by Andrew Garda
A lot of things have changed for Montclair High School wrestling under head coach Eugene Kline, who is in his third year in charge of the program.
Last year saw the team qualify for the NJSIAA team tournament for the second consecutive year, its record jumping from 11-14 to 13-9 overall, and ended with big individual triumphs for seniors Terrell White and Jaala Williams, who qualified for the NJSIAA state championships in Atlantic City, with Williams – the first girl to wrestle for Kline – reaching the inaugural 136-pound state title bout before finishing second.
Last season, inexperience was the theme for Mounties wrestling. This year Kline is looking towards his veterans to make that a thing of the past.
“Zakai Mack is a senior captain who is very talented and the most polished wrestler in our wrestling room,” Kline said. “This year he is up a weight class and is now wrestling 138 which best suits him because he doesn’t have to cut any weight and feels strong there. We are also eager to see how Ross Berkowitz, Ziggy Pepper and Sebastien Fortune, a senior captain, have grown over the offseason.”
Mack is Montclair’s top returning match-winner, putting together a 23-7 season and finishing seventh at 126 pounds at last year’s Essex County Tournament.
Berkowitz (15-9 last year) will wrestle at 106 pounds, and Pepper (13-13) will be in the 113 pound category while Fortune (12-10) will sit at 285.
Kline said the coaches expect big things from the two other senior captains as well, Jeremy Smullyan, competing in the 145 pound category and Josh Lozano, who will wrestle at 195 pounds.
On the girls’ side of things, Williams will be missed but her success has certainly bred interest and two more girls have joined Kline’s team.
According to Kline, senior Doris Zeger and junior Alissa Bent are both very athletic and have really taken to wrestling, something very similar to what he said about Williams last season.
“It’s shame that they haven’t come out sooner, because they can be very competitive,” he said.
One of the biggest challenges for Kline has been numbers. MHS has more than 60 sports teams, and with many athletes choosing to specialize in one sport, it can be a struggle to recruit kids. That’s not just the case at Montclair High, Kline said, but across wrestling as a whole.
Kline has a pipeline from the football team, as he is the Mounties’ offensive line coach, but that only goes so far in getting athletes to wrestle.
The presence of Zeger and Bent helps in two ways. It brings two more wrestlers to the team, and could potentially attract more girls on to the mat, adding to the growth of girls wrestling statewide.
“Having more females on the team means that there can possibly be more females coming out for the team. Female wrestling is the fastest growing sport and quite frankly will save wrestling on a whole,” Kline said. “Wrestling is down in many places in the country, and with girls now wrestling there is a resurgence in the numbers. Having Doris and Alissa competing lets other females know that they can compete too, and that at the end of the season they can compete against other females as well on a bigger stage.”
While recruiting is always tough, Kline has begun building a strong program, though he knows it’s going to take time and buy-in to get Montclair wrestling to be competitive with the top teams in Essex County, and to have wrestlers capable of reaching the state regionals across the 14 weight classes.
“I’ve made progress in many regards, but have a very long way to go in order to change the culture of wrestling in Montclair,” he said. “My goal is to retain and develop highly competitive wrestlers. For all the successes I have had in the past few years as a coach, I would trade it all to get the students of Montclair High School excited about wrestling and double, triple or even quadruple the number of participants.”
Kline, who has been coaching varsity athletics for 19 years now and said he knows it can take a decade to change the culture of a program, feels he is making an impact, and is seeing a lot of excitement among teachers, administrators, parents and fellow coaches both in the high school and at the youth level.
He wants the MHS team — both coaches and athletes — to be more of a visible presence around town.
“Our kids and coaching staff have to become a recruiting machine, starting with me getting more football players out and staying for multiple years. And [the high school program] has to do a better job of bridging the gap between the high school and the rec program,” Kline said. “The rec program is so important because they (coaches and parents) are the group who can directly affect the culture of wrestling in town.”
All of this takes a lot of effort and Kline relies heavily on his coaching staff of Ryan McKay, Naveed Khawaja and Mike Fenner, who he calls “absolutely awesome.”
“My biggest accomplishment has been the hiring of my assistant coaches,” he said. “They are talented coaches who have been involved in wrestling for most of their lives. The amount of wrestling knowledge in our room is exceptional because of these men. More importantly, I couldn’t put better role models in front of our kids than [them].”
The coaching staff not only helps improve the kids, but helps Kline come up with ideas on how to spark interest not just from potential wrestlers, but from potential fans.
“I’ve started with little things that I can control, like uniforms that are the same for the whole team, a state of the art wrestling mat that’s arguably the best around and creating a top notch wrestling atmosphere for our wrestlers and fans,” he said.
That way, the wrestlers feel like a team, and each get their moment when the gym goes dark save for a spotlight over the mat — a new addition last season — and hard-rock music for them to walk out to.
Now that the atmosphere and attitude around the mat are coming along, Kline said the next step has to take place on it, and when that happens on a consistent basis you’ll see a true shift in a perception of the program.
“People want to be a part of a winning program. If our kids make wrestling a priority in the off-season and come out and dominate during the season, more people will be interested in wrestling.”
The Mounties started the season off with a dual-match win over Paterson Eastside, 48-18, on Dec. 19, and followed it up with a pair of medals – Mack winning first place at 138 pounds and Pepper second at 113 – at the Clifton Mustang Invitational on Dec. 21. They then competed at the West Orange Tournament on Tuesday, Dec. 31, after press time.
MHS kicks off 2020 with a dual match at the Midland Avenue gym this Friday night, 6 p.m., against SEC-Liberty Division rival Cedar Grove. The Mounties will then travel to neighboring Bloomfield High for a quad meet this Saturday, Jan. 4, at 10 a.m., against the host Bengals, Clifton and Secaucus.
This year’s Essex County Tournament is slated for Thursday, Jan. 16, and Friday, Jan. 17, at Codey Arena in West Orange.