TOMS RIVER - The first perfect season in the storied history of the Southern Regional High School wrestling program was just a few bouts away Sunday.
And then it was gone.
Robert Melise entered the Pine Belt Arena on the campus of Toms River North High School as a freshman with only two career wins but left as a folk hero of sorts in Phillipsburg wrestling lore.
Trailing 2013 District 24 placewinner Jesse Bauta of Southern at 285 pounds, Melise put Bauta to his back with a Peterson roll and pinned him as Phillipsburg's cheering section erupted.
The Stateliners went on to beat the Rams 32-21 in the State Group IV final. The state title was the 18th in Phillipsburg's history.
Phillipsburg improved to 18-0 this season. It is ranked third in the New Jersey Wrestling Writers Association top 20 poll.
Southern is ranked No. 1 in The Press Elite 11 and No. 7 in the NJWWA top 20.
"What's tough about it is that everyone was kind of just figuring that they were going to beat us," Southern coach John Stout said. "That obviously wasn't happening."
Sunday's final started at 126 pounds.
Southern's Pat Ferraro bumped up from 195 to 220 pounds and picked up a 5-3 decision.
Bauta bumped up from 220 to heavyweight and was leading 6-2 midway through the second when Melise caught him.
Melise had a 2-4 career record coming into the match but was mobbed by reporters and fans after beating Bauta, a 2013 District 24 placewinner and the top 220-pounder in The Press' weight-by-weight rankings.
Melise's pin showed the unpredictability of high school wrestling.
He told reporters after the match that both of his previous wins this season came by forfeits.
"I was going out there to try and not get pinned," Melise said through the biggest smile in the arena.
Brandon Paetzell followed Melise and clinched the match with a major decision at 106.
Southern's Jimmy Knoeller and Chris Crane ended the match with back-to-back decisions at 113 and 120, respectively, but it was already over.
The look of disappointment was evident on the Southern wrestlers' faces after the match.
"We go into every match knowing we're going to win," Southern senior Nick Racanelli said. "And then, if something happens like it did, you just have to rebound. We're usually pretty good at that."
Racanelli said there was plenty to be proud of this season. The Rams finished 20-1 while winning the Shore Conference A-South title.
"It's awesome," Racanelli said. "It's unimaginable. Words can't describe it. I would never trade this team for any other team."
Racanelli had a pair of pins Sunday. Crane (120), Andrew Tonneson (126) and Matt Wilhelm (138) were also double-winners
Southern earned its spot in the final with an impressive 34-24 win against Shore Conference rival Howell in the semifinals.
Southern had edged the Rebels 28-19 in a regular-season match Jan. 11.
But the Rams left no doubt Sunday.
Gerardo Jorge and Peyton Blauvelt each avenged losses from the first meeting between the schools.
Jorge won a 3-2 decision in double overtime against 2013 District 21 champ, Region 6 runner-up Joey Schultz. On Jan. 11, Schultz won 2-1 in double overtime.
Blauvelt lost a 4-2 decision earlier this season but turned it around in a big way Sunday, pinning Howell's Austin Silverstein in just 57 seconds.
Southern clinched the match with Howell with four bouts left.
The Rams have won four straight South Jersey Group IV titles and nine of the last 10 but have just one state title to show for it (2005).
"It's competition," Stout said. "There are going to be a lot of upset teams here today. I'm just getting tired of being that team."
Contact John O'Kane:
Phillipsburg 32, Southern Regional 21
106—Brandon Paetzell P md. Frank Amiano 9-1; 113-Jimmy Knoeller SR d. Tyler Agans 8-4; 120-Chris Crane SR d. D.J. Wissing 8-4; *126-Andrew Tonneson SR d. Tylor Petchonka 8-3; 132-Stephen Friedman P d. Bryan Brown 5-3; 138-Matt Wilhelm SR d. Corey Zinsmeister 10-8; 145-Jimmy Schuitema P d. Zach Wilhelm 6-2; 152-Nick Racanelli SR p. Garret Wolfinger 3:34; 160-Max Elling P md. Joe Toci 15-7; 170-Broderick Bupivi P d. Gerardo Jorge 3-2; 182-Jake Kocsis P p. Peyton Blauvelt 3:43; 195-Joe Maso P d. Mason Fazekas 4-0; 220-Pat Ferraro SR d. Andrew Horun 5-3; 285-Robert Melise p. Jesse Bauta 3:34.
Records: Southern 20-1; Phillipsburg 18-0.
*Match started at 126 pounds
Southern Regional 34, Howell 24
106-Peter Dee H by forfeit; 113-Mike Sisolak H by forfeit; *120-Jimmy Slendorn H d. Chris Crane 7-3 (OT); 126-Andrew Tonneson SR d. Anthony Gagliano 7-1; 132-Bryan Brown SR d. Kris Lindemann 6-4 (OT); 138-Matt Wilhelm SR d. Jack Rada 8-2; 145-Zach Wilhelm SR md. Anthony Pozsonyi 11-3; 152-Joe Toci SR d. David Nocks 11-9; 160-Nick Racanelli SR p. Nick Lurski 5:32; 170-Gerardo Jorge d. Joey Schultz 3-2 (2OT); 182-Peyton Blauvelt SR p. Austin Silverstein :57; 195-Steve Boncimino H d. Pat Ferraro 2-1; 220-Kyle Cocozza H by forfeit; 285-Jesse Bauta SR d. Nate Litowsky 5-2.
Records: Howell 28-4; Southern 20-0.
*Match started at 120 pounds