You knew it was Highland's night when two of the Tartans who earned the loudest ovations from teammates and fans were wrestlers who lost by a combined 20 points.
Highland flexed its muscle at the lower weights and got big victories from senior upper-weights Jared Colbert and Devon Starks en route to a 35-32 victory over Cherry Hill West in the South Jersey Group 4 championship match on Friday night.
But to hear the Tartans tell it – and to listen to the roar from the visitors' fans at the end of the bouts – hard-fought losses by Noah Shaffer at 160 pounds and Emidio Mariani at 126 were nearly as crucial to the cause.
"Those losses were just as big as the wins," Highland coach Frank Plefka said. "That's what it's all about in the playoffs."
Highland (13-7), the No. 3 seed, won eight of the first 12 bouts before forfeiting the last two to clinch the program's first sectional title since 1996.
Highland advanced to the state semifinals Sunday at Toms River North.
"Oh my God — 22 years," said Starks, who won a 4-1 decision over Cherry Hill West's Dimitri Serrano in perhaps the night's feature bout.
Jared Colbert won a 5-3 decision over Dom Unmarino at 182 pounds in another hard-fought bout that went the Tartans' way.
Highland also got strong work from light-weights Matt Hoelke, Adam Aquilino and Brody Colbert, a trio that broke the match open with a run of three straight bonus-point wins.
Hoelke and Aquilino registered pins and Colbert earned a technical fall, as the Tartans scored 17 unanswered points to turn a 16-12 deficit into a 29-16 edge.
"Coach always says, 'Maximize and minimize,'" Starks said of bonus points. "That's what we were able to do."
Jayson Peralta at 195 and Max Sullivan at 285 registered pins for top-seeded Cherry Hill West (21-5).
But the host Lions, who were cheered by an enthusiastic crowd, were unable to maximize bonus-point opportunities or capture enough of the match's toss-up bouts.
"It's a testament to Highland," Cherry Hill West coach Zach Semar said. "They wrestled strong, they wrestled hard and they earned it."
Shaffer and Mariani's status as unlikely heroes despite losing major decisions seemed fitting for an unlikely championship team.
Highland wrestled through a difficult regular season, marked by the resignation of head coach Mike Davidson and other issues as well. The Tartans were 10-7 entering the tournament, with losses in three of their previous four matches.
"I can't say enough about these kids," Plefka said. "They've been through so much adversity, from losing their coach to having kids out for academic reasons, kids out for disciplinary reasons, illness, injuries.
"But they hung together through all that and they were able to harness it, to be resilient and to learn some lessons from it."
Shaffer opened the match with a 9-0 loss to Xavier Barker, but he earned a partial standing ovation from the Highland fans and walked off the mat with a smile on his face.
"That kid [Barker] is a stud," Plefka said. "To only give up four [pins], that's a two-point win for us."
Mariani faced the same situation in a 14-3 loss to John Howe. Mariani also was saluted by the fans and got a big palm-slap and "Great job!" from Plefka coming off the mat.
A taut 1-0 decision by Jeremiah Clark at 132 pounds set the stage for the clinching bout, as Justin Cariss earned a 5-0 decision at 138 pounds and popped the cork on the celebration on the Highland sideline.
"This is tremendous," Cariss said. "We've been waiting for this since Day 1. With everything we've been through, it made us mentally stronger."
Highland 35, Cherry Hill West 32