HOWELL – In 2017, Howell’s acclaimed wrestling program completed the greatest season in program history up to that point – going 30-1 and finally filling that last spot in its trophy case by bringing home the NJSIAA Group V title with an epic 28-27 win over Hunterdon Central for their first state group title in program history.

“It was amazing, it was something that we always set our goals to be overall group champions,” said head coach John Gagliano, who is in his 22nd year at Howell and is the winningest coach in Shore Conference history with over 400 wins. “To finally attain that was a big weight off our shoulders because that was something we’ve always looked forward to accomplishing and to finally do that was satisfying.”

Amazingly, a year later in 2018, the Rebels actually bettered their 2017 campaign by going undefeated (32-0) on the way to repeating as the NJSIAA Group V champions. They also won their third district title in a row and sixth out of the last seven years while finishing ranked No. 1 in the Shore for the second year in a row and third in the state.

“Winning last year was exciting, too,” said Gagliano. “It was a whole new year and there were some kids that were part of that first one, but then there was a bunch of new kids who got to experience it. It was a great season and a lot of fun and the kids worked really hard.”

Seniors Darby Diedrich and Christian Murphy and junior Shane Reitsma are three of the mainstays of this year’s team that played significant roles in both championship seasons.

In 2017, both Diedrich (33-5) at 120 pounds and Reitsma (37-1) at 170 pounds claimed Region 6 titles, while Murphy (31-7) won a district title at 160 pounds. Then in 2018, Diedrich (35-2) at 126 pounds and Murphy (34-2) at 182 claimed region titles, while Reitsma (32-5) took home a district championship at 170.

“All three are captains and real good role models,” said Gagliano. “They’re hard workers on and off the mat and kids look up to them. It’s important to them to be leaders. They know they have a job to do and know the kids look up to them so they make it a point to lead by example.”

Diedrich is wrestling at 142 pounds this year and is 16-2, while Reitsma is 16-1 while still wrestling at 170, and Murphy at 182 pounds has a record of 13-4.

After 22 years as coach, Gagliano has become a master of deflecting credit for the sustained success of the Howell wrestling program.

“The kids buy in, they listen to what we have to offer,” said Gagliano. “They work hard in the offseason and that makes a big difference. The coaching staffs from the Howell Predator Wrestling Clubs to the middle schools to here at the high school are all on the same page and do a great job.”

Earlier in the season, the Rebels competed in the National Powerade Tournament that included wrestlers from all over the country and finished 14th out of 52 schools. Diedrich placed fourth at 138 pounds, Reitsma third at 170 pounds and Murphy fifth at 182 pounds.

“We had never been in an individual tournament of that quality and it was incredible,” said Gagliano. “Some of the kids got beat early on because the quality of kids in each weight class was incredible, but overall it was a great experience for our kids.”

Other key contributors to this year’s team include Ethan Liptzin (12-3) at 106 pounds, Kyle Nase (11-5) at 113 pounds, James McGee (9-4) at 120 pounds, Neiko Malone (10-3) at 126 pounds, Pierce Gomez (10-6) at 145 pounds, Paul Jakub (13-3) at 152 pounds, Xavier Kelly (15-1) at 160 pounds, Jake Nase (13-4) at 195 pounds, Joe Sardina (12-5) at 220 pounds and heavyweight Justin Wright (9-1).

It appears Howell (13-0, 7-0) – ranked No.1 in the Shore and third in the state – is in good shape for another run at a state group title, but if you ask Gagliano it’s not something the team dwells on. “We don’t even talk about that, we just have to continue to improve and there’s a lot of things we need to work on before we even think that,” said Gagliano when asked about winning their third consecutive state title.

“We don’t think past what we have tonight and tomorrow and this weekend - that’s too far away for us to think about. They know what our goal is, our ultimate goal is always to win the overall group, but we’re not there yet; we have work to do. There’s a lot of quality teams out there this year and it’s a very balance field; South Jersey is loaded.”

Thursday, in a matchup of two top 10 teams, the Rebels picked up a quality win against No. 6 South Plainfield with an electrifying 30-28 win. In the final bout, Sardina held Zach DelVecchio, the No. 3-ranked 220-pounder in the country, to a 9-5 decision where a pin would’ve won the match for South Plainfield. The Rebels won eight of 14 bouts and picked up crucial wins from Malone at 132, Jakub at 152 and Nase at 170 pounds.

Justin Wright at 285 pounds, Liptzin at 106 pounds, Diedrich at 138 pounds, Kelly at 160 pounds and Reitsma at 182 pounds all won by decision helping the Rebels pick up the impressive win.

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