MAPLEWOOD, NJ – Under first-year head coach Mike Freedman, the Columbia High School varsity wrestling team has a nice mix of talented youth and veteran leadership.
The Cougars, who open the season Dec. 15 at Chatham, will be led by their four captains: Blake McGowan, Devin Rocha, Hunter Dallison, and Galileo Hetherington.
“The four captains are working very hard and I would obviously feel they are all in for a strong season,” said Freedman in an email to The News-Record.
McGowan, a junior, will be competing at the 152- and 160-pound weight classes. “Blake worked with me all summer, fine-tuning his technique and learning a ton of new skills to add to his arsenal,” said Freedman, noting McGowan had a strong season last year with a record of 20-4 and is looking to have a solid postseason in the districts, regions and state tournament.
Rocha, a 132- and 138-pounder, advanced to the regionals last year after taking second in the districts. “Devin also attended many of my offseason practices and is geared to make a strong run at the region tournament,” Freedman said.
Dallison, at 182 and 195, will look to build on a strong season last year in which he finished with a 20-8 record. “Hunter is showing strong leadership skills in the room and can end a match anytime with his big-move capability,” Freedman said.
Hetherington, a senior, went 13-10 last year and is working very hard in the practice room and leading by example for the younger wrestlers, Freedman said.
Freedman noted three wrestlers who he expects to have breakout seasons.
Freshman Nate Rocha, a five-time recreational county champ, is poised to not only start Day 1, but have a tremendous season, said the coach.
“I have previously been the head wrestling coach at Montclair (High School) for the past 12 years and I feel Nate is as good or better than any freshman I have ever coached this early in the season,” lauded Freedman. “He has big goals and wants to get better everyday!”
Another wrestler to keep an eye on is sophomore CJ Love, who had a season-ending injury last year, but is working extremely hard. “Nate and CJ will be a strong back-to-back duo for us at 120 and 126, “ Freedman said.
Sophomore Ben Morris is another wrestler to watch. “Ben was thrown into the varsity lineup last year as a first-year wrestler, which is extremely difficult. I expect Ben to do well; the coaching staff feels he is getting better everyday,” Freedman said.
The team’s strength is its camaraderie.
“Honestly, I feel the strength of the team is that they pull for each other,” Freedman said. “This team is very close, on and off the mat, and I feel they will be behind each other. And team chemistry is something I can’t teach them; they either have it or they don’t, and this team has it.”
As a coach every year, Freedman’s team goals are to advance to the state wrestling tournament. “Wrestling is an individual sport, so if your competing the last weekend of the season in Atlantic City (site of the state finals), you belong with the best wrestlers in the state. I would like to win the conference this year or finish near the top. Last season Columbia didn’t do that well in conference. I expect our team to challenge for a conference title if we can limit our forfeits. Also as a team, we would like to qualify for the sectionals, which hasn’t been done in some time. My expectations are for the team to get better every practice and to consistently improve during the season.
“For my team to achieve these goals and expectations, they must completely buy into our system of wrestling,” Freedman continued. “The only way I will truly know that, is when our athletes compete on the mat. Most of the techniques behind taught are new for all of these guys.”
The Cougars are in the Super Essex Conference-Liberty Division, which includes Livingston, Millburn, Montclair, Barringer, Glen Ridge, Orange, Belleville, and East Side.
Columbia HS schedule
Dec. 15, at Chatham, 6 p.m.
Dec. 16, at Irvington Holiday Tournament, 9 a.m.
Dec. 20, Glen Ridge, 6 p.m.
Dec. 22, at Livingston, 6 p.m.
Dec. 23, at Kearny, tba
Dec. 27, at Middletown South Tournament, 9 a.m.
Jan. 4, at Millburn, 6 p.m.
Jan. 6, at Elizabeth, 9 a.m.
Jan. 10, at Barringer, 5 p.m.
Jan. 12, at Bayonne, tba
Jan. 13, at Nutley, 10 a.m.
Jan. 18-19, Essex County Tournament, at Richard J. Codey Arena, West Orange
Jan. 24, East Side, 6 p.m.
Jan. 26, Union City, 5 p.m.
Jan. 27, Columbia quad meet, with Bernards, Montclair, and Belleville, 10 a.m.
Jan. 31, at Orange, 6 p.m.
Feb. 3, at Bloomfield Gray Cup Tournament, 9 a.m.
Feb. 7, Becton, 6 p.m.
Feb. 9, West Orange, 6 p.m.
Feb. 10, at Madison quad meet, with Governor Livingston and Morristown, 9 a.m.