Shawn Scannell was a state champion during his senior year at Absegami in 1996 and went on to become an All-American at Rider University. (South Jersey Glory Days photo/Sully)

By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Staff Writer
During the 1996 NJSIAA state wrestling championships at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, fans of Lakewood High superstar freshman 171-pounder Damion Hahn brought signs with them that foretold a future of four straight state individual championships. Hahn was expected to completely dominate the New Jersey wrestling landscape throughout his high school career, and largely he did, going 131-3 and winning three state titles.
The man who kept him from winning four has spent the past two decades sitting in the corner of dark high school wrestling mats in cramped gyms, trying to turn high school boys into standout wrestlers and stand-up young men. Shawn Scannell doesn’t look like the kind of guy who is a former New Jersey state champion. He has that cool hair, the almost perfect four-day scruff of beard; he wears stylish button-up dress shirts under vests. He doesn’t yell from the plastic coaching chair, he’s not foaming at the mouth like some other fire-breathing prep wrestling coaches who get all wound up on match nights.
Scannell is about as unassuming as it gets, and if you didn’t know any better you’d think he was just the dad of some kid on the JV team. But down in his basement — now that he had some time during the Covid-19 pandemic to get things organized — you can find an array of awards, a never-worn varsity jacket, some old VHS tapes and one gold medal from the 1996 NJSIAA state championships.
Scannell, a senior at the time, beat the great Damion Hahn and did something his older brother, Bob, fell just short of. Bob Scannell made it to the state final in 1986 but came up short, and it took 10 more years for the Scannell family to finally reach the top of the podium.
“I have a brother who is almost 10 years older than me and he was a state finalist back in 1986, so I was always close to the sport and motivated to try to become a state champion. He was a big part of my journey and had a big influence on me. That was my goal once I got to high school — state champion or bust,” said Scannell, who this past spring stepped down as head coach at his alma mater, Absegami, where he led the Braves’ wrestling program for 21 years. “I don’t know that I felt I could win it when I came in as a freshman, but I had a great support staff, great coaches. I had some people who worked behind the scenes. We used to do private lessons and different wrestling clubs. We would drive to Pennsylvania for more than two hours and train with kids out there.
“Mentally, I was not going to accept losing (as a senior). I had the mindset that I was going to train harder than anybody,” said Scannell, who finished his high school career with a 107-11 record before going on to become an All-American at Rider University. “I did a lot of extra training. I would run to school in the morning, we did a lot of extra workouts, we would travel to clubs in Pennsylvania. My mental mindset was, ‘you’re not losing.’ It’s hard to explain that to kids nowadays. But I had good people around me who showed me the importance of mental toughness and that mindset. I just programmed myself and put the work in. Sophomore year and on I did a lot of work in the offseason, in the summer, the fall. I played football, but I was still going to my wrestling club and lifting. I was dedicated and I had great support. My parents were great, my brother — he was my hero, he guided me, he was a big influence and he was there every step of the way.”
Scannell remembers a loss that hit home, and in many ways spurred him to become a state champion.
“I was a sophomore, I was 20-0 and we were in the state playoffs. I had beaten a kid from Central Regional earlier in the year pretty badly, and when we wrestled again he hit me with a wacky spladle and pinned me,” Scannell recalls. “I was devastated. That was rough. I was an average youth wrestler, but I was around the sport since I was a baby, so I was taught from a young age about determination and drive. When I got to high school, I had to beat out a senior to get my spot, and from then on I just hated losing. That was it, I just didn’t like to lose. And that’s what drove me.”
That state championship bout against Hahn in 1996 was excruciating for Scannell. Hahn was an absolute beast, so Scannell knew there was going to be little chance to score a takedown. He had to figure out some way to score some points and then hold off one of the best freshmen in state history. After a scoreless first period, Scannell chose the defensive position to start the second. He hit a reversal right away for a two-point lead, then rode Hahn out the rest of the period. Scannell was banged for a stalling in the third period as Hahn cut the deficit to 2-1, but before he could give up another stalling call, time ran out and Scannell was a champion.
“I knew he had nothing to lose, and I had everything to lose. I was determined and knew I wasn’t going to lose that match, but I was definitely a little tight. I was good at winning close matches and holding leads,” Scannell explained. “In the third period, he chose neutral, and I was stalling my butt off. I wasn’t taking any chances. I tried to make it look good, but I got banged (for stalling). It got a little hairy at the end before time ran out. If I had to do it all over again, I wish was a little more loose.”
