by Andrew Garda

WEST ORANGE—While they didn’t win the title at the Essex County Wrestling Tournament on Thursday, Jan. 16 and Friday Jan. 17, the Montclair High School wrestling team continued to show tremendous promise and improvement.

Three wrestlers managed to battle their way into wrestle-backs on Friday, giving them the opportunity to land on the podium in fifth place. While only one — Zakai Mack in the 138 pound class — managed to make it, Sebastien Fortune finished in sixth place in the 285-pound bracket and Ross Berkowitz finished seventh at 106 pounds.

Head coach Eugene Kline was proud of his wrestlers.

“Listen, this is better than what I thought we would have gotten,” he said after the final match for his team. “We’re just so green.  For as good as a tournament as Sebastien had, he’s only a second year kid. For as good a tournament as Ross had, he’s only a 10th grader. Who is well under the weight limit, he’s not even in the 10s yet. So it’s a process.”

Mack won his first-round match on Thursday with a 5-1 decision over Nutley’s Dean Polewka, but he fell quickly to Irvington’s Carl Banks in the quarterfinal round. The senior bounced back with a dominant 8-2 win over Livingston’s Tyler Stolfi. The match was a bit of a battle early, but Mack continually tossed his opponent through the air and eventually wore him down. 

The fifth-place match against Verona’s Sam Zamloot, a bout that was a rematch from a dual meet the previous week. That time Mack lost when, with a three-point lead, he was pinned.

This went differently.

The rematch was a long one, as it had to stop multiple times due to Zamloot’s bloody nose. Despite the stoppages, Mack never lost focus and during the final round, and lengthened his lead on his way to a 9-4 win.

“This was a little bit of a redemption match for him and he needs that,” Kline said. “Because [Zamloot] is going to win some matches and so Mack needs to keep that criteria over him. But [Mack] looked really good even with all those stoppages of time.” 

Kline thinks that the sky's the limit with Mack.

“You know, he's a focused wrestler, he’s a technical wrestler and he can battle with people,” said Kline. “He has a couple little things that we have to try to clean up before district time, but for the most part, he's a pretty good wrestler that he can go a little bit.”

Fortune also managed to win his first-round match, in his case with a late pin of Cedar grove’s Sebastiano Locascio. Unfortunately, the win-streak he had built in January ended in the next match, as he was pinned by Nutley’s Billy Searle.

Searle went on to take second place overall, while Fortune went on to Friday’s consolation round. As has been common of Fortune’s wins, his pin of Berlinski Israel from Orange was quick and brutal, coming at the 47-second mark.

Fortune had a much tougher time in the fifth place match against Irvington’s Justin Evans, though, taking an arm across the face which seemed to rattle him. The two battled back and forth, but Evans finally got the upper hand with a late pin, winning fifth-place while Fortune landed in sixth.

Sophomore Ross Berkowitz throws a hold on Newark Academy’s Adin Fastov during a 106 pound seventh place match. The Mountie dominated Fastov, overwhelming the Minuteman for an 8-0 major decision at the Essex County Tournament.
Sophomore Ross Berkowitz throws a hold on Newark Academy’s Adin Fastov during a 106 pound seventh place match. The Mountie dominated Fastov, overwhelming the Minuteman for an 8-0 major decision at the Essex County Tournament.

Like the other two wrestlers, the diminutive Ross Berkowitz took his first round match in a 10-9 decision over Jaiden Mendez of West Orange, but fell to Livington’s Aiden Carmody in an 8-0 major decision. 

Berkowitz seemed to struggle again in his first consolation match on Friday, ultimately getting pinned at 5:05. 

While Berkowitz was significantly shorter and lighter than Nutley’s Franco Graffeo, Kline said that wasn’t the main issue.

“That was some of it, but Ross wasn’t ready to wrestle,” Kline said. “He’s still young and still trying to understand that [the] warmup is actually [the] warmup to get a match in, so that when [he] actually has to wrestle, [he’s] ready to go. And he was warming up, but he didn’t break enough of a sweat.”

He was much more ready in his seventh-place match against Newark Academy’s Adin Fastov. From the beginning of the bout, Berkowitz dominated Fastov, constantly getting the upper hand and scoring points. By the time the third period ran out, Fastov looked desperate to get off the mat and Berkowitz came away with a major decision, 8-0 win.

“[Berkowitz] looked ready to wrestle. I’m not just saying he was ready to wrestle because he won,” Kline said. “His facial expressions were different. He looked a little more focused and locked in. He was warmed up, which was different and got right to the action. And you can see that he's growing a little bit, that he’s listening to what we’re saying so he can put that into action.”

Kline said that if he can integrate what he is learning, it will help him overcome being light in his weight class.

“He’s just a sophomore. And today, the weight class is what, 109? Because it’s usually 106 but you get two pounds for growth and a pound this week, so he’s giving up a lot of weight wrestling everyone who is bigger than him,” Kline said.

While the Mounties would have liked to add more wrestlers to the podium — Mack’s fifth place win was the highest Mountie finish — Kline was very happy with the overall progress of the team but knows they can do more. Especially considering that the wrestlers who beat these three Mounties on Day 1 all finished on the podium, with Searle finishing second in his class, Banks landing in third and Carmody taking fourth place.

“You know, today I had a long conversation with our guys before we came here about the importance of the off-season in becoming a wrestler. A lot of kids here, they’re year-round wrestlers. Even though they play other sports, they do this year-round. And in order for us to change the tide in Montclair, our kids have got to make this stuff important too and spend some time in the off-season and then we will see the growth.”

The busy dual meet season continues for the Mounties, who will hope to qualify for the NJSIAA North 1, Group V team tournament, which gets underway Monday, Feb. 3.

Before then, they’ll visit Hackettstown for a quad meet this Saturday, Jan. 25, before hosting Newark East Side on Alumni Night this Wednesday, Jan. 29.