Today marks the end of the team portion of the high school wrestling season, and the two best teams in the area hope to make it a day to remember.
Southern Regional, the No. 1 team in The Press Elite 11, and No. 3 St. Augustine Prep will travel to the Pine Belt Arena on the campus of Toms River North High School for state group championships.
The Rams will wrestle Shore Conference rival Howell in the state Group IV semifinals at 10 a.m. The winner advances to the 3:30 p.m. final and will wrestle the winner of the other semifinal between Phillipsburg and Clifton.
St. Augustine Prep will wrestle Bergen Catholic at 6 p.m. in the state Non-Public A championship. The Crusaders are the consensus No. 1 team in the New Jersey Wrestling Writers Association statewide top 20 poll.
There will be three wrestlers in the St. Augustine Prep-Bergen Catholic match ranked in the top five nationally in their respective weight classes.
The Prep's Jack Clark is No. 4 at 152 pounds. Bergen Catholic's Nick Suriano is second at 113 and Johnny Sebastian is first at 182.
"I'm extremely excited," Clark said. "We're going to be wrestling the best kids in the state, and I think we're prepared to show them what South Jersey is all about. It's going to be a lot of fun."
Watch video highlights from the St. Augustine Prep vs. Christian Brothers Academy wrestling match.
Bergen Catholic (23-4) is the No. 9 team in the country with its four losses coming to No. 1 Blair Academy, No. 2 Oak Park River Forest (Ill.), No. 4 Apple Valley (Minn.) and No. 6 Wyoming Seminary (Pa.).
Suriano and Sebastian are each defending state champions.
Local fans will remember Sebastian, who is committed to wrestle at Northwestern, for winning back-to-back finals against Hammonton wrestlers the last two years at the state individual championships in Atlantic City.
Sebastian beat Phil Bakuckas as a sophomore and David Williams last season as a junior. Bakuckas and Williams each won Press Wrestler of the Year.
Clark knows the Prep will have to wrestle a perfect match to have a chance at the upset.
"We know how tough they are," Clark said. "But we also know how hard we've worked. We know we're the underdogs, and we're expected to lose so we have nothing to lose. We can go out there and just wrestle our style."
The Prep (21-2) is No. 18 in the NJWWA Top 20.
Southern (19-0) is No. 7 and will likely need to beat two top-10 teams to win the second state Group IV title in school history.
Howell is No. 9 and will be looking for a bit of revenge against the Rams. Southern beat the Rebels 28-19 on Jan. 11.
Awaiting the Rams in the final would likely be Phillipsburg, the No. 3 team in the state and one of the most prestigious programs in New Jersey.
The Stateliners will be looking to win their 18th state championship.
But Southern coach John Stout likes his team's chances of winning the first state crown since 2005.
"If you don't have the mindset that you're going to win the tournament when you go in, I think you're doing yourself a disservice," Stout said. "They are good wrestling teams, but I think we do match up very well with them. I'm not trying to look past Howell, anything can happen, but I do like our matchups."
Southern has become a regular in Toms River.
The Rams won their fourth straight state Group IV title on Friday, the ninth in the last 10 seasons.
Southern lost to Brick Memorial in last season's state Group IV final.
"It would mean a lot to me, but it would really mean more to the kids themselves," Stout said. "This is a goal that they set for themselves as soon as last season was over, and they have worked very hard to give themselves a chance to do it."
The Rams have an area-leading nine wrestlers in The Press' weight-by-weight individual rankings.
James Knoeller (113 pounds), Chris Crane (120), Andrew Tonneson (126), Matt (138) and Zach Wilhelm (145), Nick Racanelli (152), Gerardo Jorge (170) and Jesse Bauta (220) are all 20-match winners.
Southern had perhaps the best team in school history in 2005, led by three-time Press Wrestler of the Year and three-time state champion Frank Molinaro.
The team the Rams beat 30-25 in the 2005 final? Phillipsburg.
"This is a very good wrestling team," Stout said. "I have been trying to tell people that all year long. We don't have that great iconic guy, but it's a great wrestling team.
"My guys can go, and they're excited for the opportunity."
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