By EWARD KENSIK
kensik@montclairlocal.news

It was a deflating season for the Montclair wrestling program in 2021-22.

There was plenty of hope to start, as Mounties head coach Eugene Kline was looking for a great campaign with a big turnout after the abbreviated previous season. 

Kline saw his team number swell to 40 just as December was rolling around.

But then came the omicron variant of COVID-19, and the air came out of the balloon of promise.

Next thing he knew, about half of the wrestlers backed out.

“I was not happy with the season because we were so much more than what our record shows,” said Kline, whose team finished with a 6-9 mark. “Had we not had so many wrestlers pull out of the season, we would have been a completely different team.”

Despite the obstacles, the Mounties grabbed the eighth seed in the North 1 Group 5 state section. They dropped the state team opener to top-seeded Livingston, 75-6, but they had made the state playoffs and gotten that experience.

“We hadn’t planned on making the sections,” Kline said. “There were two other teams who were in position to qualify before us, but they opted out, which meant that we were in.  The one positive take-away was that our kids had the opportunity to see what the atmosphere was like and how high the competition level was.”

The Mounties ended the season on a high note, as they defeated Barringer, 57-18, on Feb. 9 to send the seniors out with a win. In the victory the Mounties registered five pins, by senior Ihsan Marshall-Falaise (285), junior Nelson Clermont (215), senior Noah Dnistrian (190), junior Jesse “Ziggy” Pepper (126) and senior Ross Berkowitz (113).

Kline thought that his team wrestled at its best in a meet on Feb. 5 at Nutley, where it defeated the host Raiders, 34-33, and Orange, 42-33.

“We had several of our young and inexperienced kids come through with wins,” said Kline, who pointed to the 126-pound match against Nutley.  “One of our best wrestlers [Peppers] had a tough match against one of Nutley’s best wrestlers [Franco Graffeo] and lost by a major decision (16-4) as opposed to a tech or fall, which kept us in the match.”

The Mounties collected three pins, by Berkowitz, sophomore Finn Jones (144) and Dnistrian.

Individually, Berkowitz was the lone Montclair wrestler to reach the state individual regionals. Unfortunately for the senior, it was one and out, as he dropped a 6-3 decision to Livingston’s Jason Quirk. 

Berkowitz came out aggressive to register the first two points of the match, but as the bout went on, Quirk took control. Berkowitz finished with a 15-7 record while also grabbing a fourth-place finish in the Essex County Tournament.

In terms of honors, Berkowitz was named to the All-SEC Central Division first team. Two other Montclair wrestlers garnered Central first-team nods, Dnistrian and Al-Tamir Coco (285). Dnistrian, who finished sixth in the ECT, was 14-6, while Coco registered a 6-10 record and took eighth place in the ECT.

Pepper and Clermont collected All-Central second-team nods. They just missed advancing to the individual regionals by finishing fourth at the districts.