Top 20 Sports Stories of 2019

Big Running Efforts Can’t Overcome Biggest Team Moment in Barnegat High School History

By DAVID BIGGY | Jan 01, 2020
Photo by: David Biggy THEY'RE NO. 1 – The Barnegat High School boys swim team celebrates its NJSIAA South Jersey Group C championship on Feb. 14, 2019. It was the first time a Bengals team captured a state sectional title and turned out to be the top sports story of 2019.

Southern Ocean County — Another decade has come to an end, and throughout its final year a lot of big accomplishments took place among our local athletic teams and individuals, many of which garnered big headlines within the sports section of The SandPaper.

Remember, we have several professionals out there, a whole bunch of collegiate athletes competing, and a ton of high school and recreational athletes in the mix nowadays, so it should be no surprise that this list often is difficult to devise. Simply put, a lot of thought goes into this, and many factors are considered. Nonetheless, we do it because this is fun and interesting, even if a bit agonizing.

So, here you go, SandPaper fans ... the Top 20 Sports Stories of 2019:

20. Undefeated, Twice Over – Some may believe a team going undefeated in golf is easy, but it’s not. After all, golf is partly a game against the elements of nature. Some badly timed wind gusts can make a difference. Dry conditions can make a difference. Wet greens or fairways can make a difference. And, of course, one or two stokes for a player or two can mean the difference between winning and losing.

Well, the Pinelands Regional golf team didn’t seem to have much trouble during its spring season. Behind senior Connor Carney, the Wildcats not only won 14 matches to finish atop the Shore Conference Class B South division, they did it for a second straight season, going 14-0 yet again, as Austin Carney, Nate Szwed and David Laney carried the rest of the load on their shoulders.

19. The Freshman Leads the Way – It’s hard to imagine the Pinelands Regional High School tennis courts had as many people attending a match as the Wildcats did on May 17. But what a day for a few dozen to show up. Not only did Pinelands host West Deptford in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group II semifinals, but the fans were treated to a 3-2 barn-burner that came down to, believe it or not, the first-singles match. And freshman Brian Delbury was at center stage.

OK, so the short version is Delbury won the match, sending the Wildcats to the sectional final to face top-seeded Haddonfield. But how he won the match was impressive – taking on a senior in a back-and-forth contest which he eventually won, 7-5, 7-5, after erasing several deficits along the way. Still, knowing his team was tied, 2-2, after second-singles player Andrew Schulz and the second-doubles team of Kieran Sundermann and Adam Grelak won their matches, and advancing to the final was on his shoulders was quite a bit of pressure for a freshman. Delbury passed a big test that day.

18. Dethroning the Defending Champs – Going into the LBI Swim Club Championships, it was not a secret that the St. Francis Community Center and Haven Beach Club teams likely were going to be the two atop the final standings for the meet. The only question was whether HBC could prevent St. Francis from acquiring a fifth straight title. Well, we’ll call it the “Year of the Hurricane.”

Ultimately, Haven Beach Club’s championship effort came down to its younger swimmers – mainly those in the 8-and-under and 10-and-under groups, with a few key victories from their 12-and-unders. Heading into the last five events, the freestyle relays, the Hurricanes clung to a five-point lead, before their 8U and 10U squads dropped the hammer to give their team a nine-point gap, and it was too much of a gap for the Sharks to overcome with three events left. HBC won with 461 points, seven ahead of St. Francis.

17. First Division Title in Eight Years – Winning a division title typically isn’t enough to make this list. But when it’s a football team’s first division crown since 2011, that’s a pretty big deal, especially if that team plays in the Shore Conference. Southern Regional was that team this past fall, as the Rams captured the Constitution Division championship.

