Top 20 Sports Stories of 2018

Two Local Pros Top the List, But the NFL Rookie Lands at No. 1

By DAVID BIGGY | Jan 04, 2019
Photo by: Peter McMahon/Miami Dolphins Southern graduate Mike Gesicki not only was drafted by the Miami Dolphins 42nd overall during the second round of the NFL draft in April, the rookie tight end went on to play all 16 games in his debut season.

In late December, it’s time to start thinking about the biggest sports stories of the previous 11½ months for what ultimately becomes our Top 20 Sports Stories of the Year. Typically, the top few positions are figured out in a hurry. But once we get past the top five or six, the crapshoot begins.

Many factors go into the selections on this list, but the biggest factor is simple: It’s just a great story or several great stories combined – according to us, anyway. So, here you go ... sit back and enjoy the 2018 version of the Top 20 Sports Stories of the Year.

20. A Repeat as County Champs – Nobody said repeating as the Ocean County champions would be an easy task, and it wasn’t. The Southern Regional girls cross-country squad took the course at Ocean County Park in Lakewood on Oct. 18 with that goal, but Point Pleasant Borough gave the Rams a big challenge.

Fortunately, with senior Gianna Citarella leading the way and junior Emily Furlong not far behind her, the Rams scored a half-dozen more points with their third, fourth and fifth runners – freshman Rachel Short, junior Jaelyn D’Amelio and freshman Olivia Horton – securing better positions than the Panthers’ fourth and fifth runners. The Rams again reigned supreme in Ocean County.

19. Southern Boys Soccer Team Rises Higher – At the beginning of the season, coach Guy Lockwood wasn’t so much concerned by the fact his squad graduated a ton of seniors from the previous year’s team. Instead, his biggest concern was how well his young crew returning for the 2018 season would develop its chemistry and win consistently.

For as streaky as they were in terms of wins and losses, the Rams were a consistent team. When they won, they played well. When they lost, they played well and didn’t lose by much. The bane of the team’s existence was a lack of scoring punch in big games. But overall, a 10-6-1 season, reaching the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals and taking second in the Class A South division proved the Rams were still on their way up.

18. Big Couple of Weeks for Wildcats’ Hoops Crew – When the NJSIAA announced the seeds for the South Jersey Group III tournament in mid-February, the excitement started brewing for the first boys basketball state tourney game in the Pinelands Regional High School gym. Coach Fred Johnson’s team was so jacked up, they went on a three-game winning streak to clinch a berth in the Shore Conference Tournament for just the second time in program history.

But that big day arrived on Feb. 26 – as the fifth seed, the Wildcats hosted 12th-seeded Gloucester Tech and had hundreds of fans packed into the gym, even up into the second tier of seats. Johnson’s squad responded well, zipping to a 41-18, halftime lead. The Wildcats recorded their first-ever state tourney win, 70-42. A few days later, the season ended with a 15-11 record.

17. Bengals Hoops Teams Rock the Hardwood – It was no secret heading into last winter. The Barnegat High School boys and girls basketball teams were solid and expected to fare well. Each was led by a great senior class and had experience throughout its lineup. And it was that experience which helped the Bengals at big times, such as in February during tourney time.

On Feb. 13, Mike Puorro’s squad knocked off Middletown South by 10 points while Tammy Nicolini’s crew bounced Long Branch by nine points for the basketball programs’ first-ever victories in the Shore Conference Tournament. Two weeks later, Mike Revello led the Barnegat boys to a 51-47 upset of top-seeded Cinnaminson in the South Jersey Group II quarterfinals. In the same Cinnaminson gym earlier that evening, Shannon McCoy led the Barnegat girls to a 47-46 upset of the second-seeded Pirates.

More on McCoy and Revello later, but both the Barnegat girls and boys squads put together seasons to remember.

16. Southern Wrestling Team Rebounds Nicely – Given a mishap from the previous year – when a weight-certification infraction forced Southern’s wrestling team to forfeit its position in the state team tournament – head coach John Stout’s Rams were a crew aiming to restate their claim as one of the top teams in NJSIAA Group V. And all season long, Southern looked every bit of a contender.

Not only did they blow through Shore Conference Class A South, the Rams eventually emerged with the South Jersey Group V sectional title with a hard-fought, 33-29 win over Kingsway, then moved onto the state semifinals. On Feb. 11, Southern bounced Watchung Hills in the Group V semifinals, but fell to conference rival Howell, 33-15, in the championship match. Still, as a team, the Rams finished off strong by capturing a second straight District 29 title.

