Region VIII Wrestling

Southern’s O’Connell, Stout, Woodcock Head to Boardwalk Hall as Region Champs

By DAVID BIGGY | Feb 27, 2019
Photo by: David Biggy Southern's Nick O'Connell snatches the leg of St. Augustine Prep's Connor Kraus en route to a 7-4 victory to capture the NJSIAA Region VIII championship at 152 pounds and the 100th win of his career on Feb. 23.

A year ago, Nick O’Connell went into the NJSIAA State Wrestling Championships with all sorts of bodily problems. Not only did he have a lingering shoulder issue, one of his knees still wasn’t completely up to par and a gash in his head was being held together by a bunch of staples.

Not that the Southern Regional senior ever would make excuses for his performance on the mat, but the fact is he simply wasn’t healthy enough to wrestle his best in Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall. And unlike the year before, when he managed to get onto the placewinners’ podium at 145 pounds, O’Connell fell short in 2018.

“I haven’t thought much about last year,” said O’Connell, after he defeated St. Augustine Prep’s Connor Kraus, 7-4, in the Region VIII 152-pound title bout on Feb. 23. “I was in bad shape going into Atlantic City. But this year, I’m going in 100 percent healthy. I have four good limbs and no staples in my head, so that’s going to be an advantage right there.”

No doubt, O’Connell’s not just looking to return to the podium during this weekend’s season finale. He’s going in with an undefeated record and taking aim at the top spot.

“I’m really confident,” he said. “And going in undefeated gives me a lot more confidence. I haven’t given up too many points this season, and I’ve wrestled some of the top guys in my weight class already. I believe I have a shot to win it all. I need to wrestle five great matches.”

On Saturday, O’Connell faced some stiff competition in the Region VIII tourney at Egg Harbor Township High School. Other than giving up a fluke takedown in the championship bout, O’Connell looked solid. After cruising past Highland’s Brett Buckingham, 14-2, in the quarterfinal, O’Connell won a 7-3 decision over Clearview’s David McCullough, who had one loss going into the semifinals.

In the final, O’Connell appeared to score a takedown 30 seconds into the match but the official waved it off. With O’Connell briefly confused by the call, Kraus snuck in for a takedown to take the initial lead with 1:20 to go in the first period. O’Connell slithered free for a reversal 19 seconds later. After Kraus escaped to regain the lead, 3-2, O’Connell snatched his leg and took him down with 35 seconds left in the period.

Starting the second on defense, Kraus eventually made his way to neutral for a 4-4 tie, but O’Connell again took him down shortly thereafter and later escaped 33 seconds into the third for a 7-4 lead – and that’s the way it stayed as O’Connell (36-0) continued to be the aggressor and forced Kraus to fight him off. The win was the 100th of O’Connell’s career.

“I knew I needed three wins for 100 and I’m excited about that,” he said. “I’m more proud of that, than getting a second region title, because it means I’ve wrestled consistently well for three years. Now, I just want to keep doing what I’ve been doing all season and stay focused on what I have to do to get to the top of the podium.”

O’Connell’s classmate, John Stout, definitely was pleased with winning a second straight region championship at 170 pounds, but he wasn’t overly excited following his 5-3 win over Buena’s Jaden Roberts – an opponent Stout has defeated four times this season.

“It’s cool. I won last year, so it’s all right to win it again,” Stout said, smiling. “But the state championships is my big focus. I’m not going to be comfortable until next Saturday night after I get on that podium in Atlantic City. My focus is on getting to the top of the podium.”

After pinning Woodstown’s Robert Parkell in 3:22 during the quarterfinals, Stout looked fantastic in a 12-0 major decision against Mainland’s Jesse Bishop. In the final, Roberts altered his stance from previous bouts with Stout, but it didn’t matter much. Stout took him down 16 seconds into the contest and only allowed Roberts three escape points.

“Jaden wrestled really tough today,” said Stout (40-2), who hasn’t lost to a New Jersey wrestler this season – his only two defeats were against nationally-ranked wrestlers during the Escape the Rock tournament in January. “He obviously had to try some new things against me, and he didn’t let me get comfortable. I was glad for a tough match before going to Atlantic City.”