Of course, how the Rams snagged that title was interesting. The Rams scored their game-winning touchdown during a 21-14 win over Middletown North with just under three minutes left and secured the win when Cole Robinson, the senior who tossed the winning TD pass to classmate Kieran Lang, intercepted a pass on the Lions’ final possession. Moments after the game, Southern learned Marlboro knocked off Freehold Township – the other squad atop the standings heading into Oct. 11 – to give the Rams their first title since Mike Gesicki’s sophomore year.

16. What Just Happened? – Normally, this list is for the big things accomplished by a team or individual. Occasionally, though – albeit probably once every decade – something many would consider a negative becomes the bigger story. Case in point, the Southern Regional boys volleyball team didn’t make it to the NJSIAA State Championship in 2019. Wait ... What?

Yep, it happened. Of course, the only reason this makes our list is because Southern’s just so darned good. But after 10 consecutive years of reaching the state final, the Rams lost in the semifinals on June 4 against Fair Lawn. Southern won the first game, 25-20, but the Cutters scored a 25-16 victory in the second game, then delivered the tournament-ending blow in a 25-20 third game, ending the Rams’ season at 38-3. Fair Lawn handed Southern all three of its losses during the spring season.

15. Battling Rough Conditions to Win – Brielle Willoughby and Bridget Green are two intelligent, gritty young women, not to mention two incredibly talented sailors. Their grit and talent – and a lot of practicing in overpowering winds on Barnegat Bay – paid off May 4, when they teamed up to capture the Middle Atlantic States Sailing Association Girls Championship regatta, scoring 76 points, to top the Rumson-Fair Haven duo of Colleen O’Brien and Shaanti Choi-Bose by four.

The kicker in this particular feat is not just that Willoughby and Green – a junior and sophomore at Southern at the time – emerged at the top of the 16-team field during a grueling, two-day, 20-race series. Going into a rainy and windy second day, the Rams’ dynamic duo was eight points behind the leaders. Heading into the final race, they were down by 11. Fortunately, as they took second in their final run, the Bulldogs’ boat capsized, as Willoughby and Green sailed in as Southern’s first MASSA girls champs.

14. Ending on a Big-Time High Note – In 2018, the Barnegat High School competition cheerleading squad missed reaching the Small Varsity Game Day division championship round at the Universal Cheerleaders Association National Championships and then graduated 10 seniors. Still, the Bengals had enough quality athletes returning and some new blood joining the squad to be a contender in 2019.

The 12-competitor squad not only reached the 12-team final on Feb. 8, it equaled the effort of Barnegat’s 2017 crew by finishing third in the nation, finishing just a 10th of a point behind Briarcrest Christian School of Tennessee and several points behind champion Montgomery High School. Not bad for what had been described by the coaches as a “rebuilding season” prior to their big run.

13. Record-Breaking Effort for Fifth Straight Title – No doubt, the Island Lifeguard Tournament still, after 50-something years, is a lot of fun to watch. But we can’t be too sure most of the beach patrols are having fun watching Harvey Cedars win every year nowadays. Nonetheless, the Vikings keep doing it, and with a fifth straight title on Aug. 4 they embarked on territory only one other beach patrol had before HCBP’s run.

The thing that stood out most about Cedars’ latest championship was its utter dominance throughout the two-day tournament. The Vikings scored 30 points through the first four events and cruised from there, ending up with a record-breaking 122 points, three more than their previous record of 119 set during the 2017 tourney. The fact HCBP won by 34 points, ahead of second-place Surf City, was just a sidenote.

12. Back on Top of the Mountain – Winning championships and Southern Regional volleyball are synonymous. And for many years, the Rams’ girls program was the cream of the crop within the Shore Conference, until more programs started developing more talent and rising to prominence – Pinelands Regional being one such program. Well, after a six-year hiatus Southern returned to the top of the Shore Conference mountain.

After finishing as the NJSIAA Group IV runner-up last year, the Rams entered this past fall with an agenda, the first of which was to win the Shore Conference Tournament. As the top seed, Southern took care of business in the semifinals at Georgian Court University, beating fifth-seeded Toms River South. The Rams barely won the first game, 25-23, against second-seeded Donovan Catholic in the final, then obliterated the Griffins in the second game, 25-11, to win SCT title No. 7.