15. New Coach Steers Rams Back to Winning Track – It’s difficult to underestimate the impact a coach has on a team. In the case of Southern’s softball program, the Rams received a kick in their collective pants when new coach Jamie Bernaldo took over the program prior to last spring. The Rams responded in exactly the right way, taking on the challenges Bernaldo presented to them and became a better team.

The evidence of that turnaround was not just in the fact the Rams scored 12 victories, but more in the way the team handled close games during the late innings. For one, they won more of those tight contests rather than lose them. And not only did Southern win enough to qualify for both the Shore Conference and NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV tournaments, they won enough within Class A South to tie for the division title.

14. Pinelands Golfers Return to Prominence – It had been a while – quite a number of years, in fact – but the Pinelands Regional golf team last spring returned to its dominant position atop the Shore Conference Class B South division. However, Jim Becker’s Wildcats didn’t simply win a division title; they went undefeated for the season, recording a 14-0 mark.

Beyond that, the Wildcats proved they belonged on the same course with just about anybody. They finished fourth in Ocean County, qualifying for the Shore Conference tourney in the process, and routinely had its players near the top of the leaderboards. Kayla Gutierrez, who placed third overall at the county tournament, became one of the better female golfers in South Jersey, while Connor and Austin Carney fortified the Wildcats as a consistent team wherever they played.

The best part: Four of Becker’s top five players, including the leading trio, are slated to return this year.

13. Wildcats’ Girls Soccer Squad Climbs the Ladder – Since Pinelands Regional High School opened in 1979, the Wildcats’ girls soccer program has had many ups and downs, and likely too many downs. But not in 2018. After a solid season the previous year, coach Dawn Paget’s crew for this past fall looked to be the best squad yet. The question was whether the still-young Wildcats would play up to that potential.

Well, they did. In fact, the squad captured its first-ever Shore Conference Class B South division title with a 7-1 record, then went on to finish an impressive campaign at 11-4-3, just missing a spot in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group II semifinals following a shootout loss to Haddon Heights in the quarters. Led by junior Aileen Cahill, who along the way became the program’s all-time goal-scoring leader, senior Alex Hanna, junior goalkeeper Brenna DeVoe and sophomore Sunni DiElmo, the Wildcats’ girls program finally arrived to prominence.

12. PRHS Boys Soccer Team Has Another Great Ride – While the Pinelands girls soccer program was enjoying its finest season ever, coach Nino Scotto de Carlo’s boys’ team continued its success behind a slew of experienced seniors, including defender Frank Aguilar, midfielders Anthony Diaz and Aniello Lubrano, and forwards Kieran Sundermann and Dom Dos Santos – all of whom had played significant roles for three seasons.

However, despite their success of the previous year, when they won their first-ever B South division crown and reached the quarterfinals of the Shore Conference Tournament, the Wildcats still were on the hunt for one more thing: a shot at a state sectional title. With another division title in the bag, Pinelands went into the South Jersey Group III tourney with guns blazing. The Wildcats needed a shootout win to knock off Mainland in the quarters, then smashed Cherry Hill West to reach the title game against Seneca. Pinelands fell short of that first section crown in a 1-0 loss, but capped another great season at 11-5-1.

11. Foley Becomes All-Time Wrestling Wins Leader – In many wrestling programs throughout the state, great wrestlers come along somewhat frequently. That’s often the benefit of being part of an established powerhouse program. Unfortunately, Barnegat High School’s wrestling program is still young and has taken baby steps when developing toward a more prominent level. In fact, heading into 2018, the program hadn’t had a wrestler with 100 career wins – the highest mark being 2010 graduate Shane Herring’s 94 victories.

That changed in January, when senior lightweight Sean Foley not only passed Herring to become Barnegat’s all-time wins leader, but during a team win over Burlington on Jan. 20 Foley reached the century mark. After finishing second in NJSIAA District 32, the 113-pounder didn’t quite finish the way he had hoped – by standing atop the podium inside Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall – but a 32-5 season capped his career with 110 victories. A whopping 63 of them occurred during his last two seasons, and his record looks to be safe for at least a few seasons.