Scannell, now a 45-year-old teacher at Absegami High, remembers all kinds of emotions flooding over him in that moment.
“It’s one of the greatest moments of my life. The elation of that moment, knowing all your hard work and dedication, all your support and everything that everyone put into you — it’s joyous, but it’s also a relief. It’s something that I still, to this day, think about and envision. It’s something that will stay with me forever,” he said. “It’s one of the greatest moments of my life. It lived up to the hype. I had put a ton of work in, and I knew my brother came up short and that affected him, so I wanted to make him proud and get over the hump. They were holding up signs before the state final — and I still have one because my brother ripped it out of somebody’s hands — that said, ‘you’re looking at the first four-time state champ’ in New Jersey, so that was motivating.”
Scannell isn’t the type of guy who you’ll find at the local pub gushing about how great he was in high school and reliving his “glory days” all night, but when he does think back about his high school days a smile comes over his face. He said he had a great time at Absegami, playing sports and doing all the other normal things that high school kids do.
“It’s fun to talk about. I joke around with the guys I went to high school with. It was a great experience and I think about it all the time. I have three boys of my own and they wrestle. They don’t quite understand Boardwalk Hall yet, but it’s something I’ll never forget. It was a great moment. One of those moments you work hard for. Sometimes you get what you deserve and sometimes you don’t. It could have easily gone the other way,” Scannell said. “I had great friends in high school and not all of them wrestled. I had a few friends who were in it with me and were very supportive. I don’t feel like I missed out on anything. I had a great experience in high school. I played football and did all the normal things in the offseason, I just really buckled down during the wrestling season. I wouldn’t change anything. I had a great high school experience.”
These days, Scannell is coaching up his own kids in the sport and gets joy out of seeing their progression. He said he hopes they can learn the same life lessons that wrestling bestowed upon him nearly 30 years ago.
“Wrestling is a very unforgiving sport, so I want my kids to get the good qualities out of it — discipline, hard work, mental toughness. Even if they are not great wrestlers I want them to learn those lessons to help them throughout their life,” he said. “I talk to my oldest son, who is 13, and I tell him ‘you don’t have to be the best wrestler, I just want you to understand these values that you will learn. They will take you far in life.’ Wrestling is the kind of sport where kids can really benefit from a lot of life lessons. I’ve always stressed that as a coach, we were always comparing wrestling to real life. You might have struggles, but if you’re tough you can get through it. If my kids are great wrestlers, that’s a bonus. They are working hard and I try not to put too much pressure on them. They seem to be enjoying it and getting those life lessons.”
In wrestling, things tend to come full circle, and that’s exactly what happened for Scannell and Hahn. Four years after that fateful day in Atlantic City, the pair met again in the NCAA Championships. This time, Hahn got his revenge, ending Scannell’s college career with a victory in the 2001 wrestlebacks.
“He was a four-time All-American in college who won two NCAA titles and he actually ended my college career,” Scannell said. “Last match in NCAAs, he was at Minnesota. At university of Iowa, in wrestlebacks. It was a close match, but he got the better of me. He was very talented.”
Sometimes, on a rainy day, Scannell will find himself alone in the basement, rolling back the tape on great moments from the late 1990s. Wrestling seemingly is a part of his bloodstream, coursing through his veins as almost a sustaining life force. He loves the sport so much, but also laments in its decline at the high school level. Back in the day, an Absegami vs. Oakcrest match would pack the gym. These days, it’s over in 20 minutes as half the weight classes are forfeited. It’s a sign of the changing landscape of the sport.
“When I’m alone I just think how wrestling has been a part of my life for 40 years. I take a step back and look at all the accomplishments of the teams I was a part of and the history of our program, the future of the program. I’m very thankful because I’ve been in a good spot with a great support system for so long,” Scannell said. “I’ve had great assistant coaches. I also think about how the sport is changing and how I don’t love it. So it’s not always the gushing thoughts, sometimes it’s the ‘what’s going on here?’ thoughts. Everything is changing. So, it’s two-fold. But there are definitely a lot of good memories.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sullyglorydays@gmail.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays