Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Wrestling: 'Cats put Gardner on spot with No. 400

John Gardner loves to win as much as the next person. But the veteran High Point coach wants nothing to do with being recognized for personal milestones.

Well, Gardner reached another lofty mark as his Wildcats rolled to a 42-18 win over Morris Knolls in a Northwest Jersey Athletic Conference cross-divisional match on Tuesday night in Wantage. The victory was No. 400 for Gardner, who improved to 400-118-2 overall in 25 seasons (average of 16 per year) at the helm of his alma mater. Sophomore Colton Jaust's technical fall in the 12th bout at 120 pounds sealed the deal.

HP celebrates No. 400 (courtesy of Rhonda Gaccione)
Gardner, a four-time region and 1990 state champion at 189 pounds for the 'Cats who ranks seventh on the school's all-time wins list as a wrestler (131-8-1 from 1986-90), joins Kittatinny's John Gill (629), Hunterdon Central's Russ Riegel (533 with the Red Devils and another 305 with Harrison County High School in Kentucky) and Phillipsburg Hall of Famer Rick Thompson (477 overall and 347 in New Jersey with P'burg, Hackettstown, Voorhees, Franklin and Mountain now West Orange) as the only Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex coaches to log 400-plus wins.

"I've been very lucky. I really enjoy what I do," Gardner said late Tuesday night during a phone interview.

High Point (6-5), which is in a rebuilding mode and stands at 774 wins overall in 57 seasons, still rates as the favorite to claim the program's sixth straight North 1, Group 2 sectional title (and a county-best 30th sectional championship overall) when the postseason team tournaments begin on Monday, Feb. 6.

The 'Cats celebrated another NJAC Freedom Division title with Friday's 39-23 win over archrival Kittatinny -- the program's 27th league or division crown. Gardner's teams have won 17 of those league or conference championships (five in the old Sussex County Interscholastic League) as he improved to 13-11 all-time against the Cougars.

Gardner, Soldano and Francavilla are HP's only four-time region champs
Aside from all of his tremendous accomplishments on the mat, Gardner is one of the most humble men you will ever meet. It's never about him. Truth be told, he never has any idea where his coaching record stands unless someone else brings it up.

Gardner's wrestlers comes first. You will never see him at the front of a team championship photo holding the trophy like many coaches do, and in fact, he is usually prodded into joining those celebrations. 

True to form on Tuesday, Gardner sheepishly took part in a postmatch celebration of his 400th win. I was in attendance when he was recognized for No. 300 prior to a home match, and he literally had to be pushed toward the center of the mat to accept a commemorative plaque and hearty round of applause from diehard and loyal High Point fans. 

Gardner's mother, Joyce, and many former wrestlers were on hand for No. 400, including his nephews, Joe and Jason Gaccione, both state placewinners and 100-plus match winners, and who together were part of six sectional and four state title teams from 2008-15. Joe went 132-31 from 2007-11 and Jason ranks second on the school's wins list at 143-23 from 2011-15. Their mother, Rhonda, works tirelessly to support the wrestling program and his her brother's biggest fan.

It's impossible not to think of High Point wrestling without Gardner first coming to mind, along with longtime assistant Mickey Thomas (the school's first district champion in 1968) and Gardner's father, Ralph, who always sat front and center at all home matches before passing away last April. A red chair that reads, "Ralph Gardner. Wildcats' #1 fan" is stationed in the front row near the scorer's table for every home match. 

But it wasn't all sunshine and roses when John succeeded longtime head coach Jeff Hull, who coached Gardner and put the program on the statewide map, prior to the 1998-99 season. The 'Cats were barely above .500 those first two campaigns and didn't win their first SCIL title during Gardner's reign until 2005-06, the first of nine titles in a row, including five NJAC championships.

"It was really cool to have the support ... even when we are not very good, people support us," said Gardner, who was taking the tape off the mat following the Morris Knolls match and hoping to sneak away without any fanfare. "They've been very supportive of me. I don't know if it's justified, but I've been very blessed." 

