NEW BRUNSWICK – Maybe I shouldn’t wrestle.
So thought Ernie Botteon over the summer as he pondered the upcoming high school sports slate. While the Highland Park sophomore enjoyed wrestling in eighth grade, the Owls didn’t field a team last season and he was getting good at cross country.
“I was like maybe I should do winter track this year,” he said, “but then once I actually got on the mat, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I miss this. This is great.’”
There has been a collective “oh yeah” for the whole Owls program. Highland Park, typically having among the lowest enrollments in the state, didn’t wrestle in the shortened spring 2021 season when the school’s administration halted the sport for safety concerns during the COVID pandemic.
Now back, the team has 14 wrestlers, with about half a dozen or so ready to wrestle varsity depending on the opponent.
In Saturday’s quad meet, Highland Park earned its first win in two seasons with a 36-30 victory over New Brunswick. Highland Park held a 4-3 edge in contested matches as both squads are in the midst of gaining experience and building for the future. The match had seven forfeits, with two double forfeits.
Ultimately, the wins and losses don’t matter. It’s about each wrestler continuing to learn and capturing the small victories – not giving up a takedown. Lasting the full six minutes. Not getting pinned.
On the day, Highland Park lost to Manville 70-6 and to Montgomery 57-12 at New Brunswick Middle School. Again, just putting on that maroon singlet is a big step in keeping the program alive.
“The kids he put out there are well-coached,” Manville coach Pat Gorbatuk said. “They’re respectful. They’re hardworking. They’re everything a coach would want. So all the credit in the world to the coaching staff over there. I think next year they’ll definitely experience a little more success. … They’ve been tough before and coach Girvan had them in a good spot before, but I definitely think he’s doing an amazing job coming off an off season.”
Craig Girvan, in his 11th season as head coach, has had some good teams and wrestlers. In 2019-2020, then-senior Luke Tilton became the program’s third-ever state qualifier with a third-place finish (195) in Region 5.
The numbers pre-pandemic varied, but it could be in the 20s with a good middle school feeder team. With the year off, though, everyone missed mat time, minus some summer workouts. Additionally, several wrestlers were out around the holiday break with COVID exposures.
“I’m just trying to get each individual wrestler better day by day,” Girvan said. “I’m not too worried about the overall match. We give up 30 points a match, at least, so I’m not really worried about that. I’m just trying to look at individuals and improve each individual and we’ll slowly get better."
Girvan said he was pleased that his team wrestled hard Saturday.
“We’re just trying to move forward from this point," he said. "I think most of our guys are healthy now and hopefully we’ll get better day by day.”
As it is, there’s about a half dozen first-year wrestlers. That means, as Girvan said, “back to basics. Fundamentals for a lot of these guys.”
But he added, “Very good, hard working kids. Nice kids and again, like I said we’re taking it day by day and we’re working hard to get better.”
Saturday, Botteon (120), Ben Weiner-Goldsmith (126), Henry Roesener (157) and Oscar Wolfe (215) each had pins against New Brunswick. Roesener also had a fall against Montgomery and Botteon had a 5-3 victory in SV-1 against Manville. Calvin Clark (175) added to the excitement when he pulled out a 6-5 win against Manville.
Other wrestlers like Brian Mahoney (150), Ben Beyer (190) and Christian Gomez (285) gained valuable varsity experience.
Botteon said not wrestling last year “was terrible.” This year? He’s “very happy.”
“We’re not the biggest, but we try hard,” Botteon said. “We’re a young team. So I think there’s big things coming.”
He’s excited for the first-year and newer wrestlers.
“We’re really looking forward to how they do,” he said. “Like every single time we go for a match, they look better and better.”
Senior Oscar Wolfe noted that it wasn’t just wrestling that got cancelled, as many other activities were taken away in the past two years. Losing wrestling, though, “kind of made everything worse.”
“Wrestling definitely helps bring it back to normal,” he said. “…To be honest, the first practice after not doing any real practice for a long time -- it gets you really tired, but it definitely added structure back to my day. I wouldn’t just go home and do homework. Now I get to actually do my after-school activity again. So that was important … My overall health has definitely improved because of it.”
Just having practice helps in the pandemic’s disruption to everyday life.
“The kids like the normalcy and they like to compete,” Girvan said. “Athletics is great for kids. It gives them a purpose and they’re much happier mentally with wrestling.”
He added, “I’m happier, too.”
Andy Mendlowitz is a sports reporter for MyCentralJersey.com. To get unlimited access to local news throughout Central Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
This article originally appeared on MyCentralJersey.com: Highland Park wrestling returns after a year's absence