The plan was still intact for Ocean Township heading into the second-to-last bout with Howell on Saturday, where a pair of underrated sophomore's tangled in their most important bout of the season.
The Spartans were trailing by two points with two bouts remaining, but were in essence right where they wanted to be with freshman sensation Zach Hertling waiting in the wings at 126 pounds. But for Hertling's presence to be felt the Spartans needed a win by Andrew MacNeille over Jack Rada at 120, otherwise the pressure would have been on Hertling to secure a pin or technical fall.
MacNeille delivered a nail-biting 5-3 overtime victory over Rada, finishing off a single-leg takedown early in the sudden victory period to give the Spartans their first lead of the match. Hertling then defeated Ben Esposito, 5-0, to clinch a 28-24 Shore Conference nondivisional victory over the Rebels. Ocean, ranked No. 8 in the MSG Varsity New Jersey Top 15, improved to 15-0. Howell (13-2), ranked ninth, suffered just its second defeat of the season.
“When we won the flip we bumped (Jason) DaCruz up and we wanted MacNeille on Rada and Hertling on Esposito in case it came down to that,” said Ocean head coach Cippy Apicelli. “MacNeille came through huge. If he loses that match Hertling has to pin or tech, and who knows what would have happened.”
MacNeille was leading 3-0 heading to the third period before an escape by Rada cut the deficit to two. With 10 seconds left in regulation, Rada spun his way around MacNeille near the edge for the bout-tying takedown.
MacNeille and Rada are both unheralded as 10th graders, and being stuck behind Hertling and Esposito, respectively, makes it hard to break free from anonymity. But both came in with 10 wins to their credit and got a chance on the big stage.
The Spartans won eight of the 14 bouts, and picked up crucial wins in tossup bouts along the way. Perhaps the most impressive win of the entire match came from Ocean senior Withler Marcelin, who gutted out a 9-7 decision over good friend and rival Ashanti Maurice at 145 pounds. Marcelin, a Region VI runner-up last season at 135, has seen limited action this year as he battles with a variety of injuries. He fractured his fibula during football season and tore his ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow during the first week of the wrestling season.
“I'm like 40 percent,” Marcelin admitted. “It's tough but I just have to suck it up. The coaches do a great job keeping me out of matches where we really don't need me. It helps for matches like this.”
“He's not even close to 100 percent,” Apicelli said. “He's one of the toughest kids I've been around. He's hurt and he continues to go out there and gut it out.”
Marcelin was up 9-2 in the third period and looking to pick up bonus points when Maurice surprised him and threw him to his back. If there were a few more seconds on the clock it would have changed the entire complexion of the match, but Marcelin was able to avoid being pinned to give Ocean its first points of the match.
“I was up 9-2 and thinking maybe I would get a major,” Marcelin said. “I got in there but he's a strong kid. He hipped in and put in a quarter nelson to get me to my back. I was just thinking, 'don't get pinned, don't let the team down'.”
A technical fall from Matt Lindemann at 132, a major decision from Cole Cameron at 138 and a pin by Zach Bohm at 160 staked the Rebels to a 15-6 lead after five bouts. Cody Kirk pushed Howell's lead to 18-6 with a 3-2 decision over Chris Pappayliou at 170 pounds, but Spartans junior Jacob Bell countered with a 5-3 upset of Rebels sophomore Nate Litowsky at 182 to cut the deficit to 18-9. Matt Sulkowski's 2-1 decision over Sam Sottile at 195 made it 21-9, but there was no need for Ocean to panic with Colton Bigelow and Kyle Gora on deck.
Bigelow won by 8-0 major decision at 220 over George McCoy before Gora's pin of Vinny Martino in the third period at heavyweight. Despite giving up 85 pounds, Martino was up 2-0 late in the second period against the state-ranked Gora, but a late takedown tied the bout at two heading to the third. Gora chose offense in the third and was finally able to get the fall at 5:13 to make it 21-19.
Jimmy Slendorn kept Howell in front with a 6-2 decision over Max Rallo at 106, but Jordan Eugenis got those points right back with a 2-1 win over Anthony Piazza at 113. Eugenis' decision again cut Howell's lead to just two and set the stage for MacNeille at 120. Once MacNeille gave Ocean a 25-24 lead it was up to Hertling to close it out, and the undefeated freshman did just that by controlling Esposito (17-1) and handing him his first loss, 5-0.
“We came to wrestle,” Apicelli said. “The bonus points bother me but we came though and won eight matches against them.”
With the victory Ocean likely secured itself the No. 2 seed for the upcoming Shore Conference Tournament, which gets underway Tuesday with first-round matches.
Bob Badders covers New Jersey wrestling for MSG Varsity. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @Bob_Badders