The son of Southern’s head coach, who placed third at 140 pounds in 1990 when he wrestled for Lacey High School, the younger Stout is sort of chasing history as he goes after a Boardwalk Hall podium spot. Not only did his dad experience success in Atlantic City, his uncle, Bryan, who finished his career at Southern, was a three-time placewinner, including the 171-pound runner-up in 1991 and the state champ at 189 in 1992.

“There’s no pressure, but our family history definitely gives me more incentive to get on the podium,” Stout said. “It would be awesome to get to the top of the podium like my uncle did. The really cool thing is my cousin is trying to do the same thing in Pennsylvania, so it’s a lot of fun for all of us right now.”

Interestingly, junior Robert Woodcock wasn’t much more excited than his older teammates after winning the 138-pound title over Holy Spirit’s Ken Sherman, despite it being his first region crown.

“It’s all right,” Woodcock calmly remarked, after scoring the 10-4 decision in the final. “I came in as the fourth seed, and I thought that was kind of weird. I was expecting to get to the final and win this tournament. A state place would be a lot better.”

In the quarterfinals, Woodcock (32-4) pinned Gateway’s Kodi Petroski in 4:41, and then scored a 3-1 victory over Delsea’s top seed, Tim Spatola, in the semifinal. Once in the final against Sherman – who Woodcock defeated to win the District 29 title the week before – Woodcock immediately took control, scoring a takedown 35 seconds into the contest and turning Sherman to his back for a 5-0, first-period lead.

“Last year in Atlantic City, I didn’t do too well,” Woodcock said. “I’m more prepared this year. If I keep wrestling the way I’ve been wrestling, I should do well. I believe I can get to the podium. I just can’t make any mistakes.”

The Rams are sending seven wrestlers to Boardwalk Hall, including juniors J.T. Cornelius (36-4) and Jayson Scerbo (26-10), both of whom reached their respective regional championship bouts and finished as runners-up. Cornelius lost, 13-6, to top-seeded Tyreke Brown of Penns Grove in the 220-pound final, while Scerbo lost a 3-1, overtime thriller to top-seeded Carmen Giumarello of Clearview in the 113-pound title match.

Senior Nick Pepe lost a 5-3 decision in the 145-pound semifinals against Woodstown’s Jack Prendergast, but rebounded with a pair of victories to finish third. Pepe, the fifth seed, ousted second-seeded John Love of Clearview, 15-3, in the wrestleback semifinals, then cruised to a 16-5 win over Penns Grove’s Wayne Scott, the third seed.

“This is going to be my first time in Atlantic City, so I’m excited,” Pepe said. “That match against Prendergast woke me up. And my eyes are on the podium now. I’m ecstatic to keep my season going and I can’t wait to get down to Boardwalk Hall.”

Also going to Boardwalk Hall for the first time are Pinelands Regional senior Evan Burton, who placed fourth at 182 pounds; Southern senior Sebastian Delligatti, who placed fourth at 126 pounds; and Barnegat junior Griffin Jackstadt, who swiped fourth at heavyweight.

This year, the state championships will be a Thursday-Friday-Saturday affair instead of the old Friday-through-Sunday stint. Preliminary-round bouts begin at 2:30 p.m. on Feb. 28, followed by the prequarterfinals. On Saturday, wrestlebacks start at 9 a.m., with quarterfinals set for noon, and boys’ semifinals and girls’ quarterfinals scheduled for 6 p.m., followed by two wrestleback rounds.

On Saturday, the last round of wrestlebacks starts at 10 a.m. The girls’ finals and consolation contests, as well as the boys’ third-, fifth- and seventh-place consolations, are slated for an 11:15 a.m. start, and the boys’ finals are set for 3:30 p.m.

The only local female scheduled to wrestle is Pinelands junior Olivia Mena, who on Feb. 17 won the 118-pound South Region title and is the second seed for the state championship tourney. With a bye for the quarterfinals, Mena will meet either Red Bank Regional’s Sheridan Torres or Ewing’s Devon Kueny in the semifinals. The top seed is Raritan’s Christine Gavasheli.

biggy@thesandpaper.net

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