STAFFORD TOWNSHIP - Southern Regional High School's biggest and lightest wrestlers set the tone for the Rams on Friday night.
Sparked by leadoff victories from 285-pounder Jesse Bauta and 106-pounder James Knoeller, Southern won its third straight South Jersey Group IV championship and eighth in the last nine years with a 29-24 victory over Shawnee.
Southern (12-5) will next seek to win its first state title since 2005 on Sunday at Pine Belt Arena on the campus of Toms River North High School. The Rams, who are ranked No. 1 in The Press Elite 11, will face Hunterdon Central at 12:30 p.m. in the semifinals. A victory in that match likely would mean a rematch against powerful Brick Memorial at 6 p.m. Southern lost to the Mustangs 35-13 on Jan. 24.
"Brick Memorial is very tough," Southern coach John Stout said. "But the sun doesn't shine on the same dog's (behind) all the time. For us to just to get to this point is a tremendous accomplishment for us. I couldn't be prouder of these kids for what they've been able to do this season."
The Rams delivered an impressive performance against Shawnee (22-3), which is eighth in the Elite 11. Fueled by a raucous crowd, Southern won the first three bouts and five of the first six to grab a 19-3 lead.
Bauta had the fans roaring with his 5-3 upset over Evan Wayn in the opening match. Wayn is one of the state's top 220-pounders and Renegades coach Tom Mann bumped him up to 285 in an effort to gain some early momentum. Stout answered by moving Bauta up from 220 as well and the strategy paid off.
Bauta (22-7) used a pair of stalling points against Wayn to grab a 5-1 lead in the second period and then held off Wayn's third-period rally for a big win.
"I didn't know I was wrestling heavyweight until about 10 minutes before the match," Bauta said. "But it didn't bother me because I knew it was for the team. I'm willing to make any sacrifice I can to help us win.
"To get the win felt great, but to do it at home in front of our fans made it so much better. They really got me pumped up."
Knoeller fed off the crowd and Bauta's effort. He jumped to a 5-0 lead over Edward Moody in the first period and kept piling on the points until he earned an 18-2 technical fall in 4 minutes, 43 seconds to give the Rams an 8-0 lead.
Chris Crane followed with a 13-3 major decision for Southern to up the advantage to 12-0. Shawnee never got closer than nine points the until the outcome was no longer in doubt.
"Jesse pumped me up big time," Knoeller said. "For him to go out and wrestle hard like that really got me going. I just wanted to get as many bonus points as I could to help the team."
After Shawnee 120-pounder Sean Cahill got his team's first points with a decision, the Rams answered with victories in five of the next six weights to seal the victory.
Andrew Tonneson and Chris Serpico notched major decisions at 126 and 160, respectively. Zach Wilhelm added a 9-3 decision at 132. Southern standout Jake Campana earned the most exciting win at 145, using a third-period reversal to gain a 3-0 win over Matt DeBarandis.
After Serpico's win, the Renegades needed pins in the last four matches to win. Southern's Gerardo Jorge prevented that from happening by dropping a 5-1 decision to Austin Wetterau at 170, leaving Southern with an insurmountable, 29-9 lead.
"Southern deserves all the credit in the world," Mann said. "I don't like the taste in my mouth right now, but they wrestled very well."
Contact David Weinberg:
*match started at 285
106-James Knoeller SR tf Edward Moody 4:43 (18-2); 113-Chris Crane SR md. Ryan Surman 13-3; 120-Sean Cahill Sh d Pat Mooney 7-6; 126 Andrew Tonneson SR md. Timmy Lattimer 15-7; 132-Zach Wilhelm SR d Connor Moli 9-3; 138-Brennan Humphrey Sh d Nick Racanelli 3-1; 145-Jake Campana SR d Matt DeBarandis 3-0; 152-Erick Kretschmer SR d Anthony Ward 9-5; 160-Chris Serpico SR md. Jared Meeks 13-4; 170-Austin Wetterau Sh d Gerardo Jorge 5-1; 182-Alex Foley Sh d Cory Case 13-6; 195-Brian Keyser Sh p Connor Case 5:01; 220-Andrew Madewell Sh won by forfeit; *285-Jesse Bauta SR d Evan Wayns 5-3.
Records: Shawnee 22-3; Southern 12-5.