11. Mammoth State-Tournament Effort – It would take a colossal effort to find out if something like this had ever been done before, but it’s safe to say that what the Barnegat girls volleyball team did during the NJSIAA Group II tournament this past fall doesn’t happen often. Just think about this for a moment – a 31st-seeded team reached the Final Four of a 34-team bracket. Yikes.

But, hey, Karla Jennings’ Bengals got hot at the right time and it took the defending group champion Northern Valley-Demarest to figure them out and end what turned out to be an incredible two-week run on Nov. 13. After bouncing 34th-seeded Vernon in the preliminary round, Barnegat scored a huge upset over perennial power and No. 2 Ramsey in the first round, before knocking off 15th-seeded Madison in the second round and 26th-seeded Voorhees in the quarterfinals.

10. Barnegat Freshman Soars to Big Heights – As the spring season took shape, the Barnegat girls track and field team really started taking big strides toward becoming a more rounded, well-established program within Ocean County and NJSIAA South Jersey Group II. Behind a bunch of young athletes – namely Jillian Jankowski, Zaniyah Harris, Valencia Gosser and Madison Cappuccio – the Bengals started tallying big points in big meets. They even finished fourth with 51 points in the sectional meet, a new high mark for the program.

But the star of the team for the spring went to Cappuccio, a high-level competition cheerleader turned jumper for the Bengals following the winter season. The freshman first made her mark in the Ocean County Championships by winning the high jump and taking second in the long jump. Two weeks later, she won sectional titles in both events. In the Group II meet, Cappuccio cleared 5 feet, 6 inches to not only set the school record for the high jump but also won the group title in the process.

Even though Cappuccio missed repeating that mark during the Meet of Champions, the young Bengal ended the season 13th on the season’s biggest stage with a lot of room to grow during her next three years.

9. Pinelands Female Wrestler Wins Region Crown – Last year, the NJSIAA introduced girls wrestling as a high school sport and it drew a lot of attention. Locally, about a half-dozen girls worked hard in the wrestling rooms of their respective schools and developed into viable contenders. However, Pinelands junior Olivia Mena made the biggest strides and ended up making school history as its first-ever region champion.

Competing at 118 pounds inside Red Bank Regional High School on Feb. 17, Mena was the top seed for her weight class and she didn’t disappoint. Following a first-round bye, Mena pinned Jackson Memorial’s Avery Meyers in 1:21 during the quarterfinals. In the semifinals, she used a headlock-hip throw combination en route to a pin in 1:14 against Brick’s Gianna DeDreux.

In the final, she met a tougher competitor in Notre Dame’s Angelina Romero, but took a 7-1 lead into the third period before pressing Romero with 44 seconds left in the match. Unfortunately, a bout with mononucleosis a week later prevented Mena from competing for a state title in Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall.

8. Another Runner-up Finish for Stafford Native – Competing for NASCAR Cup Series championships has become a normal thing for Stafford Township native and Southern Regional graduate Martin Truex Jr. Except in 2019, things were a little different. After Furniture Row Racing closed up shop following his runner-up finish in the championship race in 2018, Truex landed a spot with Joe Gibbs Racing and, naturally, the questions arose as to whether Truex would be one of the team’s better drivers.

Alongside Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin, Truex no longer was the biggest fish in the smaller pond. However, as everybody quickly discovered – once he got acclimated with Gibbs’ team and raced to victory in Richmond on April 13 – Truex simply became part of a trio of big fish in a bigger pond, and they pretty much were lights out for most of the season, with all three ending up in the Cup Series Championship.

In the “Championship 4” race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, a tire flub on lap 120 forced Truex to lose position and he wasn’t able to recover, finishing second to Busch. Still, it was a great season for Truex. Not only did he finish as the championship runner-up for a second straight year – with a different team, remember – he won seven races, finished among the top five 15 times and led 1,371 laps in 36 starts. Only Busch led more laps for the season (1,582).