Hull and Jan Michaels, who guided the program to a 47-12 mark, with three SCIL and sectional titles in three seasons from 1993-96 between Hull's two stints (288-104-4 and eight sectional titles from 1970-73 and 1996-98). The pair has had a hand in 335 of the program's wins and were on hand for Gardner's milestone moment. Gardner also credited Mark Veltri, who has served 22 seasons as an assistant and also wrestled for High Point.

"Not everyone walking into [a head coaching job] sees a coach who was there as a wrestler still be there," Gardner said of Thomas, who has been an assistant at the school since the mid-1970s. "But the program is bigger than any of us."

High Point celebrates the Group 2 title in 2020.
Gardner's teams were consistently among the best in New Jersey from 2006-11, and the 2007-08 club, arguably the best of them all. That team finished No. 1 in the state with a school-record 30 victories against one loss and captured the Group 3 title -- the program's first state team championship. The 'Cats have won six overall (the last in Group 2 in 2020) and 17 sectional titles under Gardner. He also has coached 11 of the Sussex County program's 13 individual state champions since winning his own, including the only three-time winners in Brian Soldano (2020-22), now a starter at Rutgers University and Nick Francavilla (2009-11).

Francavilla, who now runs the successful Iron Horse wrestling club in Sparta, was one of a program-best four winners for the 'Cats, along with current assistant and Rutgers alum Billy Smith, two-timer Ethan Orr and Drew Wagenhoffer, in that magical 2011 state tournament in Atlantic City. All will be inducted into the High Point Athletic Hall of Fame later this year.  

HIGH POINT 42, MORRIS KNOLLS 18

138 -- Fr. Jayden Ruplall (9-12), HP, d. Jr. Brian Crossan (0-7), 4-0.
144 -- Jr. Ty Woods (11-8), HP, d. Fr. Luke Shivas (9-12), 11-5.
150 -- Sr. Dominic DelleMonache (18-4), MK, md. Jr. Eli Nosal (5-4), 9-0. 
157 -- Sr. Thomas Castello (11-9), MK, d. So. Nick Marangi (3-13), 8-2.
165 -- Sr. Shane Woolf (14-8), HP, d. Jr. Gavin Gomes (15-4), 3-1.
175 -- Sr. Anthony Forte (20-2), MK, tf. Fr. Jack Kithcart (3-10), 15-0, 4:26.
190 -- Jr. Mason Mericle (10-11), HP, d. Sr. Nicholas Forgione (10-9), 3-1 SV.
215 -- Sr. Cole Newton (15-3), MK, forfeit.
285 -- Sr. Arik Hums (14-8), HP, p. Sr. Charles Young (8-10), 1:53.
106 -- Fr. John Barron (12-10), HP, d. Fr. Nate Gomes (10-8), 6-0.
113 -- Jr. Carson Citro (13-8), HP, p. Sr. Niccolas D'Asti (7-12), 4:52.
120 -- So. Colton Jaust (10-7), HP, tf. So. Justin Werner (1-7), 17-2, 5:40.
126 -- So. Nick Clayton (14-8), HP, forfeit.
132 -- Sr. Roman Citro (17-3), HP, md. Sr. Eamon Kinney (11-7), 9-0.
Records -- Morris Knolls 8-7; High Point 6-5.
Official -- Barry Jackson.

Wrestling: NJWWA Top 20; Gardner in elite company

When it comes to rivalry matches and milestones, look no further than this week's wrestling slate in the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex area.

The five local teams residing in this week's New Jersey Wrestling Writers Association Top 20, released on Tuesday, are set to battle for bragging rights and potential Skyland Conference division titles. 

Phillipsburg, which holds steady at No. 9 in the poll, gears up for another huge week as the Stateliners, who won't have another home match until sectionals on Feb. 6, embark on their tour of Hunterdon County. Coach Brad Gentzle's team was slated to face No. 13 Hunterdon Central on Wednesday night at the Field House in a match that will determine this year's Skyland Conference Delaware Division champion, but that one was postponed due to weather to Thursday, Feb. 2. P'burg closes the week at No. 17 North Hunterdon on Friday and conclude the run with a cross-divisional clash at No. 19 Delaware Valley on Monday. 

No. 12 Warren Hills will make the trek down Route 31 to take on North Hunterdon on Thursday.

