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Irvington coaches Lawrence Bender (left) and Kyle Steele (right) point to the Blue Knights' 2019 Essex County Wrestling Tournament 220-pound champion Nashawn Brooks, who is first from his school to win ECT title since 2014. He decisioned Cade Byrne of Verona. (Photo by Mustafa Hooten-D1MediaPro)

Irvington Wrestling Stays Vibrant
Thanks To Its Dedicated Coaches

By Steve Tober

WEST ORANGE- Kyle Steele is not only the best dressed coach among his Essex County Tournament coaching brethren, he’s also one of the most persistent teachers in the wrestling room where he continues to produce his share of very competent Irvington Blue Knight grapplers.

The 2019 Outstanding Wrestler in the ECT was Irvington’s senior Nashawn Brooks (16-5), who has dreams of landing a football scholarship for next year, but in the meantime is very appreciative of where he has come as a grappler thanks to the tutelage he has received day-in and day-out on the wrestling mats.

“My coaches are terrific and they continue to inspire me each and every day to be the best I can be,” said Brooks, who decisioned Verona’s Cade Byrne to win the 220-pound ECT title on Friday night at the Codey Arena. “When I have to reach back for a little extra when I find myself in a tough spot, I think of what coach Steele tells me about working harder and digging deep and that’s exactly what I try and do.”

Steele and assistant Lawrence Bender intently watched Brooks go to work in his ECT championship bout and then had to make it over to coach their other Blue Knight in a final, junior Carl Banks (17-1), who would up being decisioned by West Essex’s terrific senior Mike Ruane, 9-4, in the 132-pound championship bout.

“For Brooks to win an ECT title is a big-time honor for our program and one of our first county champs in a while (last Blue Knight copping a ECT crown being Garland Barham at 285 pounds in 2014) and he has definitely done all the things you have to do in order to be successful at this level,” said Steele, who was a county champ himself back in 1996. “Our kids who stick with wrestling are a dedicated bunch and we do whatever we can in order to make them the very best wrestlers they can be and - fortunately – we’ve had our share of very good individuals through the years.”

Another impressive aspect of the Irvington wrestling program is the ardent fan base that was very vocal with their support for their Blue Knights on Friday night at Codey Arena.

“Our fans are the best,” said Brooks. “They always come out and support us and they give me a lot of energy with the way they get behind us.”

Columbia and Montclair Mat Programs Persevere   

Speaking of unsung wrestling programs that continue to strive and work hard in their respective rooms, Columbia and Montclair also have done terrific jobs led most recently by their coaches Mike Freedman for the Cougars and Eugene Kline for the Mounties.

“The Essex County Tournament is a great experience for our kids, many of whom are still learning about wrestling,’ said Kline, who had been a 10-year assistant at Columbia under the legendary Hal Garwin before assuming the head job at Montclair last winter when Freedman moved from the Mountie wrestling room to take the reins at Columbia. “We have a bunch of talented kids and I see a very bright future for our program.”

Third-seeded Dominic Diaz (15-5) was the top finisher for Montclair, placing third at 182 pounds when he pinned 14th-seeded Brian DiPalma in the third-fourth place bout. Sixth-seeded Terrell White (18-2) was a fifth-place finisher at 170 when he survived a terrific battle to decision West Essex’s fourth-seeded Peter Kenny, 15-14.

Columbia had a finalist in top-seeded Devin Rocha(19-4) who was pinned by second-seeded David Guerra (20-2) in 7:22 in their 145-pound final.

Freedman, a true gym rat who lives and breathes wrestling, was a former scholastic standout at Bloomfield under Sam Fusaro, and is assisted this season by former Newark Academy star Patrick Gerish, who was a county champ in 2014 followed by a fine collegiate career at the University of Maryland.

Gerish’s former Maryland teammate, Lou Mascola, is one of only 10 wrestlers to be a 4-time ECT champion (2008-2011), and he is currently one of Jack Decker’s assistant coaches with the now 4-time defending ECT champion Seton Hall Prep Pirates.

Decker himself won an ECT title in 2004, while among the other current Essex County coaches who also captured county championships during their own scholastic days are Cedar Grove’s first-year head man Rami Ratel (1995 and 1997), West Essex second-year head coach Mike Markey (1998 and ’99 at Caldwell), and Wessex assistant coach Anthony Perrotti (2010 and 2011).       

Follow Steve Tober on Twitter @Chattermeister       

Columbia first-year assistant coach Pat Gerish (left) leans forward as he and Cougars head coach Mike Freedman watch 145-pounder Devin Rocha go up against Belleville's David Guerra in ECT final for that weight class on Friday night. Guerra won by fall. (Photos by Gene

Irvington's Nashawn Brooks works hard to maintain lead while on top of Verona's Cade Byrne in 220-pound final which was won by Brooks, 11-7.

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