Howell High School seeks to complete a hat trick on the wrestling mat.
The Rebels won the Central Jersey, Group 5 state sectional championship and the Group 5 state title in each of the last two years.
Howell moved down a class in size to Group 4.
But regardless of the group classification, Howell has the weapons to win a third straight state championship.
Howell is off to an 8-0 start, winning each bout by a double-digit margin.
The Rebels beat Freehold High School, 54-20, on Dec. 19, Bishop George Ahr High School, 58-18, on Dec. 21, Sparta High School, 60-21, on Dec. 22, Jackson Memorial High School, 32-18, on Dec. 22, Freehold Township High School, 63-12, on Jan. 2, Middletown High School North, 39-20, on Jan. 4, Bound Brook High School, 63-9, on Jan. 5 and Christian Brothers Academy, 66-8, on the same day.
Coach John Gagliano’s team also participated in the highly regarded Powerade Wrestling Tournament in Canonsburg, Pa. on the last weekend of 2018. The event featured some of the best wrestling teams and individuals from across the country.
The three captains for Howell, 138-pounder Darby Diedrich, 170-pounder Shane Reitsma and 182-pounder Christian Murphy, finished third, fourth and fifth, respectively, in their weight classes.
Those three will spearhead Howell’s championship drive this winter.
“Placing at a national tournament is incredible,” Gagliano said about his three captains. “They are doing well and leading the team. With their presence and work ethic on the mat and in the practice room, kids look up to them. They are experienced.”
All three qualified for the state tournament the past two seasons in Atlantic City.
Reitsma gained a medal last year when he placed sixth at 170 pounds while Diedrich took home a medal two winters ago when he finished seventh at 120 pounds.
“They have been around and know what it takes,” said Gagliano, who did lose to graduation two-time state finalist Kyle Slendorn.
But the senior captains are not Howell’s only formidable starters.
Ethan Liptzin, a 106-pounder, and 152-pound Paul Jakub were key wrestlers on last year’s state title team. Outside of the national tournament, they are a combined 9-2 this year. Liptzin has closed all his victories by pinning his opponents.
Nieko Malone, a 126-pounder, and 220-pounder Joe Sardina (220) have also thrived. Malone’s decision against Jackson Memorial helped swing Howell’s closest victory of the season. Sardina has pinned four opponents, one in 16 seconds.
“They have all started the season strong,” Gagliano said. “It’s an experienced group.”
It’s also a group that fully expects to win another state championship.
“The goal is always to win the state championship,” Gagliano said. “But we don’t like to look ahead. We have a lot of work to do. But that’s our ultimate goal.”
To get back to the finish line, Howell will have to get through a January grind featuring two, three and sometimes four dual meets a week. Gagliano entered the Powerade tournament to prepare Howell for that grind.
“We’ve only had four matches. January is when the big matches come up,” Gagliano said. “It was a great experience to wrestle in the national individual tournament (near) Pittsburgh. It was the top tournament in the country to compete in. The competition was unbelievable. It definitely prepared us for January.”
Howell will return to the mat on Jan. 9 versus Marlboro High School. The match will start at 6 p.m.