"It's five matches in nine days [including the regular-season finale at Watchung Hills on Feb. 1], but that's January and that's the end of the month," Gentzle told Mike Moore of Stateliner Sports following Monday's 51-14 waxing of Hanover Park in the first "Return to The Pit" match since 2019. 

"That's what we train these kids for all December is so that when we get to this point in the year practices are about mental and physical recovery and prepare for competition."

Phillipsburg (9-1, 3-0 Delaware Division) bounced back in a big way following a tough 42-12 loss last Thursday at No. 5 Southern  -- in a potential Group 5 final preview -- with a thrilling 33-23 victory over archrival Easton (Pa.) on Saturday at the 25th Street Gym. That win was fueled by sophomore Luke Geleta's match-turning pin at 138 pounds as he decked Red Rovers ace Oliver Fairchild with a tight cradle in 3:50 -- avenging an 11-4 loss when they met at the Bethlehem Holiday Classic in late December.

Geleta (20-5) earned the coveted Brad Weaver Memorial Award as the meet's most outstanding wrester, while junior heavyweight John Wargo (20-2) received the Easton Lions Club trophy for most aggressive wrestler in the 85th meeting. Easton still holds a 64-21 lead in a series dating to 1947, but the 'Liners, who have won four in a row and seven of the last nine matchups against the Rovers, are enjoying their best stretch in the rivalry since winning nine in a row from 1963-71.

Warren Hills (11-2, 4-0 Raritan Division) can secure a fifth straight division championship (fourth outright) with wins over North Hunterdon on Thursday and Delaware Valley on Saturday afternoon. 

The Blue Streaks had a strong showing at the Jack Welch Duals -- going 4-1 with a 39-15 loss to No. 6 Delsea in a rematch of last year's Group 3 final -- and secured the program's 800th victory with a 34-27 win over Kingsway in the third-place match.

In addition, senior Jarett Pantuso (19-2 at 215) became the 48th wrestler at the Warren County school to notch at least 70 career victories. Fellow senior Shawn Redfield (19-3 at 138) is one shy of 80 wins to match current assistant coach and 1991 state champion Marty White, as well as Greg Slivka, for 28th on the all-time list.

Hunterdon Central (12-2, 2-0 Delaware Division), which has won five straight since a 30-26 loss at Warren Hills on Jan. 12, scored an impressive 44-21 victory at No. 15 Mount Olive on Saturday. Coach Jon Cantagallo-Rohm's Red Devils are going to be a tough out come sectional time and could give P'burg fits on Wednesday -- provided Central can limit bonus potential for the 'Liners up top and in the middle weights. P'burg has won two in a row since Central's 29-27 win in 2019 -- no meeting in 2021 ---- and owns a 41-9-1 advantage in the series dating to 1962.

North Hunterdon (9-3, 4-0 Raritan Division) is looking to boost its chances at a division title after rallying for a 35-33 win over Delaware Valley last Wednesday. The Lions were up against it before junior Brian Wilson's match-sealing pin in the next-to-last bout at 157 pounds, as Terriers senior Garrett Tettemer loomed on deck for the 14th bout at 165.

Coach Chris Hrunka's team went 2-1 at the North Warren Patriot Duals, dropping a 46-27 decision to No. 11 St. John Vianney in the title match. Lions senior Logan Wadle (91 career wins), who recently dropped to 108, was not in the lineup. 

March to a milestone

Former state champ and assistant Billy Smith (left) and Gardner
High Point coach John Gardner celebrated a 39-23 win over archrival Kittatinny last Friday in a battle for the Northwest Jersey Athletic Conference Freedom Division title -- the program's 27th league or division crown. It also was Gardner's 398th career victory (13-11 vs. Kittatinny) in 25 seasons at the helm of his alma mater.

Gardner, a 1990 state champ for the 'Cats and whose teams have won 17 of those league or conference championships (five in the old Sussex County Interscholastic League), improved to 399-118-2 overall with a 69-10 win over North Warren (coached by former High Point assistant Kellen Bradley) in the Patriot Duals on Saturday.

High Point, now 32-14-1 all-time against Kittatinny, secured No. 400 for Gardner and 774 for the program with a 42-18 win against Morris Knolls on Tuesday.

