by Andrew Garda
Second year Montclair High School wrestling coach Eugene Kline came into the job last season hoping to rebuild a program with numbers that had fallen off a bit.
“My goal when I got here was to have 40 kids and last year I had 40 interested, but I only finished with about 15 kids, to be honest,” Kline said in between drills at a recent practice. “And I’m excluding kids that were hurt from a certain point in the season and didn’t finish out. So, kids actively wrestling was about 15.”
While the numbers for his first season fell a bit short of where he was aiming, Kline has seen a vast increase so far this year.
“We’re almost at 40, I want to say 36,” he said. “We lost maybe two or three from last year. So, as of right now, we have all weight classes covered, with some new blood in there.”
More bodies means Montclair will not have to forfeit as many matches in various weight classes as they did last season. With the numbers the Mounties have, they should be able to field wrestlers across all weight classes, though Kline won’t throw a kid who isn’t ready into a match just to avoid forfeiting.
Still, just knowing the team has enough wrestlers to sustain an effort in every competition is a big step forward.
Part of the reason for the improvement is a large influx of younger kids.
“The large majority of these kids are young, freshman and sophomores,” Kline said. “There’s more freshmen and sophomores than juniors and seniors.”
The freshmen are a mixture of football players and kids from the recreational program, both areas where Kline has worked hard to build bridges.
“I really try to get those [football] kids to come to wrestling. It helps that they know I’m one of the top position coaches for the football program,” he said.
As offensive line coach for the Mounties football team, Kline preaches to his players about how wrestling can improve their performance. This year, he’s had several players from his football team cross over onto his wrestling team, such as freshmen like Jordan Williams and juniors like Sebastian Fortune.
“Sebastian is one of those kids who I wanted to get out last year and couldn’t,” he said of the two-year starting center. “And I think that it will make a world of difference for him developing as a football player, let alone a wrestler.”
For a football player, Kline said it is invaluable to work in the wrestling room, where you get to work on one-on-one drills very similar to what they see on the field at Woodman.
“The biggest thing for me, at least for my football players, is to understand that there is a correlation between football and wrestling, how close they are related,” he said.
While the football players are both a benefit to and benefitted by the program, the future may come in the form of the kids coming from the recreation league.
Kline pointed to four or five kids who had come up through the Montclair recreation program and said he knows that getting kids interested early on is what can really get the program’s numbers where he wants them.
“If we can start getting these kids, setting up a little bit of a pipeline, I think all we need a year is like six, seven kids from the rec and we’re in good shape,” he said.
There’s another potential avenue to build numbers, one which Kline admits he didn’t tap.
On Oct. 10, New Jersey and the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association became the first state in the Northeast and the 12th state in the United States to name girls wrestling as an official high school sport.
“I didn’t know where it was going to go this year, as far as whether it was really going to be passed,” Kline said of the NJSIAA decision. “So I didn’t really target that group so much. But the one girl we do have, Jaala [Williams], I’m excited for her this year.”
While Williams will have to wrestle boys during the regular season, when tournament time comes around, she will face other girls.
Kline said that Williams is also excited to be an advocate to bring more girls to wrestling as well, and said she plans to visit Hillside, where Kline teaches, and speak to gym classes to get girls more involved in wrestling.
”I think it’s going to be great. I’ve got to do a better job of targeting the girl population, but I’m excited to have her. Hopefully, she can do something big. This is her last go-round, the last season. We got her into a [girls only] tournament over in Bloomfield as well on December 29, so I’m excited to see how she does there.”