Wrestling – Six Storylines to Follow in the NJSIAA Team Tournament
The NJSIAA Team Tournament begins today and 29 Shore Conference wrestling teams will set out on a quest to win a state title this Sunday at RWJBarnabas Health Arena. To get there they’ll have to navigate five rounds of wrestling against the best New Jersey has to offer, and in the end, just five public schools and two non-public schools will be able to call themselves state champions.
There are favorites in every bracket, a ton of longshots and even more teams that fall somewhere in between. The wrestling team state tournament is not one that is overly dramatic in the first two rounds, so the expectation remains to see the top teams standing on Friday and then again on Sunday. The Shore Conference has 13 teams seeded either first or second in their respective sections, including No. 1 seeds Middletown North, Long Branch, Raritan, Point Beach, Southern, Point Boro and Donovan Catholic, so the Shore should be well-represented on Sunday on the campus of Toms River High School North.
Who knows what the narrative will be seven days from now, but as we get ready to begin the state tournament of wrestling’s first season here are six storylines to look out for this week.
Can Middletown North Stun Phillipsburg in North 2, Group 4?
Thanks to some shrewd scheduling in the final week before the cutoff to qualify for the state tournament, Middletown North earned the top seed over defending Group IV champion Phillipsburg. Close losses to Raritan and Howell helped the Lions accrue the necessary power points to jump the Stateliners, and that means the road to a state title literally travels through Middletown. Phillipsburg is still the favorite as a top-10 team in the state, but Middletown North not having to drive to the westernmost reaches of New Jersey to wrestle in arguably the most hostile environment certainly helps its cause.
Beyond the home-mat advantage, Middletown North actually matches up pretty well with Phillipsburg. The trio of Thomas O’Keefe, Tyler Klinsky and Fred Luchs from 106 to 120 will be crucial and the Lions look to have the advantage up top with Nicko Cofone (182), Jacob Anderson (195) and Austin Dewise (285). The question is how well the Lions will fare in the middle against some of Phillipsburg’s hammers, and, more specifically, what the Lions do with state qualifier Stanley Wojdylak at 152. Do they try to move him away from state medalist Brian Meyer or look for that head-to-head matchup? Of course, that’s all contingent on winning the flip and a myriad of other factors, but could certainly be a determining factor.
Middletown North earning the No. 1 seed also means they avoid third-seeded North Hunterdon, which would have been a very tough out in the semifinals. Middletown North’s only sectional title came in 1996 and to get No. 2 they’ll have to defeat one of the state’s all-time great programs.
Will Howell Repeat as Group 5 champions?
Long Branch, Brick Memorial and Jackson Memorial are the only Shore Conference teams to win consecutive NJSIAA championships and Howell is in a great position to join them on the Mount Rushmore of Shore Conference wrestling. Despite being the top-ranked public school in New Jersey in both of the state’s top-20 rankings, the Rebels aren’t even the top seed in their own section, so it isn’t going to be an easy journey back to the top.
Barring some sort of cataclysmic upset, it’s going to be Howell heading to Flemington on Friday night to take on Hunterdon Central for the sectional championship. The Rebels beat the Red Devils in thrilling fashion, 28-27, to win last season’s Group 5 championship and the rematch has been highly anticipated. The two teams were set to wrestle as part of a quad during the regular season but Hunterdon Central, citing the fact that the teams were now aligned to the same section, canceled the matchup with the Rebels.
The Hunterdon Central Field House is a difficult place to wrestle, so the Red Devils being the top seed is big. That being said, Howell looks to have the advantage at enough weights to come out on top. If the Rebels can win the sectional title and get back to the group semifinals there’s a good chance they’ll meet up with Southern at some point. The Rams are the top seed in South Jersey Group 5 and the favorite to win their 12th sectional title and reach the group stage.
Howell is 27-0 and hasn’t been tested in any of its dual meet victories, but a gap in its armor was exposed a bit when St. John Vianney out-pointed the Rebels to win the team title at the Shore Conference Tournament. It was an individual tournament so it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison when looking at a dual meet, but it’s something to think about.
Is this the end of Jackson Memorial’s run in Central Jersey Group 4?
Jackson Memorial is the three-time defending Central Jersey Group IV champions, but the Jaguars championship reign will be under siege this week. Long Branch is the No. 1 seed and the favorite to take home the title in a section that will almost certainly be won by a Shore Conference team for the 15th consecutive season.
Long Branch, Jackson and No. 3 seed Brick Memorial are Shore Conference royalty with a combined 29 sectional titles. This year’s version of Jackson and Brick Memorial aren’t vintage teams, however, while Long Branch is ranked in the state top 20. The Green Wave would also lover to exact some revenge on Jackson after losing to the Jaguars, 26-25, in last season’s final and falling, 28-24, in 2016.
Jackson will also have a tough matchup with Brick Memorial in the semifinals assuming the seeds hold up. The Jaguars won the Class A South meeting during the regular season, 35-30, but that was one of the few times the Jags had their complete lineup this season. Since then they’ve had injuries and a wrestler quit the team, so they are a much different unit this time around.
Finally the No. 1 seed in Central Jersey Group 2, how far will Raritan go?
The last three seasons Raritan has made the trek out to Frenchtown in Hunterdon County to face Delaware Valley, and each time it’s been a somber bus ride back to Hazlet after a heartbreaking loss. Raritan could never find a way to out-point the Terriers and get the top seed, but that’s all changed this season. This time, the road to a title runs through the Launch Pad.
Delaware Valley is the defending Group II champion but has struggled this season after suffering several key losses to graduation and losing state champion Kyle Lightner to a season-ending injury. The Terriers are the No. 5 seed and are slated to face Raritan in the semifinals, and even though it won’t be in a sectional championship match, the Rockets will surely be amped to finally get Del Val in their own gym. Del Val won’t be intimidated by the moment and won’t be an easy out, but if Raritan can win and reach the final it will be heavily favored. Raritan already has a 58-13 win over No. 2 seed Holmdel.
The Rockets’ competition will stiffen considerably at the group stage with High Point and Hanover Park likely to reach Toms River and Point Boro also in the mix as the top seed in South Jersey Group II. But for the Rockets, whose last sectional title came in 2012 - the same season they won their only NJSIAA Group II title – getting to the final Sunday is priority No. 1.
Will Point Pleasant Be “Title Town” on Friday night?
Point Boro and Point Beach have three sectional titles between them, including Beach taking the last two Central Jersey Group I championships. The two programs have never won a sectional title in the same season and have likely never reached sectional championship matches in the same season. With each being the top seed in their respective sections there’s a good chance for history Friday night.
After years of coming up just short, Point Beach broke through with a sectional championship in 2016 and followed it up last season with another sectional crown. The Garnet Gulls are the No. 1 seed in Central Jersey Group I and are the team to beat. The No. 2 seed is Shore Regional, which Point Beach defeated, 40-22, to win the Class B Central division title. Beach also has a 63-9 win over No. 6 seed Maple Shade and a 65-6 win over Keansburg, who it will face in the first round Monday night. Point Beach is a longshot to win all of Group I with the likes of Paulsboro and Emerson-Park Ridge figuring to vie for the title, but sectional title No. 3 is theirs for the taking.
Point Boro is the No. 1 seed in South Jersey Group II and looking for its second sectional title and first since 2007 when it also won South Jersey Group II. The Panthers are battle-tested with matches against Jackson Memorial, Southern and Ocean and their grinding style and balanced lineup is made to win in the postseason. Haddonfield looks to be Point Boro’s main competition in the section and wrestled a challenging schedule that includes wins over Collingswood and Gateway, a match against Paulsboro and trip to the Virginia Duals. If Point Boro can win the section it will be part of a formidable group that will probably include Raritan, Hanover Park and High Point.
Does St. John Vianney’s banner season culminate with a sectional title?
It’s been a season to remember so far for St. John Vianney with its first division title in program history, a team title at the inaugural Shore Conference Individual Championships and four individual SCT champs. Now the Lancers turn their attention to bringing home the program’s first sectional title in two decades.
St. John Vianney is the No. 3 seed in the Non-Public South A section and will have two tough teams to go through in order to win their first sectional championship since 1996 – No. 2 St. Augustine and No. 1 Camden Catholic – but given the firepower in their lineup, the Lancers are more than capable. Freshman sensational Dean Peterson (25-0), seniors Nick Caracappa (22-4) and Steven Giannios (24-3) and junior heavyweight Paul Liseno (22-3) all won SCT titles while sophomore Tyler Pepe (24-4) was second and seniors Charlie Peterson (22-6) and Josiah Walker (13-5) finished third. SJV is young at spots but talented with the likes of Joey Butler, Seth Rotondella, Blake Clayton and Jaden Lowe.
Beyond the sectional tournament is a date with Bergen Catholic, which is arguably the No. 1 team in the nation. St. John Vianney knows it isn’t winning that matchup so as far as the Lancers are concerned their team season will be defined by whether they get to Friday night and leave Cherry Hill with a sectional championship.
Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at email@example.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.