Only Kittatinny's John Gill (629), Hunterdon Central's Russ Riegel (533) and Phillipsburg Hall of Famer Rick Thompson (477 overall and 347 in New Jersey with P'burg, Hackettstown, Voorhees, Franklin and Mountain now West Orange) have recorded 400-plus wins among Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex coaches.

RankSchoolRecordVotesPrevious
1Delbarton(13-2)1601
2Bergen Catholic(12-0)1522
3St. Joseph-Montvale(13-2)1443
4St. Peter's Prep(10-1)1364
5Southern(11-0)1257
6Delsea(14-1)1225
7Paramus Catholic(7-3)1136
8Christian Bros. Academy(6-8)1048
9Phillipsburg(9-1)969
10St. Joseph-Metuchen(12-3)8710
11St. John Vianney(8-1)7611
12Warren Hills(11-2)7512
13Hunterdon Central(12-2)6613
14Don Bosco Prep(3-3)5614
15Mount Olive(7-4)4015
16Cranford(14-1)3718
17North Hunterdon(9-3)3217
18Raritan(16-5)2720
19Delaware Valley(10-3)1416
20Old Bridge(12-3)5NR
Washington Township(16-1)5NR

Listed in alphabetical order: Donald J. Brower (gardenstatehswrestling.com); Frank D’Esposito (shoreconferencewrestling.com); Steven Falk (Asbury Park Press and APP.com); Sean Farrell (The Record and NorthJersey.com); Tom McGurk (Courier Post and courierpostonline.com); Andy Mendlowitz (Courier News, Home News Tribune and MyCentralJersey.com); Michael Weilamann (Open Mike and mikeopen.blogspot.com), Brad Wilson (lehighvalleylive.com/The Express-Times). 

Monday, January 23, 2023

Wrestling: Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex standings

(Through Saturday's matches)

Skyland Conference

Delaware Division

Overall

Division

z-Phillipsburg

(8-1)

(3-0)

Hunterdon Central

(12-2)

(2-0)

z-Hillsborough

(12-3)

(3-2)

Bridgewater-Raritan

(7-4)

(1-2)

Watchung Hills

(10-2)

(1-2)

Franklin

(6-7)

(0-4)

Raritan Division

Overall

Division

North Hunterdon

(9-3)

(4-0)

Warren Hills

(11-2)

(4-0)

Delaware Valley

(10-3)

(4-1)

Ridge

(10-4)

(1-2)

Voorhees

(10-6)

(1-3)

Montgomery

(3-12)

(0-4)

Somerville

(3-10)

(0-4)

Valley Division

Overall

Division

Bernards

(4-1)

(3-0)

Manville

(15-0)

(3-0)

Pingry

(4-6)

(3-1)

Bound Brook

(1-11)

(1-2)

Belvidere

(3-8)

(0-3)

Rutgers Prep

(0-10)

(0-4)

Northwest Jersey Athletic Conference

Freedom Division

Overall

Division

x-High Point

(5-5)

(3-0)

Kittatinny

(4-5)

(2-1)

Jefferson

(11-5)

(1-2)

Newton

(4-9)

(0-3)

American Division

Overall

Division

x-Delbarton

(12-2)

(4-1)

x-Mount Olive

(7-4)

(4-1)

Morris Hills

(12-8)

(3-2)

Montville

(8-7)

(2-3)

Pope John

(5-6)

(1-3)

Mendham

(6-11)

(0-4)

Colonial Division

Overall

Division

y-Hackettstown

(10-8)

(4-0)

Lenape Valley

(4-6)

(4-1)

Vernon

(4-9)

(2-2)

Wallkill Valley

(6-5)

(2-2)

North Warren

(2-9)

(1-3)

Hopatcong

(0-11)

(0-5)

National Division

Overall

Division

x-West Morris

(10-4)

(4-0)

Morris Knolls

(8-6)

(3-2)

Roxbury

(8-6)

(3-2)

Sparta

(10-4)

(3-2)

Randolph

(9-5)

(1-3)

Morristown

(5-9)

(0-5)

x-division champion

y-clinched share of division title

z-county tournament champion