tie the match Howell would have won on criteria for having scored the most (total) first match points, 13-11. Esposito made sure no such calculations would have to be done by outlasting Pasquale Vizzoni, 2-1 in double overtime, to give the Rebels the 29-20 win.

Another crucial victory came from Rada at 126 to put Howell up, 23-20. Rada came out strong against Romaniello with two takedowns in the first period and put the bout away with a reversal that sent Romaniello to his back in the third period.

Last season it was Rada tasked with staying off his back in the final bout to preserve Howell’s 28-27 win over Hunterdon Central in the state final. This time Rada needed a win, and once again he produced in a high-pressure moment to send his team to a championship.

"It was crazy to be put in that situation again," Rada said. "But I am always up for something like that. My coaches told me to relax and just trust what you do in the room every day. I just let it all hang out."

The entire match featured just seven total bonus points with each team winning by major decision twice. A fall by junior Christian Murphy, arguably the most underrated wrestler in the Shore, at 182 was huge. He rolled up Kyle Barrett in a cradle and stuck him at the 1:25 mark of the first period.

“We weren’t sure if he was going to be at 182 or 195 but either way he knew what he had to do and he got us the bonus,” Gagliano said.

Sophomore Shane Reitsma also won by major decision with an 18-4 win over Dan Furmato at 170 pounds and Lleshi used eight takedowns to secure a 16-8 major decision over Colton Washleski at 113. Junior Xavier Kelly won 10-5 over Norman Cella at 152 pounds and Diedrich used an escape and a takedown in the second period to defeat Jack Bauer, 3-1, at 120.

All season Howell has wrestled like the best public-school team in New Jersey and Friday night’s victory in another classic between state powers only furthered the Rebels' case. Now the focus shifts to winning two matches on Sunday and becoming just the fourth Shore Conference program to win back-to-back state group championships.

“This was awesome and now we just want to keep it rolling into Sunday and win the overall title,” Slendorn said.

Box Score

Howell 29, Hunterdon Central 20

145: Vincent Romaniell (HC) d. Paul Jakub 10-7

152: Xavier Kelly (H) d. Norman Cella 10-5

160: Kevin Ciresa (HC) md. Evan Richard 9-0

170: Shane Reitsma (H) md. Dan Furmato 18-4

182: Christian Murphy (H) p. Kyle Barrett 1:25

195: Lukas Bakerian (HC) d. Rashaun Hansford 8-1

220: Angelo Crespo (HC) d. Joe Sardina 7-6

Hwt: Ryan Joyce (HC) d. Scott Prendergast 3-2

106: Brett Ungar (HC) md. Jesse Liptzin 8-0

113: Jerry Lleshi (H) md. Colton Washleski 16-8

120: Darby Diedrich (H) d. Jack Bauer 3-1

126: Luke Rada (H) d. Anthony Romaniello 9-2

132: Kyle Slendorn (H) d. Hunter Graf 10-6

138: Dan Esposito (H) d. Pasquale Vizzonsi 2-1 2OT

Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at bob.badders@townsquaremedia.com. 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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