With one thunderous pound of the mat, a clear message was sent to the South Jersey wrestling community: Highland wrestling is back.
Hosting a playoff match for the first time in more than 15 years, the No. 3 seed Tartans took it to No. 6 Gateway, 41-25, in an NJSIAA South Jersey Group 2 quarterfinal.
Junior Tom Nolan sealed the match with two bouts remaining when he pinned his opponent in the first period, much to the delight of a packed gymnasium.
“We haven’t hosted a group match since 1996 when I was actually here,” Highland graduate and current head coach Mike Davidson said. “The environment then was just like this. It’s good for the school, good for the program and good for the community. In Highland wrestling, the tradition is so rich. You look up in the stands and see guys that wrestled in the 70s, the '83 team, '93 team, '96 team. I mean, it’s great to see. They come up to you and say, ‘Your kids are tough.’ It’s great to have the pride back. That means a lot.”
The scene was everything Highland wrestlers could have hoped for leading up to the big match. Not only were the stands filled with vocal fans, but the school’s cheerleaders and pep band also gave their support.
“The support gives us another level of high; it gives us another level of feeling,” senior Martell Harrison said. “It gives us so much more energy. (When this) place rocks, it makes us rock. It makes us wrestle that much harder.”
Harrison, who also pinned his opponent in the first period, has been waiting for a playoff victory his whole career. Getting to experience this type of success his senior year has caused him to wish he had more time left in a Highland uniform.
“I’m a senior so being as though I am going out as one of the kids that brought it back is the best feeling in the world,” said Harrison. “I wish I was a freshman. It’s a great feeling (and) it’s a great time to be a Highland Tartan.”
Highland jumped out to a 18-3 lead thanks to pins from Jordan Warren, Harrison and Luke Siegfried. Gateway fought back to within 18-16, but sophomore Nick Theisin turned the momentum back on the Highland side for good with a 15-0 tech fall. Joe Rodano followed with a pin and Ricky Sheldon and Sheldon Morris scored decisions to set the stage for Nolan to clinch it. His match with Jashon Moore started a little chippy, but Nolan settled in and clinched the victory.
“It got a little physical in the beginning of the match, but I just wrestled and stuck through it,” Nolan said. “I did what I had to do for the team. I had to get the six (points).”
From there the celebration was on.
“It’s a great moment for the team and the community as a whole,” said Harrison. “It’s been a long time coming and the old Highland is back.”
The Tartans (23-3) have been able to achieve great success despite a roster littered with underclassmen. Davidson said youth was never an issue since he knew the younger athletes were not short on experience.
“I knew the youth we had were tested,” Davidson said. “I coached the youth program the last five years with my brother-in-law and Tommy Myers, which is now 130 strong. You know the future is bright when you get a feeder program like that. I’ve known the kids since they were 5, 6 years old. … I knew that they were battle-tested and I knew they were ready.”
Next up for Highland is a rematch with Clayton in the semifinals. Clayton won the regular-season meeting, 30-26, but things were a bit different then. At the time of the match, Harrison was dealing with an injured shoulder and Nolan wasn’t even on the squad.
“I wasn’t in the lineup and I heard they have another kid who wasn’t in too, so I mean, we are going to go out and wrestle 110 percent,” Nolan said. “That’s all we can do and hopefully we will come out with the W.”