For high school wrestlers in New Jersey the ultimate individual goal is always to make it to Boardwalk Hall for the state championship tournament.
Many of the same wrestlers that have finished their careers on the podium in Atlantic City have gone on to make a name for themselves at the college level. On Sunday some of the most decorated athletes in Garden State history found themselves in a place they never expected to compete as they took part in the Grapple at the Garden at Madison Square Garden.
In its illustrious history of hosting some of the biggest sporting events ever Sunday was the first time collegiate wrestling was held at the place known as the World's Most Famous Arena.
The day featured a high school wrestling tournament that included the squad from Long Branch High School. Coach Danny George and the Green Wave emerged victorious beating some of the top teams from the Empire State. "It's amazing," he said. "The opportunity that Beat The Streets gave us in The World's Most Famous Arena, for my guys it's a lifetime achievement to have an opportunity to be a part of something like this."
Coach George also got the chance to see his nephew and former Long Branch wrestler Billy George compete with the Cornell University squad and Nick Visicaro wrestle for Rutgers. "It's awesome," he said. "It's just an amazing opportunity. This place is packed and it's electric."
The event not only featured some of the top individuals and teams in the country but also dignitaries and legends from the sport all excited to see the long awaited arrival of the eight mats the competition was held on.
The first Shore Conference wrestler to take the mat at The Garden was Howell High School grad and current Rutgers University wrestler Joey Langel. When he graduated from the Rebels squad Langel said he never could have imagined taking the mat across the Hudson River. "I just remember going into college thinking it would be awesome to wrestle in The Garden," he said. "It's not a dream come true, but a vision coming true."
Even as they were weighing in Toms River East grad Brian Sternlieb said seeing people he had wrestled in high school in this famous arena made for a surreal experience. As a member of the Drexel University wrestling squad Sternlieb said it made for a fun reunion. "We were all joking around saying when we were growing up did you ever think we'd be here," he said. "It's just an honor."
There were other big name wrestlers taking part in the day including Jackson Memorial's Scotty Winston and Bound Brook's Andrew Campolattano who routinely found themselves at the top of the state's wrestling mountain at the end of the season.
Star Studded Event
It was hard to walk around the arena without running into a big name competitor from the sport. Former UFC champion Frankie Edgar said when he was at Toms River East High School he was in the same position as many of the wreslters taking the mat on Sunday never imagining they would have the chance to compete there.
Edgar said his sophomore year of high school he saw the Goodwill Games at the Madison Square Garden Theatre but did not think it would make it to the same floor the New York Knicks and Rangers compete on. "These kids don't know how good they have it," he said with a laugh. "To be able to wrestle in an arena like this, it's call The World's Most Famous Arena for a reason."
Wrestling legend Dan Gable was also at the event on Sunday and said he hoped it would help expand the sport. "It means we're going to be able to promote and further our sport along which is always needed," he said. "The sport is getting their act together and because we're getting our act together we will be growing."
Also in attendance was World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Superstar Jack Swagger who wrestled and played football with the University of Oklahoma Sooners. The former All American said Sunday was an exciting event to be a part of. "College wrestling fans are such a united fan base and a dedicated fan base," he said. "It really says a lot about where the sport is going and what the sport can do."
Having performed in the same arena with the WWE, Swagger said he was glad the amateur wrestlers got a chance to get a sample of the excitement he experienced. "It's one of those moments in your life that you'll put up with anything," he said. "It's something you'll take with you forever and it's a great opportunity for college wrestling to get a little piece of that."
Sunday may have been the first time college wrestlers took the mat at Madison Square Garden, but National Wrestling Coaches Association Executive Director Mike Moyer said he hoped it would not be the last. "Over the last 12 years with every successful event we just think bigger and bigger and bigger and this is a great step," he said. "Wrestling needs more opportunities to showcase its heroes and champions. We need to be doing it in major cities across the country and any time you get a chance to do it in one of the biggest arenas in the world you have to take advantage of it."
Whether they came by bus or train or car, or they were wearing their favorite Rutgers University or Wall High School gear there was no question about the excitement the fans shared seeing some of the top college wrestlers compete on one of the most famous floors in sports.