By EDWARD KENSIK
kensik@montclairlocal.news

There was plenty of hope for the Montclair wrestling team going into the 2021-22 season.

Head coach Eugene Kline saw his numbers swell to almost 40 wrestlers in the program when everything was supposed to get going in December. This after only a handful hit the mat in the 2021 season.

But like many other Montclair sports programs, there was a pause because of COVID that would stretch for a month. The Mounties did not have their first dual match until Jan. 14.

A bigger loss was that Kline saw his team shrink, as 21 wrestlers did not return for the bulk of the season.

Despite that, Kline and the Mounties played in the North 1 Group 5 state team tournament on Monday, Feb. 7.

While Montclair as the eighth seed was thoroughly thrashed by top-seeded Livingston, 75-6, the fact that the Mounties were there was a plus, leading to high hopes for the 2022-23 season. 

“We were not expecting to make the state team tournament, but we weren’t going to not show up,” Kline said.

Senior Noah Dnistrian said before the match that he was happy to compete in the state team tournament.

“It’s a chance to prove that we have guys that can compete with a higher-level team like Livingston,” Dnistrian said.

Montclair had only five wrestlers go against Livingston — seniors Ross Berkowitz, Jesse Pepper, Ihsan Falaise and Dnistrian, and junior Nelson Clermont — with only a forfeit win to show for it on the scoreboard. The forfeit winner was Falaise at heavyweight. 

Montclair senior Ross Berkowitz squaring off with Livingston's Shaun Quirk in the 126-pound bout in the state team tournament at Livingston. (EDWARD KENSIK/STAFF)
Montclair senior Ross Berkowitz squaring off with Livingston's Shaun Quirk in the 126-pound bout in the state team tournament at Livingston. (EDWARD KENSIK/STAFF)
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Four of those five wrestlers competed for the Mounties in the Essex County Tournament. “We thought those five wrestlers could handle the pressure of a big meet,” Kline said.

The five who competed in the ECT were Berkowitz, Pepper, senior Al-Tamir Coco, Dnistrian and Clermont. 

Four of those five medaled at the county tournament, which was held on Jan. 22. Berkowitz had the best result of the five, as he came in fourth at 113 pounds. In the 126-pound weight class, Pepper grabbed seventh place after winning through a forfeit. Dnistrian came in sixth at 190 despite being pinned in the fifth-place match by West Essex’s Luke Struss at 4:34. 

Coco grabbed an eighth-place medal at 285 after being pinned by Cedar Grove’s Mark Ratel at 4:32 in the seventh-place match.

Clermont was ousted in the county tournament in the pre-quarterfinals at 215 pounds. The junior lost a tough 2-1 decision to Seton Hall Prep’s Joel Walker.

For Kline the opening dual match of the season and Senior Night were other highlights this year.

With a pared-down roster, Montclair defeated East Orange, 33-22, on Jan. 14. 

“I would say East Orange [was a highlight] because that was our first time on the mat in almost a month and our first dual,” the coach said. “We tried to put together a lineup to compete, which was filled with first-time wrestlers, and we were able to go out and compete.”

Dnistrian said the win over East Orange was at the top of his list this season. “It gave underclassmen and new wrestlers a chance to see how a match works, and it was great to start off the season with a win,” he said.

And then there was Senior Night on Feb. 2, where the Mounties defeated Paterson Kennedy, 42-18. 

“It was the last night that our seniors, who were still in the program, would have the opportunity to wrestle in Montclair in front of their family and friends,” Kline said.

The coach lamented that 21 wrestlers opted not to finish the entire season.

“At the end of the [Kennedy] match, I looked in the stands and realized that there were 10 kids, most of which were seniors, came to support their former teammates,” he said. “As I counted the kids in the stands who wrestled for me, I thought about how much of a different team we would be if those kids and a few others were in the practice room and on the mat for Mounties.”

The original numbers showed that the sport is ballooning in town, he said.. “Regarding the growth of Montclair wrestling, it seems to be working, and we are constantly trying to come up with creative ways to spark participation,” Kline said.

Despite the loss to Livingston, Montclair still has work to do. The Mounties were scheduled to make up a contest at Barringer on Wednesday, Feb. 9, with results coming after press deadline. The state individual district tournament is at Randolph, starting on Saturday, Feb. 19.

This post has been updated to correctly describe Montclair senior Ross Berkowitz as the individual in a photo; he had previously been misidentified.