10. The Vikings Capture Another Island Title – As it had been the previous few years, one of the big questions hanging over the beaches of Long Beach Island heading into August was: Could any beach patrol competition squad knock off Harvey Cedars? For three years running, the Vikings proved to be the best and utterly dominated the Island Tournament the previous year, winning by some 30 points.

Well, it should come as no shock to anybody who may have missed it Aug. 4, but the Vikings won again, becoming the only beach patrol other than Barnegat Light to capture four or more consecutive titles. This time around, the margin of victory wasn’t nearly as large as the previous year – Cedars scored 114 points, compared to BLBP’s 97 – but it was significant enough to beg the aforementioned question.

Interestingly, Cedars still has to win a couple more years in a row to pull off what only The Light has managed to do, and that’s win six straight titles. We’re certain Randy Townsend’s crew will be up for the challenge.

9. SRHS Girls Volleyball Back Where It Belongs – Heading into the fall season, local high school volleyball fans had plenty to look forward to, with two girls’ squads set for big season. Of course, one of them resided at Southern Regional High School, where coach Eric Maxwell’s crew brought back an experienced and defensively excellent bunch of players. The only question mark was whether the Rams would have enough firepower on the outsides to match up well with the better teams in the Shore Conference and throughout the state.

As the season progressed, those questions began to fade a bit. The Rams indeed had enough offensive clout. Still, Southern’s strength was its defense. Nonetheless, the Rams blew through Class A South en route to another division title, going 14-0, and cruised through the early rounds of the conference tourney, ultimately meeting up with top-seeded Pinelands for the SCT crown. Southern fell in two games.

But all was not lost for the Rams. They still had a Group IV title to go after, and that run included wins over Union City, Union, Williamstown and Ridgewood, before taking on North Hunterdon for the group championship. Ultimately, North Hunterdon had too much size at the front for Southern to overcome – and the officiating didn’t help, either – but Maxwell’s Rams ended up exactly where they belonged and finished 31-5.

8. Pinelands Girls Volleyball Team Makes It Two in a Row – As was the case with Southern, the Pinelands Regional girls volleyball team had been projected to be one of the top contenders for the Shore Conference title at the start of the fall season. With stud player Kayla Thornton leading the charge and an excellent supporting cast around her, many predicted the conference championship was Pinelands’ crown to lose.

And such was the case – Kathy Bennett’s squad didn’t lose a heck of a lot. A tight loss to Donovan Catholic in mid-September and a close loss to eventual Group IV champ North Huntderon in mid-October were the only blemishes on Pinelands’ record heading into the NJSIAA Group II tourney, which was stacked with a few of the state’s top squads.

After cruising through the SCT, losing only one of nine games along the way to a second straight title, the Wildcats marched through the first four rounds of the state tourney before dropping a 2-1 contest to Group II runner-up Rutherford – a match in which Pinelands won the first game before the Bulldogs finally took control and ended the Wildcats’ season at 27-3.

7. Barnegat Boys Swimmers Reach New Heights – Exiting 2017 and entering 2018, the Barnegat High School boys swim team already had established itself as one of the better programs within Ocean County. Still, Emily Cherry’s Bengals had yet to prove, to that point, that they could generate some clout among the upper echelon at the county championship meet. On Jan. 20, the Bengals finally proved their worth, scoring 184 points to swipe fourth and finishing just 5.5 points behind third-place Jackson Memorial.

But Barnegat wasn’t finished reaching new heights. The Bengals still had more to accomplish, and they started on that path in the semifinals of the NJSIAA South Group C tournament, after being awarded a bye through the quarterfinals. With only one team to beat to reach the final, the Bengals made the most of the opportunity – crushing Cedar Creek, 106.5-63.5.

Making program history just by reaching the sectional final, where they faced top-seeded Oakcrest, the Bengals on Feb. 14 looked to make school history by becoming the first athletic team – male or female – to win a state section championship. Unfortunately, the Bengals fell short, but the silver lining was that the Barnegat boys not only reached new heights in 2018 but were slated to return almost its entire team this winter.

6. Maxwell’s Boys Volleyball Squad Continues Its Dominance – Year after year for the past 10, the expectations haven’t changed for the Southern Regional boys volleyball program. Every spring, the date set for the state championship is circled on the calendar. That’s where coach Eric Maxwell’s squad expects to end up.

