by Andrew Garda
The Montclair High School wrestling team has hit the mat hard as the new year began, making strides, picking up wins, and competing against stronger teams in part because they are finally getting healthy.
It wasn’t injuries which plagued them, however, but a nasty cold which beat more Mounties than any opponent on the mat.
“Yeah, it’s been a big problem for us,” said head coach Eugene Kline. “Everybody, including coaches were sick. So, it was a little bug going around the program, and now we’re starting to get some kids back.”
That’s helped a lot, and comes at a perfect time with the 2020 Essex County Tournament set for today, Jan. 16, and Friday, Jan. 17, at Codey Arena. Action gets underway both days at 4 p.m.
In the meantime, Montclair won three out of four dual matches over the weekend, beginning with Friday’s 48-36 victory over Morris Catholic.
The match started off with a big win for senior 285-pounder Sebastien Fortune (9-2), who won his ninth straight match this season by dropping Timothy Liebhauser by pinfall in 54 seconds.
With both teams unable to fill out a full roster, the meet moved quickly, with Morris Catholic forfeiting seven weight classes and the Mounties three.
Saturday, MHS hosted a quad meet in which the Mounties picked up two wins in three, knocking off SEC-Liberty Division rival Orange, 54-24, edging DePaul on a match tiebreaker, 40-39, and falling to a strong Verona team, 58-22.
Fortune picked up three more wins, with two forfeits and a second-period pinfall against Orange.
Ross Berkowitz also went a perfect three-for-three on the day, including a pinfall win against Orange, a 10-0 major decision against Verona, and a forfeit win against DePaul, the latter making Berkowitz (10-6) the second Mountie to reach double-digit victories this season.
Josh Lozano also had a perfect Saturday, with the 195-pounder earning an 11-5 decision against Orange, a forfeit win against Verona, and a pinfall victory in 3:45 against DePaul.
Zakai Mack, Montclair’s winningest wrestler this year (11-5), pinned his opponents from Orange and DePaul, but was in turn pinned by Verona’s Sam Zamloot.
Jeremy Smullyan was also a winner against Orange, earning an 11-9 decision over Christopher Fabre at 145 pounds.
The match against DePaul ended in a 39-39 tie, but Montclair earned the victory because they only forfeited one weight class, while DePaul forfeited four.
While success on the mat is a work in progress, Kline said the coaching staff has changed its methods to deal with the large amount of already inexperienced kids who have now missed time because of illness.
“We’ve kind of scaled some things… back to some basics, just because we have so many green kids who are just new to wrestling and are wrestling some teams who have kids who have been wrestling forever,” Kline said. “And it’s been helping. It’s made us [able] to compete a little more, our new guys can compete a little more.”
That isn’t always translating to wins on the mat, but for Kline and his coaches, wins and losses are a smaller part of the equation, especially against top-shelf teams.
Where Kline has seen improvement has been against teams more their level, and that’s what is important he said.
“It’s a starting foundation, which is what we need. My only expectations [are] for the teams that are in our wheelhouse, let’s compete and possibly beat them,” Kline said. “So, we’ll see. This is a bit of a rebulding year for us, and if we can retain these kids and have a massive recruiting effort for the offseason, I think we might be able to get it back on the rise so to speak.”
One of the wrestlers who has seen the most improvement since the start of the new year has been Fortune, who hasn’t lost a match since the West Orange Tournament on Dec. 31, most of his wins coming via pins.
Kline said having Fortune back for his senior year has been a big boost off the mat as well as on it.
“For me, having Sebastien is great because of his leadership ability, not just his wrestling ability,” Kline said. “Holding guys accountable, making sure when coaches are talking, kids are listening. Making sure that they’re not playing around when they’re not supposed to be. Those kinds of things are what he brings to the table. He even tries to motivate guys a little bit, but he’s new himself.”
Kline told Montclair local that the Montclair wrestling program will host its second annual “Alumni Match” on Wednesday, Jan. 29, when the current varsity hosts Newark East Side. The alumni gathering begins at 5 p.m., and the match will take place at 6.
The event supports the wrestling program and brings alumni from different teams and years together. There will be a special area for alumni to mingle and meet the coaching staff.
Any wrestling alumni who would like to take part in the event should contact Kline at EKline@montclair.k12.nj.us.
Wrestlers in the Montclair Recreation program will also be welcome to attend the meet and watch the varsity wrestlers warm up in the wrestling room, before leading them out onto the floor for the match.