TOMS RIVER – After suffering unexpected losses in the first two bouts of the match, Howell needed someone to step forward and get the Rebels back on track in their quest for a second straight NJSIAA Group 5 title.

Enter Dan Esposito and Xavier Kelly.

An escape and a takedown in the closing seconds of the 138-pound bout pushed Esposito to a much-needed major decision, and a big move early coupled with a wild ending gave Kelly an upset victory over a state medalist. From there Howell was on its way to a 33-15 victory over Southern to capture the NJSIAA Group 5 state championship for the second straight season at RWJBarnabas Health Arena on the campus of Toms River High School North on Sunday afternoon


Esposito escaped and took down Robert Woodcock with mere seconds on the clock to win 11-3 and get Howell on the board. His win helped the Rebels build momentum after Southern came up with two huge wins to start the championship dual. Sebastian Delligatti defeated state qualifier Luke Rada at 126 pounds and Matt Barnett edged state medalist and previously-undefeated junior Darby Diedrich at 132 pounds.

“I was in that position last year when the first couple bouts didn’t go our way and then I had to pull it out in ultimate tiebreaker,” Esposito said. “This was the same and bonus was the goal. As a senior and a captain I had to get the job done.”

“He knew what his job was,” said Howell head coach John Gagliano. “He’s a leader and a captain on this team, and after losing the first two he knew we needed to pull that out. It was huge.”

Following a key 5-3 victory by freshman Paul Jakub over Dan Gorman at 152 pounds to give Howell a 10-6 lead, Kelly pulled an 8-7 upset over Southern junior Nick O’Connell to get back one of the early upsets by Southern and put Howell up, 13-6. Kelly came out and put O’Connell to his back in the opening seconds to take a quick 5-0 lead. O’Connell closed the gap to 6-4 heading to the third period and appeared to have the winning takedown as time expired. O’Connell was originally awarded the takedown, which would have given him a 9-8 win, but the two officials convened and waved off the takedown.

“I was pretty gassed but I knew I couldn’t just give up and let him take me down,” Kelly said. “I just tried to keep the whizzer in and I knew I 100 percent had it.”

“They were saying it was a takedown but I could see him still having that whizzer on,” Gagliano said. “That win definitely turned us back up and got us going.”

“I just didn’t stop wrestling,” Kelly said. “I knew two people on our team took tough losses and I needed to pick them up.”

Shane Reitsma followed with a technical fall at 170 pounds and Christian Murphy used a five-point move with 45 seconds left to defeat John Stout, 5-2 at 182 pounds, and give Howell a 21-6 lead. Southern won the next two bouts to close the gap to 20-12 with four bouts left, but senior heavyweight Scott Prendergast won in ultimate tiebreaker and senior Jesse Liptzin won by fall at 106 pounds to clinch the state championship. Even with two of its better wrestlers losing early, Howell still won nine of the 14 bouts and yielded zero bonus points in a showcase of its depth and power.

“Right before the match started we said it’s not going to be two or three kids, it’s going to be 14 guys that win this match,” Gagliano said. “If one goes down somebody else has to pick them up.”

Howell joins Brick Memorial, Jackson Memorial and Long Branch as the only Shore Conference programs to win consecutive NJSIAA state championships.

Howell threw a change-up to Southern on the weigh-in scale by weighing in Rada at 126, Diedrich at 132 and Esposito and Kyle Slendorn at 138. The Rams spoiled the Rebels’ plans for a fast start, however, thanks to big wins by Delligatti and Barnett, both of which came in vintage Southern style.

Delligatti used an escape and a takedown in the third period to beat Rada, 7-5, and Barnett did the same in the third period to beat Diedrich, 4-3, and give Southern a 6-0 lead. Howell still had the matchup advantage it wanted at 138 and 145, and when Esposito picked up bonus points at 138 and Slendorn controlled Nick Pepe in an 8-2 decision it gave Howell a 7-6 lead it would not relinquish.

Jakub had the only offensive points of the 152-pound bout, coming out on top in a scramble in the third period to defeat Gorman and push Howell’s lead to 10-6. Kelly then made it 13-6 by besting O’Connell, who was eighth in the state at 145 pounds last season. Reitsma was dominant against Vin Miele at 170 pounds with five takedowns in the first period to set the tone for a 20-5 technical fall. He turned Miele for two-near fall points as time expired in the second period to pick up five team points and extend Howell’s advantage to 18-6.

At 182 pounds, Murphy kept the ball rolling when he rallied for a dramatic 5-2 victory over Stout that put the Rebels up, 21-6. Stout led 1-0 entering the third period and picked up another point when Murphy was whistled for a technical violation for grabbing Stout’s headgear. Murphy continued to work from the bottom position and was able to reverse Stout to his back, taking a 5-2 lead with 45 seconds left and holding on for another critical victory.

“I wasn’t looking for just the escape, I was going for my move – a Peterson to his back – and it felt great,” Murphy said. “It was a really big win for me and I knew I could get it done.”

Southern took the next two bouts as Ben LoParo defeated Rashaun Hansford, 8-4, at 195 pounds and Matt Mackanic defeated Joe Sardina, 1-0, at 220. Howell got back in the win column at heavyweight where Prendergast escaped in ultimate tiebreaker to beat Jaylen Smith, 3-2, and push Howell’s lead to 24-12 with three bouts remaining.

Liptzin put the finishing touches on an undefeated season when he cranked Matt Brielmeier over to his back and pinned him at the 1:42 mark of the first period to give the Rebels an insurmountable 30-12 lead with two bouts left. Southern’s Jayson Scerbo defeated Ethan Liptzin, 9-2, at 113 pounds and Howell senior Jerry Lleshi won 8-5 over Owen Kretschmer at 120 to close out the evening and officially start the celebration.

To win a second straight Group 5 title was the ultimate goal, but getting a win over rival Southern made it even better for Howell. In 2015 Southern defeated Howell, 27-24, to win the Group 5 state title.

“To come back here against Southern after we lost to them my sophomore year, to win it again, be undefeated for the first time in history, it’s crazy,” Esposito said. “All the work we put in paid off.”

“It was definitely good to get revenge,” Murphy said.

The record book will show that Howell finished the season 32-0 and rolled to a second straight state title. There’s another number the Rebels wanted to be sure they hammered home this season.

“This shows nobody can touch us,” Murphy said. “We’re the No. 1 public school in the state.”


Box Score

Howell 33, Southern 15

126: Sebastian Delligatti (S) d. Luke Rada 7-5

132: Matt Barnett (S) d. Darby Diedrich 4-3

138: Dan Esposito (H) md. Robert Woodcock 11-3

145: Kyle Slendorn (H) d. Nick Pepe 8-2

152: Paul Jakub (H) d. Dan Gorman 5-3

160: Xavier Kelly (H) d. Nick O'Connell 8-7

170: Shane Reitsma (H) tf. Vin Miele 20-5

182: Christian Murphy (H) d. John Stout 5-2

195: Ben LoParo (S) d. Rashaun Hansford 8-4

220: Matt Mackanic (S) d. Joe Sardina 1-0

Hwt: Scott Prendergast (H) d. Jayden Smith 3-2 UTB

106: Jesse Liptzin (H) p. Matt Brielmeier 1:42

113: Jayson Scerbo (S) d. Ethan Liptzin 9-2

120: Jerry Lleshi (H) d. Owen Kretschmer 8-5


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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