Of course, the scary part is that the Rams had ended up there each year since 2009. So why would 2018 be any different? Well, it wasn’t. After winning two straight state titles in 2016 and 2017, the Rams again were projected to be in the state final and many had them pegged to win another crown. Southern fulfilled its promise by cruising through the South Jersey sectional bracket, then obliterated North I champion Bayonne in the state semis.

In case you haven’t realized it yet, that made 10 straight state finals appearances. Yeah, let that sink in a bit. Forget the fact Southern ended up dropping a 25-22, 21-25, 25-23 contest to Old Bridge in the championship match. The fact that the Rams, who finished 37-5 for the season, were there again, playing for a possible seventh state title in 10 years is simply incredible.

5. Karagan Bulger Hits the Big Time on Track – Interestingly, the same week the Southern boys volleyball team played in another state-title match, another big-time feat occurred on another surface that Southern has fared extremely well on during the past 10 years – the track. The difference this time was that the Rams’ premier success didn’t come by way of any of the distance events.

Instead, it was a hurdler who made the most noise at the NJSIAA Meet of Champions, and a sophomore, nonetheless. And the scene was surreal, quite frankly. Karagan Bulger was one of a mere few individuals on the competition slate for Southern, and she was scheduled to run in the unseeded heat of the 400-meter hurdles as part of the first event of the day.

In short, Bulger ran a fantastic race, finishing in 1:01.87. She easily won her heat, but the eighth highest-seeded competitors still had to race. Fortunately for Bulger, most of them didn’t know about her phenomenal time as they toed the starting line. Only three of them managed to best Bulger’s time – a Southern hurdler finished fourth in the state. Incredible.

Oh, but here’s the kicker. It was Bulger’s first season competing in the event. Not only did she somehow manage to reach the Meet of Champions in a new event for that season, Bulger placed among the top five coming out of the unseeded heat, which is not the norm but the exception. That’s a big deal.

4. McCoy, Revello Become Barnegat’s Best – Honestly, some may read this entry among the top five of our Top 20 Sports Stories of the Year and wonder why this is such a big deal, but let’s paint some perspective here. Heading into the 2017-18 school year, only one other basketball player in Barnegat High School’s short history – remember, the school only opened its doors in 2004 – had eclipsed 1,000 points. That distinction belonged only to 2010 valedictorian and standout athlete Catherine Keough.

In January, we reported that two Bengals cruised past 1,000 points. Mike Revello officially cleared the mark on Dec. 29, 2017, but because The SandPaper doesn’t publish the last week of the calendar year it wasn’t reported until a couple of weeks later. So, even though Revello technically became Barnegat’s first boys hoops player to reach the milestone two days before 2018, it still counts as a story for the year.

Now, besides that, Shannon McCoy officially became the second girls basketball player to reach the milestone on Jan. 11 – by shattering the program’s single-game points record with a 42-point effort against Point Pleasant Borough. But the story is not that two Barnegat basketball players broke the 1,000-point barrier in the same season.

The bigger story is that these two, McCoy and Revello, then had their own little race to see which would become the school’s all-time points leader. McCoy, who broke Keough’s all-time scoring mark of 1,116 points six games after clearing 1,000, ended up on top with 1,401 points. Revello finished with 1,331. Equally important, the two ended up acquiring multiple team records, solidifying them as Barnegat’s best hoops players in its history to date.

3. Pinelands Devils Win Big in Disney – Some vehemently disagree that cheerleading belongs among the sports pages of a newspaper. That’s fine. Disagree all you want. The bottom line – from our perspective, anyway – is that it takes a lot of physical stamina, mental fortitude and athletic ability to do some of the things competition cheer teams do. And that said, there’s a reason why this entry is so high on our list.

The Pinelands Devils Pop Warner Junior Pee Wee squad proved itself to be a special group of young ladies this year. Sure, they range from 8 to 11 years old, but if you managed to watch the YouTube video from the Pop Warner Cheer & Dance National Championships at Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex, it was clear these were not a bunch of rah-rah girls merely entertaining a crowd. These girls are serious competitors and they’re darned good, too.

After winning every competition prior to the nationals, the Devils went to Disney with a goal in mind – to win the Level 2 national title. Not only did the group of nine girls win its division with a score of 92.88, the Devils also scored the “Grand Champions” title, along with top spots in choreography and stunting.  The Devils’ routine was stunning, impeccably precise and a lot of fun to watch.