7. Excellent Second Season in Miami – Following a rookie season during which he caught 22 passes for 202 yards, there was no doubt former Southern Regional star athlete Mike Gesicki was well on his way toward bigger things in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins. And then ... offseason mayhem. The Dolphins fired Adam Gase and hired Brian Flores as head coach. Then they dumped quarterback Ryan Tannehill and acquired veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick.

No doubt, Gesicki had to make some adjustments under a new system with a new guy throwing the ball to him. And through the first four games of the 2019 season, Gesicki had a modest six receptions for 51 yards. But once the bye week during Week 6 was past Miami, the offense dialed things up a bit and Fitzpatrick started throwing the ball more in Gesicki’s direction. The results ended up leading to a fantastic second season for the big tight end.

Gesicki snatched the first TD pass of his career against Cleveland on Nov. 24, then a week later grabbed his second against the Philadelphia Eagles. The Sunday before Christmas, Gesicki caught six passes for 82 yards, including a pair of touchdowns. During Miami’s last game of the season – a 27-24 win over New England – Gesicki caught the game-winning TD pass, a 5-yarder in the back of the end zone, with 24 seconds left, ending the season with 51 receptions for 570 yards and five TDs.

6. Southern Wrestler Ends Career as State Runner-up – Nick O’Connell ended up exactly where he wanted to during his senior wrestling season at Southern – in the NJSIAA 152-pound state championship match. After helping the Rams capture the Group V title a month earlier (more on that later), as well as the District 29 crown, the Region VIII champ blazed his path straight to the title bout in Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall.

Following an 18-6 major decision over Don Bosco’s Christian Jimenez in the preliminary round, a 6-4 decision over St. Augustine Prep’s Connor Kraus in the second round, a 9-3 win over West Morris Central’s Justin LeMay in the quarterfinals and a 4-3 victory over Phillipsburg’s Cody Harrison in the semis, O’Connell took a 40-0 record into the final match against Robert Garcia of Pope John XXIII in Sparta.

Unfortunately, 40 seconds into the match Garcia had become the first wrestler all season to score more than six points on O’Connell while sending him to his back for a near-fall. Garcia won, 13-5, but finishing 40-1 as a state runner-up was nothing to be ashamed of, considering O’Connell, who finished his career with a 104-15 record, didn’t reach the medals podium in 2018.

5. Barnegat’s Peterson Becomes Vianney’s First State Champ – Dean Peterson grew up dreaming of becoming a state champion four times, a la Mike Grey, Andrew Compolattano, Anthony Ashnault and Nick Suriano. But after losing a 6-3 decision in the 2018 NJSIAA State Championships at 106 pounds, Peterson had to regroup and go forward knowing he still could become part of a special group of three-time state champs.

The Barnegat resident and St. John Vianney sophomore started on that path during the 2018-19 season, culminating an undefeated season with a 3-2 victory over Emerson/Park Ridge’s Nick Babin on March 2 to win the NJSIAA 113-pound championship and become St. John Vianney’s first-ever state champion.

After helping lead the Lancers to a 9-4 overall record and a third-place finish in the District 17 tournament, Peterson maintained a winning streak for the entire season, going 35-0 with 17 pins. He went into the individual state tournament as the top-seeded wrestler at 113. Peterson then blazed a path to the final with 9-0, 9-2, 12-1 and 7-2 victories before edging Babin, taking an impressive 71-2 career record into his junior season.

4. Southern Wrestlers Capture Another Group V Crown – At the beginning of last winter, it didn’t look as if the Southern Regional wrestling team had enough guns in the arsenal to win an NJSIAA Group V championship. The Rams didn’t win the Shore Conference Class A South division, so the question of whether they could win Group V was a legitimate one, especially since Howell, the defending Group V champ, was in Southern’s South Jersey sectional for the 2018-19 season.

