CRANBURY: Garden State Classic is a top opener

By Justin Feil, The Packet Group
   Rashone Johnson will wear a couple of different hats on Saturday, just as he has for the last 14 years.
   Johnson will be coaching his Princeton High School wrestlers, while at the same time he oversees the Garden State Classic that PHS serves as host to for the 28th year. It’s a day of double duty that can be demanding and rewarding.
   ”It’s a tough day,” Johnson said. “Ultimately when things go wrong, I’m the one that has to make the decision. I get called often to the head table. If I’m coaching, I get there when I get there.
   ”I have a support staff that can help me,” he added. “This is all parent stuff. If my parents can do right, we’ll be right. I depend on my parents for it a lot.”
   Johnson is proud to have one of the best wrestling events in the state in his own gym. Teams scheduled to compete are: Bridgewater-Raritan, St. Augustine, Cherry Hill West, Piscataway, Freehold Borough, Emerson/Parkridge, Collingswood, Montgomery and North Brunswick.
   ”It’s good,” Johnson said. “It was even tougher two years ago when we had Delaware Valley and Washington Township. That made it a really hard tournament. With those teams leaving, it feels like you have a little breathing room.
   ”We look forward to opening the season at home every year,” he said. “We’re excited to start wrestling.”
   It won’t just be varsity wrestlers competing, which makes the event even larger. Another 15 junior varsity teams will take to the mats as well.
   ”That’s the thing that made us unique,” Johnson said. “That’s one of the hardest things to do. You always wonder, what do we do with our JV guys? When you have the JV guys, you can bring your whole team to one place and get everyone matches. It’s good for them to get matches too.”
   PHS doesn’t stop there. The day before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, they host a Garden State Classic for middle school wrestlers.
   ”It’s Jan. 19 this year,” Johnson said. “It’s a montage of a bunch of people that give the middle school team a look at a lot of different teams.”
   The Garden State Classic is strong competition for his varsity to start the year, and it kicks off a season of higher expectations for the Little Tigers. Though they lost their top wrestler, David Klinges, to graduation, there is talent back for PHS, which won three of its final five matches last year.
   ”We’re going to be young in some spots,” Johnson said. “We do have some bright spots in the lineup. We’re still a middle-aged team. We only have two seniors that are going to be in the starting lineup. We have a junior/sophomore heavy team.”
   James Gates is the captain for PHS, and he and fellow senior Will Meisel will both be in the lineup, Gates starting at 170 pounds and Meisel at 138. They will help lead an up-and-coming group that has another year’s experience after many of them had the chance to compete at the varsity level last year.
   ”I have juniors that did some work for themselves in the offseason,” Johnson said. “They worked to really improve on their wrestling. My juniors should have some decent seasons.
   ”Some of those sophomores, it’s their second year wrestling, but they have some decent natural ability. We’ll do our best to cultivate that during the next three months.”
   The lineup could always change, but Johnson likes the potential as his younger wrestlers continue to grow. Patrick Sockler is a junior at 126, Thomas Miers is a junior at 132.
   ”Those guys put in a lot of work over the summer,” Johnson said. “Will Meisel is at 138, and Alex Freda is only a sophomore, but he’s at 145.”
   The 152 spot could go to junior Steve Majeski or senior Michael Chonka. David Beamer, a sophomore, is at 160 pounds. In addition to Gates at 170, PHS has Dwight Donis, a sophomore. Junior Victor Bell is at 195 pounds and sophomore Noah Ziegler will wrestle at 220.
   ”I want to see what we can do,” Johnson said. “I’m ready to see what happens. I think we’ll have a better tournament team than dual meet team. I’m looking forward to seeing how the chips fall.”
   The Little Tigers are also trying to plan for the future, and they have a new crop of freshmen that are promising.
   ”We do have some good freshmen,” Johnson said “This is a good group of freshmen that came in this year. I’m trying my best to not wrestle those guys varsity. James Verbeyst is the only one that’ll be in lineup. He’s at 106 or 113.
   ”We have a solid freshmen crew that came in. We’re looking to increase those numbers in the coming years with what JW and Cranbury have coming through the ranks.”
   The Little Tigers had the chance to get a taste of their talents in scrimmages this year, and they are positive after seeing some encouraging results.
   ”In scrimmages, I was impressed with those juniors,” Johnson said. “I got to see one of them wrestle one of the guys that he had to default out of last year, a kid he would have wrestled in the finals, and he looked really good. I’ve got some guys that are going to turn some heads this season.
   ”It’s a lot of the same guys that were committed as sophomores last year,” he explained. “What’s happening now is they’re starting to believe in what they can do.”
   It’s part of a process that Johnson is hoping to see through at PHS. The Little Tigers struggled for wins a year ago, and this year won’t be easy but he expects to see progress.
   ”Last year, I knew it was going to be what it was,” Johnson said. “We had so many young people. We had so many sophomores. Last year, we only had two seniors with wrestling experience. It’s the same thing this year, but those other guys are gaining their experience and hopefully that means we’ll have a good next year and the following year. If we can keep the numbers coming, Princeton wrestling could bounce back pretty well.”
   For now, the Little Tigers are expecting the usual teams to contend for the top spot in Mercer County and at the region meets.
   ”Hopewell is going to be the front-runner,” Johnson said. “They have some depth, especially once their guys get down to their certified weights. Robbinsville, they have a lot of their guys coming back. I know Nottingham last year was young. I think Allentown could have some guys back.”
   PHS is hoping it can prove it can compete better this year with the top wrestlers. It would like to position itself for a nice showing in the championship portion of the year.
   ”Guys have to stay healthy,” Johnson said. “If we can manage to keep guys healthy, that’ll be a big factor, and if guys can manage to stay focused. If we can peak at the right time — for districts, regions, counties — I think that’ll be good for us.”
   The chance to win something starts this weekend at home. Johnson is hoping that he won’t be giving all the hardware away from the Garden State Classic. Keeping some at PHS would go a long way toward building some quick confidence.
   ”I want to get some champs out of this weekend,” Johnson said. “Guys worked hard over the summer. I want to get some hardware team-wise, especially with Washington Township and Delaware Valley not being back.
   ”I would like to think I have four individuals that could win this tournament. We should be able to get one of the trophies that I paid for. I’d love to be able to keep one of those in-house.”