TRENTON – Jackson Memorial has a great wrestling program – a great wrestling tradition.
But the fact of the matter is, the Jaguars’ opponent in the NJSIAA Group IV final Saturday was Phillipsburg.
And the Stateliners have New Jersey’s greatest program. They have New Jersey’s greatest tradition.
Phillipsburg’s 38-12 thumping of Jackson Sunday earned the Stateliners Group title number 19.
Why are they so darn exceptional? How have they sustained their success over so many decades when other great schools like South Plainfield and Absegami and Long Branch and High Point take their turn at the top for a few years and then step back a couple of steps?
“It’s embedded in their town. It’s embedded in their genes. It’s part of who they are,” former Brick Memorial coach Dan O’Cone said.
Jackson Memorial beat Phillipsburg for the Group IV title four years ago. This Jaguars team gets an ‘A’ for effort, and this is a very good Jaguars team. But it is probably not the most athletic Jaguars team and that meant they needed to be near-perfect to beat P’burg on the Sun National Bank Center main stage … near-perfect was just asking too much.
Case in point: It took the second period of the fourth bout before Jackson Memorial scored anything but a takedown. P’Burg is 38-1 over two years, losing to Howell just after it got back from the Beast of the East tournament in December. The Stateliners didn’t give an inch.
How do these guys stay so good?
“We take our kids to the Beast of the East, we take them to the King of the Mountain, we take them to the toughest places you can wrestle,” said Phillipsburg coach Dave Post, a former Stateliner wrestler. “There is no environment our kids cannot handle. We wrestle in front of a sold-out home crowd every match (1,800 fans).”
Jackson Memorial was clinging onto the hope of a third consecutive tournament comeback heading into the 106-pound bout. But the 106-pound slap of the mat when Kyle Markus pinned Matt McGowen broke the Jaguars’ back. P’Burg was on top, 28-12.
Jackson lost some focus. Phillipsburg never blinked.
“They don’t make mistakes,” Jackson Memorial coach Aaron Gottesman coach. “They impose their will in a way I didn’t think could happen to us this year. But, no excuses, they just outwrestled us today.”
Jackson Memorial, Southern and Brick Memorial have all won Group championship wars against Phillipsburg. The Liners can be beaten. But they always show up. They always compete. They wrestle rough. And they often prevail.
“We have guys, guys that wrestled for us, that come back and have given their lives to us, committed themselves to our program their entire careers,” Post said. “Our youth coaches, our volunteers, our middle school coach has been there for 22 years.”
And that is why Phillisburg is the constant. The team that is always in the championship mix. Always near the top of the state standings.
Some newspapers from up north called P’Burg a 13-point favorite against Jackson Memorial. The Liners won by 26. They doubled up. The Jaguars lost the prematch flip against both Brick and Clearview and overcame bad matchups to reach the group final. They won the flip against the Stateliners … but could not overcome everything that Phillipsburg did right.
“Yes, Phillipsburg does have a good program, a good tradition, but they also have six elementary schools to draw from,” said Southern Regional coach John Stout, who lost to the Liners in the Group IV final last year. “People in that community love that program, they give it so much support.
“We were able to beat them the first five times we wrestled them, they got us back the last two.”
In the press room, or talking to fellow reporters around the wrestling mats, when P’Burg is brought up … there is an assumption that the Stateliners are a different kind of opponent. A team to be analyzed and considered somewhat differently from most schools.
Sunday, the Jags don’t want to hear this, but they were simply up against a better team.