I have been a fan of high school wrestling ever since I watched my first match, which (at this point) must be almost four decades ago. My appreciation of the sport and my enthusiasm for it were not affected at all by a disastrous freshman season I spent as Doc Rud's 108-pound grappler on W-H's wrestling team, which season was most notable for two things: (a) my development of an ability to identify a high school gymnasium simply by studying its ceiling tiles; and (b) my inability to provide Tom Byleckie, who wrestled one weight class up from me, adequate time to read Rudyard Kipling's "IF" in its entirety. Truth be told, I never read the whole thing either as my fellow freshman novice wrestler, Jimmy Fabricatore, was our 101-pound wrestler.
If anything, a season spent witnessing my nose develop a close, intimate relationship with both of my knees only served to deepen my appreciation for the sport and for the kids who participate in it. I admire high school athletes who swim or fence or are track-and-field athletes for the same reason I admire those who wrestle. As a general rule, there is no one behind whom those competitors can hide. A player who contributes the least to a championship team's success reaps the benefits of being a champion. In high school wrestling, you attain only the heights you are able to scale on your own merit. There is no tag-team. Believe me, I spent many a winter afternoon as a 13 and 14-year-old freshman desperately trying to tag in our awesome 188-pound behemoth, Bruce Lackland, only to have the referee tell me that I was breaking the rules.
This afternoon, beginning at or about two thirty, the final four hundred and forty-eight high school wrestlers still standing here in the State of Concrete Gardens will commence hostilities at the State Championship Tournament in Atlantic City's Convention Hall. The combatants will compete in fourteen weight classes - thirty-two wrestlers in each weight class - in pursuit of a state title. Two weekends ago, this pursuit kicked off in thirty-two different District tournaments statewide. The top three finishers from each weight class at each District advanced to compete last weekend in eight different Region tournaments, from which the top four finishers in each weight class punched a ticket to the town that Donald Trump and the Chicken Man once called home.
Margaret's nephew, Frankie, who earned a trip to Atlantic City in each of his final two years wrestling for Middlesex High School, is making the trip this weekend. He is an assistant coach at his Alma mater. Two of his wrestlers have survived and advanced to the season's final weekend.
Bob Dinger, Middlesex's 138-pound wrestler, avenged a loss in the District 14 finals two weekends ago in last Saturday's Region 4 title match. He is a senior. In his career, he has won more than one hundred matches. This is his first trip to AC. He is the #12 seed at his weight class. Should he win his first-round match against Lacey Township's Luke Gauthier, the #21 seed, he could have to tangle with Bound Brook's Robert Cleary, the #4 seed.
Joining young Mr. Dinger on the jaunt to the joint where saltwater taffy is king is Jeff Johnson. Although just a junior, Johnson is making his second trip to the State Championships. Like his running buddy at 138 pounds, Johnson - the Middlesex 145-pounder - has already surpassed one hundred career victories. Two weeks ago, he earned the District 14 title and last week, at Region 4, he lost a heartbreaking "ultimate tie-breaker" decision in the finals. He is the #12 seed in his weight class and his State tournament begins with a first-round match against Colonia's John Poznanski, the #21 seed. Should he win, then Johnson shall likely square off against fourth-seeded Cole Corrigan from Toms River North.
Winning a State championship will require a wrestler to emerge unscathed from five matches against top competition in a forty-eight period, including two matches on Friday and two more on Saturday. Whether either of Frankie's Blue Jays can accomplish the task, I know not. I know simply that for them - and for the other four hundred and forty-six competitors who shall join them - I wish (a) on-time arrivals for each round so as to avoid forfeiting; (b) successful weigh-ins every day; and (c) good health. In the three years that Margaret and I trekked to Atlantic City to watch, first, Joe, and then Frank wrestle, it was an annual occurrence that at least one competitor was either disqualified because he failed to get out on the mat on time to start his match or because he failed to make weight or was felled by sickness or injury. These kids and their coaches have all worked their tails off to make it to this point.
Win or lose, may the outcome for each of them be decided on the mat. As it should be. After all, it is not the fact that the match is six minute long that is important. It is what happens in those six minutes. That is what matters...