Southern Wrestlers Bounce Howell, Oust Hunterdon Central on Way to Group V Crown

By DAVID BIGGY | Feb 13, 2019
Courtesy of: Southern Athletics The Southern Regional wrestling team celebrates its NJSIAA Group V championship on Feb. 10.

A few weeks ago, after the Southern Regional wrestling team wrecked Phillipsburg in their annual tussle, John Stout provided a reminder regarding part of his coaching philosophy.

“It doesn’t matter what happens in December,” said the head coach, referring to a pair of losses to Jackson Memorial and High Point which may have concerned some people as to the Rams’ viability as a state title contender this season. “January is when you build your steam, because the really big stuff happens later in January and February. That’s when I want our kids to raise the bar.”

The big win over the Stateliners didn’t simply raise a bar. It proved the sleeping giant was awake, because things indeed were about to get real.

On Friday, Feb. 8, the Rams ended Howell’s 78-match winning streak to capture their 13th state sectional title, then followed up two days later with a 34-27 victory over Hunterdon Central to snag their second NJSIAA Group V championship in four seasons and third in program history.

No doubt, winning another state title is a big deal. But the section-title victory over the Rebels – Southern’s Shore Conference nemesis for years now – truly may have been the bigger deal. During most of the past 12 years, Southern’s road out of the section was fairly easy.

But when the NJSIAA maneuvered Howell from Central Group V to South Group V during the standard offseason alterations, that changed the game entirely. Not only was the road out of the South sectional going to be difficult, the Rams likely were going to have to go through the team that knocked them off in last year’s Group V title clash.

That matchup came to fruition after top-seeded Southern blew out Cherokee, 50-11, and second-seeded Howell knocked off third-seeded Toms River North – which defeated Southern in mid-January – on Feb. 6. And that’s when everybody saw the real Rams, the team that routed P-burg only 13 days beforehand.

“We really wanted Howell tonight,” said John Stout, the senior wrestler, who’s headed for the University of Pennsylvania in the fall. “For many years, this was our section to lose. We weren’t just trying to win another section title. We wanted to beat the team that beat us last year and keep that section title here.”

And it was the younger Stout and his teammates among the upper part of the Rams’ lineup who delivered.

After Haven Tatarek lost by technical fall at 170 pounds, allowing Howell to trim Southern’s lead through the first nine bouts to 10 points, 23-13, Stout looked as if he were shot out of a cannon once he stepped on the mat for the 182-pound match against Jake Nase. Stout snatched a single leg, scoring a tone-setting taketown within the first 15 seconds of the bout.

“Coach (Dan) Hall texted me a picture of one of their guys flexing after a win, and I kept that in the back of my mind,” Stout said. “Nase is a strong guy and a good wrestler, but I wanted to take control of the match early and continue to execute while wrestling smart.”

The end result was an 18-9 major decision, which pushed Southern’s lead to 14 points with four bouts left. Unfortunately, the lead was cut again when Howell’s Christian Murphy sent Ben LoParo to his back for a pin at 195, and it was up to J.T. Cornelius and Jayden Smith to maintain that eight-point advantage.

Cornelius ended up increasing it, when he snatched Joe Sardina in a killer headlock and thumped him to his back for a near-fall midway through the first period.

“I kept passing on it at first,” a smiling Cornelius said after the contest. “But I kind of knew, as soon as the kid moved a certain way, that I’d get it. And when I got it, I just went, ‘Wow, I just headlocked this kid and I’m going up 5-0.’ That felt great.”

After a scoreless second period, Sardina did just about everything possible to get back in the match, including trying to rough up Southern’s 6-foot-5 220-pounder. By the time 30 seconds was left in the bout, Cornelius had multiple bandages wrapped around his head to control bleeding areas. It didn’t matter, as he finished with a 6-2 victory.

“Coach (Dan) Roy told me before the match that if I won we would win, so I did everything I could to get that win for my team,” Cornelius said. “The beating I took was worth every second.”

With the Rebels still clinging to the little bit of hope they still had to win – they needed two pins to overcome the 30-19 deficit at that point – Southern’s heavyweight, a second-year wrestler, took the mat with the chance to clinch the title.

“I had to stay calm and not do anything stupid,” Smith said. “I didn’t want to overwrestle and end up on my back.”

Mission accomplished. Not only did Smith stay off his back, he didn’t even get taken down. The Rebels’ Justin Wright scored an escape in the second period and four stalling points in the third to hand Smith a 5-0 loss. But it was the best loss of his life, one which secured Southern’s 13th sectional crown.

“This is amazing. It’s the best feeling I’ve ever had,” Smith said, after Roy finished wrapping the big guy in a flying bear hug. “All the practices, all the conditioning, all the hard work ... this is what it’s for. It’s absolutely worth it.”

Inside the RWJ Barnabas Arena on the campus of Toms River North Sunday, a similar pattern of events occurred against Hunterdon Central. After the Rams disposed of Passaic Tech, 49-12, in the Group V semifinals, Jayson Scerbo kicked off things against the Red Devils with a 7-1 decision at 113 pounds.

After Central took a 9-3 lead during the next two bouts, Sebastian Delligatti cut the deficit to three points with a 5-2 win at 132 points, before Robert Woodcock scored an 11-5 decision at 138 to tie the contest at 9-9. After Nick Pepe lost at 145 pounds, Nick O’Connell delivered a 14-4 major to put the Rams back out in front, 13-12.

Luke Galan lost a 3-0 decision at 160, but Stout sent Dan Furmato to his back for a pin in 3:59 of the 170-pound clash, and Tatarek won a huge, 4-3 decision at 182 pounds to give Southern a decent lead, 22-15.

With 12 seconds left in the second period of the 195-pound contest, LoParo shot in for a high-crotch maneuver, dropped Brandon Donaghue to his back and pressed him to the mat for a pin with one second left in the period, setting off a raucous celebration among the Southern faithful.

Cornelius then made quick work of Salvatore Brito at 220 pounds, again using the headlock takedown to set up a pin in 54 seconds. Southern forfeited the final two bouts before gathering at the center of the mat to receive the Group V trophy.

This weekend, the Rams will host and attempt to defend their NJSIAA District 29 team title, as the three-phase individual championship tourney gets underway.

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