With their national title, the team of Ashlei Slinchak, Cara Stranahan, Kayla Harris, Holly Lucas, Kassidy Minor, Keira Jones, Kaylee De Freitas, Isabelle Santos and Arianna Torres earned a bid to the Youth Cheer And Dance Alliance Globals world championship competition in Atlantic City.

2. Martin Truex Jr. Just Misses Second Straight Title – At the end of 2017, there was no doubt who was going to end up at the top of our list for Top 20 Sports Stories of the Year. Martin Truex Jr. had a NASCAR Cup Series season for the ages, capturing the championship in dominating fashion. So, naturally, all eyes were on the Southern Regional graduate and Stafford Township native to see how he’d fare in 2018.

Well, if you’re a NASCAR or Truex fan, you already know the answer. Martin had another fantastic year. He won four races during the regular season, maintained his consistency as a driver and ended up competing for the Cup Series title, again. Only this time around, Joey Logano passed Truex with 12 laps left in the Ford EcoBoost 400 and Martin ended up as the Series runner-up.

Still, especially considering what it takes to win one NSACAR title, to be in a position for a second straight year to win another is incredible. But Truex wasn’t simply wasn’t dealing with increased competition and a target on his back for the entire season. Sometime back in the summer, Furniture Row Racing announced it would close up shop at the end of the season, leaving Truex without a race team for the 2019 season.

Now, of course, no team in NASCAR was going to leave Truex sitting on the sidelines. He’d become one of the best drivers on the circuit. Ultimately, Joe Gibbs Racing signed Truex, but the fact he continued racing at a high level for a team on its way out of NASCAR was a much bigger testimony to his professionalism and focus for being the among the best.

1. Mike Gesicki Lives the Dream in the NFL – As 2017 and Mike Gesicki’s career at Penn State wound down, it was obvious to most people who know some things about football that the big tight end had the skills to play in the NFL. The Southern Regional graduate and former three-sport-star athlete had become one of the best tight ends at the college level during his last two seasons with the Nittany Lions, and the only question that remained was whether his blocking ability would hinder him in the draft.

Well, regardless of what any NFL scouts thought of Gesicki’s blocking ability, his performance in the NFL Combine was simply flabbergasting, immediately giving a dozen pro teams with holes at tight end a promising look at what their future offenses could look like with Gesicki a part of it. At 6-foot-6, 247 pounds and with the leaping ability of a leopard, Gesicki landed on the short lists of several NFL teams.

On April 27, the Miami Dolphins selected the Manahawkin resident 42nd overall during the second round of the draft. Four days later, he was inside Stafford Township Arts Center visiting his old stomping grounds at Stafford Intermediate School. A week later, he was in southern Florida to get acclimated to his new professional environment, and things went uphill from there.

The Dolphins on June 18 signed Gesicki to a four-year contract. He made the 53-man roster and on Sept. 9 started in his first NFL game, snagging his first reception on a Ryan Tannehill pass during the third quarter of a 27-20 victory over the Tennessee Titans. Now sporting No. 86, Gesicki just finished his rookie season on Dec. 30. He didn’t catch any touchdown passes this season, but he played in all of the Dolphins’ 16 games and is well on his way toward what could be a lengthy career in the NFL.

Gesicki’s living the dream, for sure. He’s definitely made Manahawkin proud.

biggy@thesandpaper.net

In what ultimately became the final season for Furniture Row Racing, Stafford native Martin Truex Jr. continued to perform at a high level and again contended for the NASCAR Cup Series championship. (Source: Furniture Row Racing)
The Pinelands Devils Pop Warner Junior Pee Wee cheer squad not only competed for a Level 2 national championship at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex early in December, the Devils returned home with the title. (Courtesy of: Christina Petrauskas)
Shannon McCoy not only led the Barnegat High School girls basketball program to its best season ever, but along the way she became the school's all-time leading scorer. (Photo by: David Biggy)
Mike Revello not only led the Barnegat High School boys basketball team to its best season ever, but along the way he became the program's all-time leading scorer. (Photo by: David Biggy)
Karagan Bulger managed to reach the NJSIAA Meet of Champions in the 400-meter hurdles, then shocked the field by coming out of the unseeded heat to place fourth in the state with a time of 1:01.47. (Photo by: David Biggy)
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