Region 9 would fix New Jersey wrestling and bring glory back to public schools | Opinion

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Benjamin Wagman has spent 11 years on staff with the Mahwah wrestling team, including the last six as head coach. He’s been a social studies teacher at Mahwah High School for 24 years and wrestled four years on varsity for the Thunderbirds (Class of 1994).

I have devoted my life to teaching, coaching, and making a difference in the lives of my students and my wrestlers. I have never forgotten my roots in Mahwah. I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to give back to my hometown.

Over the past two decades, public high schools have been faced with the daunting task of keeping student-athletes from attending or transferring to non-public schools. It often proves to be a losing battle. Public school programs are then faced with competing against their own township’s student-athletes in the arena of high school sports. The result has been a loss of competitive balance.

Wrestling in North Jersey has been hit especially hard by the change in athletic dynamics. This issue is at the center of discussions throughout the state, but more so around here where there are five non-publics powerhouses within 15 miles.

Ryan Kozdra of Mahwah, left, and Ryan Ford of Bergen Catholic wrestle in a 132-pound bout on Day 1 of the NJSIAA state wrestling championships in Atlantic City on Thursday, March 3, 2022.
Ryan Kozdra of Mahwah, left, and Ryan Ford of Bergen Catholic wrestle in a 132-pound bout on Day 1 of the NJSIAA state wrestling championships in Atlantic City on Thursday, March 3, 2022.

Public high school coaches are now expected to recruit our own residents. The same athletes whose recreation coaches spent years acclimating them to the sport. This paradigm allows parents to think they have the edge now. Personally, I believe you must earn that status through good grades, respect, and notoriety from the coaches, teachers, and teammates. I’m a teacher before a coach. Sports are secondary. Grades come first.

There are other players (regardless of status or playing level) who earned their spot and respect of their teammates and coaches before your kid ever stepped foot on the high school mat. Regardless of ability and talent, they are still children and should be treated as such. However, in some cases parents have already made the decision, well before their child enters high school, to go non-public without even a discussion with the high school coaches or opportunities offered by their high school programs.

Reality of the problem and levels of competition

Critics say fundraising and strength of schedule are the answers to the problem. However, fund raising depends on the affluence of the town. Strength of schedule does not apply when a team is focusing on elementary basics. A team that is rebuilding in the real sense of the word and not rebuilding by recruiting top talent from everywhere. Money raised, new singlets, and a parade, coupled with out-of-state or high-powered schedules are not going to keep the best from staying in their hometowns. Just look at some of the top wrestling affluent publics in North Jersey that have so much to offer, they are still losing top prospects to non-publics.

High school sports have ceased competing on a fair playing field. A Division I college program is not D-III. Triple-A baseball teams are not Double-A, just as public-school wrestling programs are not non-public wrestling programs. For the critics, this is not about a participation trophy, it’s about fair play. Division III is not a participation trophy and public-school competition is not either. Both have their exclusive and respective place in competition.

In wrestling, you have league crossover matches. Public vs non-public. The results will show NO CONTEST! The final scores are one-sided blowouts.

In 2015, Bergen Catholic assembled a national-level team with four state champions and eight medalists. Could one have made a valid argument that they could be competitive at the college level, at least against an average Division III team? I know this is a hypothetical, but it’s worth consideration.

Bergen Catholic's Nick Suriano, right, beats Ty Agaisse of Debalton in the 2015 NJSIAA finals.
Bergen Catholic's Nick Suriano, right, beats Ty Agaisse of Debalton in the 2015 NJSIAA finals.

And let me be clear, this issue has nothing to do with ducking good opponents or teams. That’s not what I stand for, I despise it. Especially when opposing coaches do it when their team mathematically wrapped up the victory, and I know that’s not what the sport of wrestling teaches us.

The unbalance is real and proven with the best of both groups.

Southern Regional is clearly one of New Jersey’s best public wrestling programs. Southern is a true example of keeping a public school on the map for decades They dominated the Group 5 team tournament this year. But Delbarton defeated them, 48-12. Southern won four of 14 matches. Delbarton had four first-period pins and two technical falls. Had Southern competed against Bergen Catholic or St. Joseph, I would argue the results would have been similar. These kinds of results are equivalent to, hypothetically, Rutgers wrestling TCNJ. Two solid programs, but on completely different levels, and both are separated for that reason.

No fundraising, schedules, or coaches are going to change those types of outcomes (and wait until the new recruitment rules hit, it’ll be worse).

To further this point, check out the results from the 2023 Districts 1, 2 ,3, 5, and 6, all of which have North Jersey non-public schools. Most wrestlers from private schools made the finals. In fact, non-public schools accounted for 50 of the 70 individual champions and finished as the top-scoring team in all five districts.

These results demonstrate a clear, proven dominance when competing with public programs. The regional tournament has been dominated by non-public finals as well.

In last year’s state championships, notice the non-public representation on the podium throughout each weight class. Less than half the medalists came from public schools (54 out of 112). In fact, 113 pounds had seven non-public placewinners and 138 pounds had six, and 120 pounds had four. Almost all the rest had three. Last month's state championship placewinners produced similar lopsided results. In fact, the 120-pound weight class' top-eight place winners were all from non-public schools.

Now, look at North Jersey representation (Bergen and Passaic counties), where public schools are surrounded by five non-publics within 15 miles. Merely five public wrestlers went on to be placewinners. Only one from Bergen County, which is the most-populated county in the state and has approximately 40 teams. The results for the 2023 state championships resulted in even less representation from Bergen and Passaic counties.

Is there a solution?

So NJSIAA, here’s a simple solution that was most recently proposed in 2016 and was shot down by the then-state education commissioner David Hespe.

