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PHILLIPSBURG – Six weeks ago, Howell’s Hunter Mays was the state’s man of mystery. Just who was this transfer from Pennsylvania and how big of an impact could he have in his first season on the other side of the Delaware River?

Fast forward to Sunday night and the answer is clear. Everybody knows your name when you are a New Jersey state champion.

Mays completed a perfect junior season on Sunday night at Phillipsburg high school with a 6-5 victory over Kingsway’s Dakota Morris to capture the 2021 NJSIAA 160-pound state championship. Mays built a 6-2 lead with a takedown in the first period and two more in the second period and held on in the third to become the fourth state champion in Howell history and the first since Eric Keosseian in 2017.

“I’m a Jersey boy now, 100 percent,” Mays said. “I’m Jersey all the way.”

Mays lived in Levittown in Bucks County and wrestled his first two years at Conwell-Egan High School. He won 41 bouts last season but fizzled out at the state tournament. After his family moved to New Jersey, it was inside Howell’s wrestling room and at Triumph Wrestling Club where he went to work on turning good into greatness. From going 0-2 at the Pennsylvania Class AA state tournament as a sophomore to building himself into a New Jersey state champion, Mays’ transformation began from the neck up.

“It was all mental, really,” Mays said. “I went up a couple weight classes (138 to 160) and that helped me be a lot stronger. And I haven’t cut weight all year and I feel like that’s been a bit thing because I cut too much weight last year. I was over 150 and cutting to 138. Now I'm never more than 165. It allowed me to focus on wrestling and not on cutting weight."

“I just think being in the room and believing in himself that he is the best made the difference,” said Howell head coach John Gagliano. “He trains so hard and I think what he did in the room just carried over everywhere. Obviously, he came in so talented but the mindset; he just believed every time he stepped onto the mat.”

Mays’ offensive abilities are what separated him from every other 160-pounder in New Jersey. At the NJSIAA Central Super Region Tournament last week it was his top game and a vicious array of tilts that stole the show. At the state tournament, it was his fast and relentless pace on his feet that opponents struggled to find an answer for. He scored 15 takedowns in his four bouts on Sunday and yielded just two offensive points, both of which came in a 9-4 quarterfinal win over Lyndhurst’s Dylan Weaver.

“I can do everything so if someone is good on their feet I can turn them on top and if they’re good on the mat I’ll light them up on my feet,” Mays said. “I can wrestle everywhere.”

“He is so solid in all three positions,” Gagliano said. “Last week he dominated on top and this week at the states he really wrestled well and dominated on his feet. Being in the finals, it was tight and I don’t think he opened up like he normally would, but he did what he had to do to pull it out.”

Mays did, however, open up enough to take Morris down in the first period and twice again in the second to take a 6-2 lead. His leg attacks were on point against every opponent, including the three returning state medalists he beat during his run to the state title. Weaver was fourth in NJ at 152 pounds last season, Watchung Hills' Blake Bahna finished sixth in the state at 160 last season and Morris was seventh in the state at 145. Going back to the region final, he won 14-3 over Hunterdon Central’s Colton Washleski, who was sixth in NJ at 145 last season.

Building the 6-2 lead allowed Mays to play it conservative – ultra-conservative by his standards – in the third period. An escape by Morris in the second period made the score 6-3 going to the third period and Mays chose defense. Morris rode him hard and looked for a cradle but Mays gave him nothing. Mays wasn’t doing much on bottom, however, and was hit for stalling at the 1:20 mark, again with 45 seconds left for a point that made it 6-4 and was then banged for stalling a third time to give Morris another point that made it 6-5 with 15 seconds left.

“I thought it was 6-4 and I looked over and saw it was 6-5 and thought, ‘Oh God, I can’t stall again’,” Mays said. “I knew I had to finish (takedowns) quick because if I stay on the mat he’s going to roll around and give you trouble. And I know he is a big cradle guy so I’ll take a (stalling) over getting cradled. It didn’t have to be pretty it just had to get the job done.”

Mays is the first junior to win a state title for Howell as Langel, Keosseian and 1965 champ Carlos Fontanez were all seniors when they won their championships. Just one season into his Howell career, Mays went 16-0 and put his name high atop Howell’s record book. Now the goal is to come back next season and do it again, hopefully in front of a packed Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City.

Mays also confirmed what those of us in the New Jersey wrestling community are passionately certain about.

“I think there’s no tougher state than Jersey for a state tournament, especially it being only one division,” Mays said. “There’s only one state champ so there’s no controversy. If you’re the state champ in Jersey you’re the real champ.”

The real champ, indeed. We all know who Hunter Mays is now.

 

 

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