by Andrew Garda

For first-year Montclair High School wrestling coach Eugene Kline and his team, it’s all about the learning curve.

While the Mounties did well at the Clifton Mustang Invitational on Saturday, Dec. 16, Kline says they need to keep improving.

“We only put six kids into the tournament and we placed six,” Kline said at a recent practice. “Six of them were in the finals, but we lost all six in the finals,” including some one-point matches.

“That’s just unacceptable,” he said, “and that I’m going to make sure I work on. There’s no reason we should ever lose a one-point match.”

Kline said one thing his wrestlers need to understand is that even when you win a match, there’s always room to improve. That goes for both his seniors — he has only two — as well as the kids newer to the sport.

“At this point, I’m still trying to get them to be my kids and understand the language that I’m using when I’m on the mat,” Kline said. “So that we’re all on the same page. The good thing is, the kids I had in that varsity tournament know how to wrestle. We just have to polish them up and get the language familiar.”

As in any sport, different coaches use different terminology for the same or similar concepts. While Kline might call a wrestling maneuver one thing, former coach Mike Freedman may have used a different term. So the returning wrestlers need to adjust.

“I’m new to them, and we’re developing a relationship right now,” Kline said. “They don’t know some of the words that I’m using.”

That’s just one of the many challenges facing Kline. Another is low numbers. Kline had been hoping to put together a program with 40 kids but while 45 kids showed up to a preseason meeting, 25 are on the roster, with five others who may be added once they get clearance.

“I really wanted to fill all the weight classes,” Kline said. “I felt that was my first order of business. Let’s not forfeit. And while we do have the kids to put in so we don’t have to forfeit weight classes, I’m not going to put one of my first-year kids into the slaughterhouse, so to speak.”

Kline feels it’s one thing to throw a wrestler into the match if they have some experience, but unfair to toss in a kid who doesn’t have any idea what he’s doing. He wants kids to love the sport, and while that certainly doesn’t mean he has to coddle them, putting them into a situation where they can be successful is a must.

If he can make the team successful, the numbers will take care of themselves.

Which brings it back to improving technique.

Monday’s practice saw Kline showing his charges several ways to break a hold, and combining it with an earlier exercise where the wrestlers moved around the mat to keep their opponent from getting leverage. The coach, who is also Montclair’s offensive line coach in football, used the same approach he used on the practice field during the Mounties’ recent championship season. He walks the kids through the process, explaining each move multiple times, and runs it through with multiple different kids himself.

Then he sets them loose on each other, critiquing form and technique as they work to put his example into action.

Most of Kline’s wrestlers are somewhere in the middle of the overall weight categories, between 120 and 196 pounds. Kline said the team was low on wrestlers under 120 and over 200.

Kline said it was easier to coach up heavyweight kids than it was the lightweights.

“The curve is smaller,” he said. “The big guys aren’t doing the same things that a Jacy Jones will do. I can take a football kid, teach him a few things and have him competitive and win matches.”

For a lightweight wrestler, like Jones, who is in his senior year, agility, speed and quickness are important. A lightweight match can move incredibly fast, with opponents holding and reversing holds at a lightning pace. To do that takes not just skill but also a lot of time, so it is tougher for Kline to find kids who can just step in.

Kline said he planned to grow the program by reaching out to the Montclair community at large.

“We have some ideas to bridge the gap between the rec program and the high school program, which we’re starting to do,” he said. “I actually reached out to some alumni to see if we can bridge that gap as well. Let’s get those guys back in.”

Building the program as a family is important to Kline, who said that was the atmosphere when he wrestled in high school. If he can do that here, Kline believes the program can flourish.

“I want to make wrestling important in this school,” Kline said. “I want to get loud music, I want to get people in the stands. These kids — I want their friends to come see them wrestle as well as their parents. Let’s make it something special. We’re working toward that.”