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MANALAPAN – Another year, another division title for the most dominant team in Class A North. Howell faced a test from district rival Manalapan on Wednesday night, but the result was the same it has been for the previous 14 years.

Howell, ranked No. 1 in the Shore Sports Network Top 10, won nine of 14 bouts with seven of those victories accruing bonus points to defeat No. 9 Manalapan, 42-25, and clinch the Shore Conference Class A North division title for the 15th consecutive season.

The Rebels (20-1, 7-0) won the final five bouts to turn a close match into a 17-point victory as they try to secure to the top seed in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group 5 section. Paul Jakub (152) and Nick Cerulli (182) won by fall, Shane Reitsma (170) and Nieko Malone (126) recorded technical falls, Ethan Liptzin (106) and Kyle Nase (120) delivered major decisions and Justin Wright received a forfeit at heavyweight to supply the lion’s share of Howell’s points. James McGee (132) and Colin Bradshaw (113) each won by decision.

*Check back for a photo gallery by Richard O'Donnell*

“We had the flu going through us the last week and we’re just getting healthy now,” said Howell head coach John Gagliano. “It was a tough stretch but when someone is down somebody else is picking them up and I think that says a lot about the team. They really are working together.”

Securing another division title is certainly among Howell’s goals, but the more important outcome of Wednesday’s match is how it relates to the sectional tournament. The top seed will be crucial in SJ-5 with three of the state’s best teams – Howell, Southern and Toms River North - set to duke it out. Through Jan. 26, Howell and Southern were tied for second in power points in South Jersey Group 5 with 34.8, nearly three points behind Toms River North’s 37.4. Howell defeated Toms River North, 32-30, on Jan. 2, however, so if the Rebels finish second they will jump the Mariners for the top seed.

“Where we’re going to get seeded, it is what it is,” Gagliano said. “We just have to take one match at a time and not look ahead because our section is so strong and it’s going to be a war.”

A 6-3 decision by McGee over Vincent DePierro at 132 pounds opened the match and gave Howell a 3-0 lead. James Porcaro answered with a 6-3 decision over Isaiah Fenton at 138 by scoring three takedowns in the third period. Hunter Konstantoulas, who was a state qualifier last season, followed with an 11-3 major decision over Nick Acque at 145, securing the bonus-clinching takedown just before the buzzer sounded to end the bout. Manalapan’s lead was short-lived, however, as Jakub, a two-time region runner-up, used a body lock to hurl James Grande to the mat for a fall in 3:28 at 152 pounds.

Manalapan senior Matt Benedetti then won by fall over Edwin Brew at 160 pounds, and in doing so became the program’s all-time wins leader with 124, passing the mark of 123 set by 2019 graduate Alex Baran. Benedetti was the state sixth-place finisher at 160 last season.

Howell won the pre-match flip, which allowed it to dictate the matchup at 170 pounds. Manalapan had to send first and went with senior Dylan Waller, a Region 5 fifth-place finisher who entered with an 18-1 record. Howell countered with one of the nation’s best at 170 pounds, senior Shane Reitsma. Waller didn’t get pinned but Reitsma, a returning state finalist and two-time state medalist, was nonetheless dominant with seven takedowns, one reversal and five nearfall points to record a 21-6 technical fall in 5:50.

Even with Howell getting Reitsma on Waller, Manalapan still had a chance to pile up points at the next three weights. Cerulli (17-5) squashed that plan when he hit a headlock and pinned Mike Silitas (12-3) in 30 seconds at 182 pounds, giving Howell a 20-13 lead.

“Huge,” Gagliano said. “He’s wrestling really well and having a great season. We just have to keep him going because he’s key. We need them (wrestlers other than the standouts). They keep working hard and they’re getting better.”

Howell forfeited to undefeated junior Gavin Claro (18-0) at 195. Claro was a state qualifier last season. Cerulli’s pin became even more important when at 220 pounds George Zavalnik returned the favor with a headlock and pin against Hunter Lino, giving Manalapan a 25-20 lead with five bouts left.

Manalapan forfeited to Wright (21-3) at heavyweight to give Howell a 26-25 lead and the Rebels were in front for good. They were favored at the remaining weights and made good on the advantage with 16 points over the final four bouts. Liptzin, a returning state qualifier, scored eight points in the first period on his way to a 13-3 major decision over Anthony Vitola at 106. At 113, Bradshaw used a spladle in the second period for the only offensive points of the bout in a 4-3 win over Justin Schifter.

Nase had four takedowns and two nearfall points in an 11-1 major decision over Chris Balzano at 120 and Malone scored at will against Jason Schifter at 126, closing out the match with a 20-1 technical fall in 4:48.

It all added up to a solid win for Howell over a Manalapan team that will likely be the No. 1 seed in the Central Jersey Group 5 section and has a good chance to capture its first sectional title since 1992. The Rebels, however, were left wondering if their 17-point win would be enough in the race for the top seed in South Jersey Group 5. Being at home and, more importantly, not having to wrestle both of the other two powerhouse teams in the bracket has been the goal for Howell, Southern and Toms River North since before the season started. All three loaded up their schedules knowing every point would matter. Now we’re in the home stretch with the cutoff for qualifying being Saturday.

Howell’s next appearance will be this weekend’s Shore Conference Tournament, which brings about another complication. For the ninth straight year, Southern will not enter the Shore Conference Tournament. The Rams will wrestle High Point, another top-20 team in the state, on Thursday night and host a quad on Saturday with Franklin, Oakcrest and Pennsville. Whether that helps Southern in the final power points remains to be seen but it gives the Rams an advantage.

“I’d rather the Shore Conference Tournament be earlier in January,” Gagliano said. “I just think it’s too close to sectionals. It’s better suited for the beginning of January or opening the season. In talking to the other coaches we just think it’s too late.”


Box Score

No. 1 Howell 42, No. 9 Manalapan 25

James McGee (Howell) over Vincent DePierro (Manalapan) (Dec 6-2)
Jason Porcaro (Manalapan) over Isaiah Fenton (Howell) (Dec 6-3)
Hunter Konstantoulas (Manalapan) over Nick Acque (Howell) (MD 11-3)
Paul Jakub (Howell) over James Grande (Manalapan) (Fall 3:28)
Matt Benedetti (Manalapan) over Edwin Brew (Howell) (Fall 1:53)
Shane Reitsma (Howell) over Dylan Waller (Manalapan) (TF 21-6 5:50)
Nick Cerulli (Howell) over Michael Slitas (Manalapan) (Fall 0:30)
Gavin Claro (Manalapan) over Unknown (For.)
George Zavalnik (Manalapan) over Hunter Lino (Howell) (Fall 3:38)
Justin Wright (Howell) over Unknown (For.)
Ethan Liptzin (Howell) over Anthony Vitola (Manalapan) (MD 13-3)
Colin Bradshaw (Howell) over Justin Schifter (Manalapan) (Dec 4-3)
Kyle Nase (Howell) over Chris Balzano (Manalapan) (MD 11-1)
Nieko Malone (Howell) over Jason Schifter (Manalapan) (TF 20-1 4:48)

Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at Follow him on Twitter 
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