It was one of the toughest losses experienced by Kittatinny's wrestling program on Sunday in Toms River.
The Cougars were riding high off lopsided wins over Pequannock (56-3) and Lenape Valley (58-7) to claim the North 1 Group 1 sectional title -- the program's 18th championship overall dating to 1991.
A bid to return to the Group 1 final for the first time since 2011 -- the 11th time in school history -- was derailed by a stunning 31-30 loss to Hanover Park that most, including myself, didn't predict. Had the Sussex County school advanced it would have earned a rematch with two-time Group 1 champion Bound Brook -- which handed Kittatinny a 49-9 loss in early January and eliminated the Hampton school in last year's semifinals.
Redemption had been on the Cougars' minds since that lopsided defeat -- in which they won just three bouts and were beaten soundly in every phase. Kittatinny knew a 40-point deficit was likely too much to overcome, but wanted to give a better account the second time around. Was it caught looking ahead?
"I was very careful at practices to have them thinking about 12:30 [the first round on Sunday]. That's all we talked about," said veteran Kittatinny coach John Gill, whose team ended the dual meet portion of the season at 21-3. "My kids have been flying high -- we scored over 100 points in [two sectional] matches. There are certain things you take from a loss. I would've liked to see us put more into it. We didn't leave it all out there on the mat."
Another trip to the finals have been sweet for Gill. This season has been filled with highs and lows, the lowest came even before the season began with the death of longtime assistant Linn Crawn in August. The master strategist and lineup maker might have been a voice to have senior Connor Zandarski be at 145 pounds along with Nick Romyns on Sunday -- giving the Cougars an option to switch those two needing a pair of wins in the final three bouts. It certainly wasn't a given that Kittatinny takes both weights, but the odds greatly increase over winning them straight up.
Even Gill, always a stand-up guy and extremely gracious with media members win or lose, admitted afterward that it was probably a mistake not to have Zandarski at 145.
Watching the loss unfold on Sunday was surreal -- wondering how many more chances Gill will allow himself to try and collect one or more state championships before he concludes a marvelous career. Now in his 33rd season, Gill, at 486-149-5 overall, will surely record win No. 500 at some point next season.
Kittatinny has been a remarkable model of consistency since that first sectional title 22 years ago. Since then, the Cougars have won 18 sectional and eight Group titles -- reaching the sectional final in all but one season since '91. They lost to Garfield (1992), Hopatcong ('97) and Newton (2009-10) in the finals and Pascack Hills (1999) in the North 1, Group 2 semifinals, a loss as equally stunning as the one to Hanover Park.
The program, started by Carl Bateman in 1975, claimed its 500th victory this season. Not too shabby for a small Group 1-2 school.
"We always want the sectional title to go through Kittatinny," Gill said after the sectional final on Friday. "Not only do we want to be there on Friday, but we want to be there on Sunday [for Groups]. We work hard. Something is working. I don't know what's working, but I'm glad it's working."
When Gill does retire, his remarkable achievements will be lauded by an entire community. He's not quite finished and isn't concerned with basking in all of the milestones until that time.
"Someday when I'm in a rocking chair," Gill offered. "I'm very proud to be a part of it. The kids don't know how lucky they are. I thank coach Crawn and all of these guys."