JACKSON -- The Shore Conference Tournament championship trophy is coming back to Howell.

The top-ranked and top-seeded Rebels brought home their second SCT title in program history on Saturday evening at Jackson Liberty High School with a 36-24 victory over second-seeded Raritan. Howell won eight bouts and secured bonus points in five of those wins to pull away from the Rockets down the stretch.

Photo by Ed Sarluca.
Howell topped Raritan, 36-24, to win the Shore Conference Tournament championship. (Photo by Ed Sarluca).

Senior Eric Keosseian clinched the championship when he won by fall over Ethan Wolf at 220 pounds in the third-to-last bout. Sophomore Darby Diedrich at 120 and senior heavyweight Jake Nash also won by fall while sophomore Xavier Kelly won by technical fall at 145 and freshman Shane Reitsma scored a major decision at 182.

"This is what we've been chasing all year and we came in knowing it was all about the team," Keosseian said. "We had to get bonus where we could and save bonus where we were going to lose. It was all about the team today."


Raritan was making its first ever appearance in the Shore Conference Tournament championship match. The Rockets topped third-seeded Middletown North, 35-24, in the semifinals.

"We had to capitalize on bonus and needed to stay off our backs at a couple weight classes, and we didn't come through," said Raritan head coach Rob Nucci. "We wrestle a hard-nosed style and when wrestling a great program like Howell, those guys are good. They've been wrestling since they were little kids and it's tough to score on them. They knew what their jobs were and they did their jobs really well."

"We'll work on these things in the next few days and hopefully by sectional week we'll be ready to go."

Howell won two critical bouts by decision at 113 pounds and 160 pounds as freshman Luke Rada started the match with a 5-3 decision over Raritan's previously-undefeated sophomore Charles Barrale. Rada scored the only offensive points of the bout with a takedown in the first period and another in the second period to take a crucial bout and give Howell instant momentum.

"I just trusted my drilling partners and coaches with the plan they had for me," Rada said. "I was excited to get after it. The plan was to get to my offense and let it all hang out."

Barrale came into the bout with a 20-0 record while Rada was 19-4. Raritan expected Barrale to win, but Howell had equal confidence in its rapidly-improving frosh.

"We never said to just do your best and keep it close, we told him to wrestle his style and do what he can to win," said Howell head coach John Gagliano. "He went out there to win."

"There's always some butterflies and nerves, and the crowd gets loud, but that's the stuff you've been training for," Rada said. "That's what it's all about."

Howell would win the next two bouts with Diedrich's pin of Cameron Rafalko in 36 seconds and Kyle Slendorn's 10-4 win over A.J. Erven at 126 to open a 12-0 lead.

A 3-1 overtime win by Russell Benson over Dan Esposito at 132, a decision win by Christian Sookdeo at 138 and a major decision by Jimmy FanVecthmann - sandwiched around a technical fall by Howell's Kelly at 145 - helped Raritan close the gap to 17-10. But at 160 pounds Howell sophomore Christian Murphy won a crucial bout against Raritan sophomore Anthony Aquilano, 6-4, to put the Rebels up by 10. Murphy hit a five-point move in the second period by reversing Aquilano to his back, and held on from there to give Howell a 20-10 advantage.

"I knew he was a judo kid and he throws, so I was defensive and waited for my time," Murphy said. "I sat out and kind of hit a peterson and turned my hips over to put him to his back."

At 170 Howell bumped undefeated freshman Shane Reitsma up to 182 and inserted junior Chris DeMarco (7-8 record entering the bout) to face Raritan sophomore George Burdick (22-2 entering the bout). DeMarco's job was to save as many bonus points as he could, and he did that by holding Burdick to a 15-5 major decision. Burdick entered the bout with  15 pins.

"He did a great job, and it's those guys that make the difference," Gagliano said. "Saving points when you're losing the match is huge. We say it all the time, it's those matches that are going to win championships. Some kids are going to be overmatched and we don't expect wins there, but we need to keep the points down."

