B.J. Clagon has no doubt in his mind that he can be a repeat winner in Atlantic City.
“I definitely can do it,” said the Toms River South senior, who last year became the first South wrestler in 28 years to win a state championship. “I want to do what I did last year but better. I just have to keep working hard, push myself to be the best, keep my endurance up, and just do it.”
With a young man who went 41-0 en route to capturing the crown at 138 pounds, it’s hard to fathom just how much he can get better. But this season, Clagon is moving up a weight class, to 145, which is always cluttered with quality wrestlers, particularly once the competition converges on Boardwalk Hall in March.
“I’d have to say Troy Heilman (of South Plainfield) is the biggest threat,” said Clagon, who on Saturday started the season with a bang by pinning all his opponents in 1:06 or less on the way to winning the 145 title at the TCNJ Pride tournament. “But I’ve improved on my high-crotch and double-leg takedowns, and my shots are better than last year, so I believe I’m prepared to wrestle anybody.”
Camden Catholic’s T.J. Miller, the state 135-pound champion in 2011 and state third-place finisher at 145 last year, is another top contender at 145.
Of course, March is a long way off and the regular season has to come first. And in addition to being a prominent force on the mat, Clagon will have to be as much a leader and extra coach in the wrestling room if the Indians are not only to compete for the Shore Conference Class A South division title, but also the Shore Conference Tournament and NJSIAA t South Group III and overall Group III championships.
“He’s great to have in the room,” said head coach Ron Laycock, whose Indians are ranked fourth in the Asbury Park Press Top 10 preseason poll. “There’s not much we, as coaches, have to say to him, because he’s already like another coach on the team. He’s a benefit in a lot of ways.”
One thing Layock and his coaching staff will have to do during the season is to make sure Clagon is prepared for when he does get to wrestle, since many coaches, particularly within the conference, may try to avoid him in order to alleviate giving up too many points.
With 40 of his victories coming by way of pin, forfeit, technical fall or major decision last season, it’s easy to understand why opposing coaches may steer clear of Clagon, who has a chance to become the Shore Conference’s 19th multiple state champion and second at Toms River South. Jeffrey Parker in 1976 and 1977 is the other Toms River South wrestler to win two state championships.
“We’re going to bump him around a bit this season and try to get him on the other team’s best guy at 145 or 152,” Laycock said. “And obviously, if B.J. wrestles up against a quality kid, that’s going to help him for later in the season. But we’ve also told B.J. to prepare to get ducked a lot. Most teams probably won’t throw out young kids against him, so he needs to be ready for some forfeits too.”
Still, Clagon’s influence within the room can be a boon to other wrestlers on the team — the ones who may face the guys opposing coaches move away from Clagon — along with Clagon’s star power in the community.
“There’s no question that other guys on the team will reap the benefits if other coaches get matchups that keep their kids away from B.J.,” Laycock said. “We definitely hope the kids in the room now benefit from having B.J. in the lineup. But more so than that, with all the attention he gets, we think it can help us later, as the fifth- and sixth-graders see him as a source of inspiration and aspire to be like him.”
Clagon knows lots of people will be watching how he measures up to some of the Shore Conference greats and that the pressure’s on, but he’s not concerned about it.
“I know I have to win in big team matches, and I know a lot of people will expect me to repeat in Atlantic City,” he said. “But that’s OK, because I don’t mind the pressure. I’m going to keep pushing my team to be the best, keep pushing myself to be the best, and just stay confident that it’s all going to turn out well.”