But on Jan. 26, the Rams turned a major corner by thumping perennial state power Phillipsburg, 32-16, and, all of a sudden, Southern was ready to make state tournament noise. The big win over the Stateliners didn’t simply raise a bar. It proved the sleeping giant was awake, because things indeed were about to get real.

On Feb. 8, the Rams ended Howell’s 78-match winning streak to capture their 13th state sectional title, then followed up two days later with an easy, 49-12 win over Passaic Tech in the group semifinals before winning a 34-27 clash with Hunterdon Central to snag their second NJSIAA Group V championship in four seasons and third group crown in program history.

3. Mooney Sets Division III Record to Win 5,000 Title – So far, while at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, former Southern runner Katilyn Mooney has been outstanding. But, no doubt, her brightest moment to date occurred on March 8 at the end of the indoor season.

Not only did Mooney capture the 5,000-meter run title at the NCAA Division III Indoor Track and Field Championships inside the Reggie Lewis Center in Boston, she did so by setting the Division III record for the event, finishing in 16 minutes, 23.12 seconds. The previous mark was held by Stevens Institute of Technology’s Amy Regan, who ran a 16:23.40 in 2016.

The Bears sophomore sensation cruised the final 200 meters at a 38.757-second clip and finished more than 12 seconds ahead of second-place finisher Annie Rodenfels of Centre College, who crossed the line in 16:35.40. Mooney became the first CGA female athlete to win a track national title, after she earlier in the season registered a school-record time of 16:27.30 in the 5,000 meters during the Boston University Dave Hemery Valentine Invitational, which at the time was the second-fastest time in Division III history.

2. Southern Regional Junior Runner Has Amazing Season – When the cross-country season started, Jackson Braddock’s first goal was to stay healthy and just have the chance to compete in the big meets toward the end of the fall season. By the time the Ocean County Championships rolled around in mid-October, Braddock felt great, had no back or leg pain, and was ready to go after titles.

Well, Braddock didn’t just win the county title with ease, he followed it with a Shore Conference championship victory – the first time in Southern history a male runner had captured the conference crown – ahead of Christian Brothers Academy’s Shaw Powell, then outraced Cherokee’s Ethan Wechsler during his next two races to win NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV and Group IV titles, becoming the Rams’ first male to win a group championship.

After placing sixth in the state at the Meet of Champions, Braddock wasn’t finished adding to his astonishing season. He finished fifth in the Nike Cross Nationals Northeast Regional Qualifier, then traveled to Portland, Ore., on Dec. 7 and finished 29th in the country during the Nike Cross Nationals. The best part – Braddock exited the season in good health as he looked ahead to the winter and spring track seasons.

1. Barnegat Boys Swim Team Scores School’s First Section Title – For more than 14 years, Barnegat High School’s athletic trophy case had been void of one particular piece of hardware. When coach Emily Cherry’s boys swim team arrived at the school parking lot and stepped off the bus just around 9 p.m. on Feb. 14, the Bengals brought that piece of hardware with them.

Finally, for the first time in school history, a Bengals’ squad had captured an NJSIAA state sectional championship by scoring a 106-64 rout of Cedar Creek in the South Jersey Group C final at Gloucester County Institute of Technology. The Bengals only won six of the 11 events, but, as they had showcased all season, their depth was the catalyst for the biggest victory in school history.

Behind school-record efforts from seniors Dylan Cappuccio, who won the 200-yard individual medley, and Kyle Smith, who won the 100-yard butterfly, the Bengals jumped out to big lead through the first half of the meet and stepped on the gas, as Smith won the 100-yard backstroke and Gareth Aguilar and Tyler Grant took third and fourth behind him to clinch the title.

The Bengals took on North Section 2 Group C champion Summit in the state semifinals, falling short of reaching the overall state title meet during a 114-56 loss, but it did nothing to nullify the biggest sports story of 2019.

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