Reitsma followed with a 15-3 major decision over Justin Acevedo to give Howell back its 10-point lead at 24-14. Senior Danny Schick had a similar job to DeMarco's in facing Ryan  Dickens at 195 pounds. Schick accumulated four stalling calls and one more would have disqualified him from the bout, giving Raritan six team points. Schick went on the offensive and that gave Dickens the opening he was waiting for. He tossed Schick to his back in the closing seconds for a 15-4 major decision that pulled the Rockets to within 24-18.

Although underdogs in the next two bouts with a tossup looming in the final bout at 106, Raritan still had a chance to pull out the win. That chance ended at 220 pounds when Keosseian opened a 7-3 lead on Wolf in the third period before putting him to his back for the fall midway though the third period. His pin put Howell up by 12 points with two bouts left, clinching the SCT title. Even if Raritan won by pin in the next two bouts to tie the score at 30 Howell would have still won on criteria based on having the most technical falls (1-0).

"I knew I was probably going to end up wrestling him because we were going to chase him," Keosseian said. "I beat him before and I knew I would again. When he gave me the chance and I put him down I knew I was going to pin him. I took a shot and as he sprawled I came up and caught his head and his arm. It was a great feeling, nothing like it."

Nash put the finishing touches on the win pinning Dylan Kansky in 3:12 before Howell forfeited the final weight.

It's been a long journey to the top for Howell's program. For years the Rebels battled with the Shore Conference heavyweights of Class A South: Brick Memorial, Jackson Memorial and Southern, but always came up just short. Throughout it all Howell has always been a model of consistency. Gagliano won his 400th career match when the Rebels beat Brick Memorial in the SCT quarterfinals and is the Shore's winningest head coach at 402 and counting. Gagliano is in his 20th season, so that's an average of 20 wins a season.

The breakthrough started in 2009 when they unseated Jackson as the team champions at the District 21 Tournament. In 2014 Howell beat Brick Memorial to win its first Shore Conference Tournament title, and two weeks later beat the Mustangs again to claim the program's first NJSIAA sectional title. Last year they won another sectional title but fell to Southern in the Group V final.

Howell is no longer chasing the heavyweights of the Shore. The Rebels are firmly among them, and so far this season they are the team to beat. With just a handful of seniors this year they're primed for more championship contention in the immediate future.

"It's really exciting," Gagliano said. "I just feel these kids are great and the coaches we have are outstanding. I'm so proud. It's been great for the Howell community."

In two weeks they'll eye another likely matchup with Southern for the South Jersey Group V sectional title, and then possibly a rematch with Hunterdon Central, who beat the Rebels 30-29 this season, for the one piece of hardware that has eluded them.

"(Winning the SCT) is a great feeling but we're not done yet," Keosseian said. "We want the Group V title and to push individually deep into states."


Box Score

Howell 36, Raritan 24

113: Luke Rada (H) d. Charles Barrale 5-3

120: Darby Diedrich (H) p. Cameron Rafalko 0:36

126: Kyle Slendorn (H) d. A.J. Erven 10-4

132: Russell Benson (R) d. Dan Esposito 3-1 SV

138: Christian Sookdeo (R) d. Evan Richard 5-0

145: Xavier Kelly (H) tf. Andrew Bohal 4:34 (16-0)

152: Jimmy VanFechtmann (R) md. Nick Sulkowski 15-6

160: Christian Murphy (H) d. Anthony Aquilano 6-4

170: George Burdick (R) md. Chris DeMarco 15-5

182: Shane Reitsma (H) md. Justin Acevedo 15-3

195: Ryan Dickens (R) md. Danny Schick 15-4

220: Eric Keosseian (H) p. Ethan Wolf 5:03

Hwt: Jake Nash (H) p. Dylan Kansky 3:12

106: Robert Taddeo (R) by forfeit


Wrestling editor Bob Badders can be reached at badders@allshoremedia.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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