There was a time where Ron Laycock did not think Toms River South was going to leave the wrestling wilderness.
Laycock, who graduated from Toms River South in 1986 and was then an assistant coach to head coaches Chris Johnson and Jeff Gauthier for four years in the 1990s, had applied for the job when Johnson retired from coaching.
Then, when Gauthier retired as a head coach, Laycock decided not to apply.
“I really felt there wasn’t much hope in the program,” Laycock said. “We really didn’t have a feeder program. The middle school was struggling to get kids from our side of town out.”
Laycock knew all about how good Toms River South’s wrestling program was at one time.
He had grown up watching the Indians when they won the first four Shore Conference Tournaments from 1975-78 and had three state champions in 1977 under legendary coach John DeMarco. He was a member of the 1984 team, coached by DeMarco, that was defeated by Brick Memorial in the NJSIAA South Group III championship match and was a three-time district runner-up.
It pained Laycock greatly to see the program fall off the edge of the cliff in the late 1980s and through a good part of the 1990s. Laycock said during a 10-year period from the late-1980s through the mid-1990s, Toms River South won a grand total of 32 matches.
About a month before the start of the 1997-98 season, the Indians were still without a head coach. The South tradition in wrestling appeared to be one permanently reserved for the scrap books.
“I ran into an assistant superintendent and he said, ‘I hope, you can help us out.’ ” Laycock said. “I kind of became the coach by default.”
It took Laycock some time, but gradually the program began to improve.
“It was definitely rough getting going, but we were able to recruit a group of kids who were athletes and turned into wrestlers,” said Laycock, who is assisted by former Toms River South wrestler Joe Adelizzi Jr. and former Toms River East wrestlers Paul Sternlieb and Devin Mesanko,
Then, in the fall of 2010, a freshman class entered Toms River South that everyone knew was good enough to return the Indians to glory.
Among those freshmen were B.J. Clagon and Kevin Corrigan.
Clagon would go on to win state championships in 2012 and 2013. He would become a three-time state finalist and the school’s first four-time state placewinner. He became the Indians’ first state champion since the late Darnell Myres won at heavyweight in 1984 and joined the immortal Jeffrey Parker in 1976 and ’77 as the school’s only two-time state champions.
Corrigan would go on to become a state runner-up in 2013, a state fifth-place finisher in 2012 and a three-time state quarterfinalist.
However, while Toms River South became a consistent top 10 team in the Shore, it still had trouble clearing the NJSIAA sectional final hurdle. It lost to Timber Creek in the South III final from 2010-12. It also was defeated by Hammonton in the 2009 South III final. Laycock said Toms River South had been 0-7 in sectional finals before this year. He said he had been involved in six of those sectional finals as either a wrestler or head coach.
But, this was the year, the Indians, officially, returned to glory. They defeated traditional Shore Conference powers Brick Memorial and Southern in the same season for the first time. They shared the Class A South championship with Brick Memorial for their first divisional title since 1982 and advanced to the Shore Conference Tournament final for the first time since 1978.
The exclamation point to the season came on Feb. 15 when the Indians routed Timber Creek, 37-14, for their first sectional wrestling title.
“If you saw our kids reaction after that match, it was really for everybody,” Laycock said.
Toms River South advanced to the Group III state final, where it was defeated by powerful South Plainfield. The Indians wound up 24-4 and ranked No. 2 in the Asbury Park Press Top 10, No. 4 in the New Jersey Wrestling Coaches Association Top 25 and No. 6 in the New Jersey Wrestling Writers Association Top 20.
Then Clagon’s second state championship was the fitting way to close an historic season for a proud program.
“Just the fact that I can have an argument with John DeMarco over who coached the best wrestler in South history is pretty cool,” Laycock said.
Toms River South is no longer in the wrestling wilderness.