Create a non-public district 33-36, and a Region 9. Watch how quickly things change. That will be the end of non-public domination in wrestling. That will strengthen numbers on public teams that are currently dwindling due to lack of participation statewide, a serious problem, discussed in a recent article. The sport is in serious trouble!

Once you group the non-publics together, I believe the athletes and their parents will have second thoughts about where to continue their eighth grader’s athletic career. Why? Because not every wrestler will advance to the region and state tournaments. The D-III talent will stay at their public schools to better their chances of advancing and placing in the state tournament.

Wasted talent withering away on the sidelines will cease. The numbers will increase in public schools, and you’ll restore the public legacies once held in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

The best part is you’ll still crown a true state champion among all groups. Under this proposal, no student is denied school choice. You can still have your non-public and religious education if you so desire. You still maintain New Jersey’s high national ranking. Club wrestling and privates will continue to aid our best wrestlers.

But the 3-8 medal rounds will no longer be dominated by non-public representation. It brings back notoriety to their respective hometowns and creates that hometown hero who could help build a rebuilding program. There is nothing undermining about this. By creating a Region 9, there’s no loss in talent. The best will still be crowned the best.

The argument of non-publics having to travel longer distances is laughable – Newton, Sparta, and Pope John regularly drive an hour-plus to Dumont for districts. There’s travel involved in driving from Northwest Jersey to Atlantic City, or to other high-caliber tournaments in the tri-state area. Bergen Catholic, Delbarton and St. Joseph all traveled hundreds of miles out-of-state this year for matches.

If you can fundraise for trips cross-country, I don’t see the difference to a one- or two-time trip to Region 9. New Jersey isn’t a terribly big state. Traveling an hour-plus is normal. In addition, Region 9 could be centrally located. Is this really an argument?

The solution is not another district or region realignment. This has proven to be a band-aid time and time again. This will NOT quiet the public-school coaches because it doesn’t account for overnight pop-up non-publics who become wrestling schools. It doesn’t account for the different levels of play. My gut tells me more non-publics will pop up, especially now that recruitment is legal at the lower grade levels

Keep in mind that these year-to-year fluctuations in non-public success plays havoc on district realignment every two years.

A new obstacle - NJSIAA and the open recruitment policy

Now that the NJSIAA will likely allow the recruitment of middle school athletes from wherever, I foresee non-publics teams consisting of wrestlers not just from all over the state, but from all over the country. What’s to stop them? Homegrown New Jersey talent will be contested yearly by outsiders across the border and beyond.

No more speculation, no more “trying to prove” the reason behind the move. The NJSIAA has finally come to terms with this decade old issue. “It’s just not policeable,” NJSIAA chief compliance officer Paul Popadiuk said at an NJSIAA meeting, finally admitting publicly what’s been known by the NJSIAA for years. “It’s happening in a lot of senses anyway. Kids are approached as soon as they get their flags on for flag football and told where they should go to school."

Recruitment will be free to roam throughout the state and up and down I-95. Open college recruitment rules have hit New Jersey. It’s wild when you think of how NJSIAA is addressing the problem.

These new recruiting rules are even more of a reason to have a Region 9. Think of all the assembled dream teams throughout the state? Think of the dormant non-public athletic programs that can now, through legal means, recruit themselves back to life. Perhaps even new non-publics will emerge? New dream teams on top of what we already have, an even more unbalanced level of competition.

Is this the 21st century vision? Is that the direction? Do I dare suggest two individual state champions, public and non-public? You think the public vs. non public data is bad now, just wait a couple years.

Critics say a Region 9 will take away from New Jersey’s top wrestling status, how about having a podium of 14 wrestlers from multiple states outside of New Jersey? Is that kind of notoriety we want for New Jersey? That’s diluting our core, in my opinion. I have a problem with that, especially because we are dealing with children, where education should be the priority. New Jersey public schools are the best in the nation, specifically the one I work at. That’s homegrown and something to be proud of!

Final thoughts

If student-athletes committed to their hometown public school – in the town they’ve been part of since they were little kids – they could be honored, remembered, and inked in history, having a lasting impact for being a top athlete, or part of a special group. They could build a town reputation and dynasty for their sport in their hometown.

Recently, two-time state champion Evan Mougalian did it for Kinnelon.  He cemented his name in history as the best for his small local high school.

Evan Mougalian of Kinnelon wins his 126-pound semifinal bout on Day 2 of the NJSIAA state wrestling championships in Atlantic City on Thursday, March 4, 2022.
Evan Mougalian of Kinnelon wins his 126-pound semifinal bout on Day 2 of the NJSIAA state wrestling championships in Atlantic City on Thursday, March 4, 2022.

"Everyone kept reminding me it's my senior year. I just hope that I built a legacy here at my school and people remember me," Mougalian told "I do think everyone knows they can do it for their hometown and it's good to be one of those guys to do it."

Just a couple week’s ago, we witnessed Greeley, Colorado’s hometown hero Andrew Alirez win the 141-pound NCAA Division I title for Northern Colorado. He could have gone anywhere after high school, a five-star recruit, the big names all wanted him, but he decided to stay home.

Maybe it’s best said by Myles Leonard, a state medalist at Waldwick/Midland Park.

"I trusted my coaches," Leonard, who placed eighth back in 2021, told last year. "I didn't want to be another guy at a Catholic school. They get how many region finalists? How many kids to A.C.? It's more special when you do it at a school like Waldwick, who doesn't get that every year."

Are there outliers or exceptions to the rule? Of course. My local high school likely has a top draft choice for the MLB this spring. But my focus is the aggregate. What’s happened to the sense of community? The sense of being part of a local culture that develops early on with friends both athletically and socially?

This article originally appeared on NJ wrestling: Region 9 would fix high school competition | Opinion