TOMS RIVER- The South Plainfield High School wrestling team (30-1) entered the Pine Belt Arena looking to bring back home the Group 3 state title, and by the championship match the only thing standing in their way was one of their fiercest rivals, #15 Delsea (24-5).

It took a complete team effort to get to the finals match, and it was a team effort that got them the championship. Spearheaded by a quick pin by one of their unheralded wrestlers, and a team-wide effort to win the bonus points battle, the #3 Tigers defeated Delsea 38-23, and picked up their second straight Group 3 title, and the program’s tenth overall group title.

“They’re a great bunch of kids,” said Tigers coach Bill Pavlak. “They said from the first day of practice that they were going to be group champs and that’s what they did. You hear that a lot, but these kids backed it up.”

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While many fans were hoping to see a finals matchup between South Plainfield and formerly undefeated #4 Cranford, the Tigers were certainly not disappointed to go against Delsea. The two rival powerhouses met each other in the past two group title matches, and South Plainfield won the last one in 2016, while Delsea walked away with the title in 2015.

Tossup matches are almost always the deciding factor in these kind of matches, and today the Tigers got a tremendous boost in the first toss-up, which was also the very first match of the dual.

Senior Jacob Painton said he wasn’t sure what to expect when he went out for his 132 pound match against Tim Spatola, and he even admitted afterwards that he felt the pressure of the situation. The pressure didn’t overcome Painton though, as he scored a takedown just under a minute and secured a cradle pin early in the first period.

“I was kind of nervous at first with it being the first match and a tossup,” Painton said.” I didn’t know what to expect from the other kid. That was a huge startup…and I think it got the team momentum up.”

The pin raised the Tigers and their many fans in attendance to their feet, and Joe Sacco followed Painton’s performance with a cradle pin of his own. In the next match, senior Kyle Bythell gutted out a tough 8-7 decison win over Nick Bennet, that involved Bythell fighting off his back for nearly half a period before scoring a go-ahead takedown in the last minute of the third period.

Pavlak said he knew the momentum shifted in their favor right after Painton’s pin.

“They bumped up a guy up thinking they were going to get a major and bonus points and they end up with their guy on his back and us getting six, so that was a big reversal there,” the coach said.

“You could see it in (Delsea’s) coaches and the team, they were dead after that and just sat on the sideline. It changed the whole momentum.”

Delsea used decision wins and  South Plainfield forfeit at 220 pounds to take a lead in the midway point of the match, but Jake Hoffman, Ryan Marston and Ben Lundy fought hard in decision losses to keep Delsea from scoring bonus points, and a decision win from Luke Niemeyer at 195 pounds, and a Zach DelVecchio  21-6 tech fall win over Jake Hallowell at 285 pounds, gave South Plainfield back the lead.

Joe Heilmann put the score out of reach when he notched a pin over Travis Griffith.

With the match already decided, senior co-captain Jake Giordano was sent out for a match against 20-5 former Region 2 champ Edison Echevarria. Giordano scored an impressive 5-4 overtime tie-breaker win, that’s sure to give the South Plainfield standout a lot of momentum heading into district competition, which starts this week.  

“I wanted a big win going into the postseason to give me some confidence and I’m ready now,” Giordano said.

The senior co-captain said he had mixed emotions about ending his last dual with South Plainfield.

“I’m pretty upset it’s over because the last four years have been some of the best years of my life, but I’m excited to move on to big things,” Giordano said. “I’m happy we ended on a good note, and there wasn’t a better team to beat then Delsea because of that rivalry.”