by Andrew Garda
When Montclair High School wrestling head coach Eugene Kline began planning for the winter wrestling season — one that would bring more than its usual challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic — he immediately drew on his experiences as a coach with the MHS football team.
Mounties football made it through a complete season without a COVID-19 incident, so Kline wanted to take what clearly worked and apply it to wrestling.
It didn’t hurt that he had a strong hand in the plans for the football team and so was intimately familiar with how to set up effective protocols.
He took the idea of podding — organizing students into separate groups that would then practice and compete only within those groups — by position and translated that into a separation by weight class for wrestling. All MHS wrestlers wear masks when practicing, though not all wear them wrestling at meets, as the state doesn’t require them, although Kline encourages his team members to wear them.
Some kids have anxiety about wearing a mask, and that’s true for high schoolers as well. Kline makes sure if a kid needs a break, he gets a chance to duck outside, take off his mask to catch a breath, and then hop back inside.
He said that at the end of the day, all you can do is preach to your team members that they need to continue to take precautions on and off the mat if they want to have a season. A coach can’t control the other team, so there will always be something out of his control. Still, Kline said the entire wrestling community has been working hard to be safe and avoid illness. Each team will continue to take precautions to protect themselves and their opponents.
COVID-19 has caused some other issues. For example, many of the wrestlers couldn’t go to camps and get better in summer tournaments because the pandemic shut those things down.
And as with many other indoor teams this year, MHS wrestling saw a dip in numbers.
“We’ve lost maybe seven, eight kids in regards to COVID, not because they came up with a case, but because of the fear of COVID,” Kline said.
While he understands the concern, he was still left without enough wrestlers to fill every weight class during a meet. If the Mounties’ opponent can, that means Montclair is at a massive disadvantage, as every weight class that MHS can’t fill when the other team can is counted as an MHS loss.
Montclair has lost its first two matches, to Glen Ridge (55-12) and Irvington (66-12), and in both cases the Mounties went into the match knowing that in terms of numbers, they wouldn’t be able to win, as they just lacked enough athletes.
However, while they can’t control whether someone is on the mat for a bout or not, what they can control is their effort during the bouts they have someone on the mat.
After two matches, it’s been hit or miss.
“Against Glen Ridge, I didn’t think we were very competitive,” Kline said. “I told my kids, ‘Let’s do some soul-searching. Is that the same type of intensity you use in the practice room?’ They saw that, wow, this is a little different than what we’ve been doing in practice. It has nothing to do with the practice structure or how we’re teaching things, it has to do with their effort. So then the next day, against a better team, again, in Irvington, they came out and competed.”
That step forward, the increased effort, is what Kline wants to see more than wins and losses. The Mounties take on Columbia at home on Friday, March 26, and the coach expects to continue to see his team improve.
A pair of wrestlers he’s already seen improving from match to match as well as from year to year are Ziggy Pepper, who wrestles at 126 pounds, and Ross Berkowitz, at 113 pounds.
Pepper has won both his bouts by pin in a minute or less, while Berkowitz, who has only been in a single match that he won by forfeit, has been showing his stuff in practice.
Still, Kline said that, like his other wrestlers, these two juniors are a work in progress, but they are a pair he feels comfortable putting on the mat regardless of opponent.
“There’s still a little green in some areas, but they can go out there and compete,” he said. “I don’t mind sending them out against anyone who’s in their weight class, win, lose or draw. They may lose, but they, they can compete and, and, basically, you know, protect themselves.”