Sunday, January 6, 2013

Wrestling: Kittatinny joins Voorhees in 500-win club

Once upon a time, Newton High School was THE team in Sussex County.

But 37 years ago, a newcomer emerged on the wrestling scene. Kittatinny Regional High School opened its doors and started a wrestling program under the tutelage of Carl Bateman -- a former Phillipsburg star who finished third in the 1963 state tournament at 123 pounds. His coach was Thad Turner, who built the Stateliners into a powerhouse.

Bateman made one of the smartest decision ever when he hired a young man from Binghamton, N.Y., to be his assistant coach. That man was John Gill -- and the rest as they say is history.

Kittatinny needed three wins coming into this season to reach 500 -- recording that milestone victory against Mahwah, 78-0, on Dec. 21. 2012. The Cougars (8-1) are currently sitting at 505-186-5 overall after picking up a pair of wins on Saturday at the North Warren Patriot Duals -- 48-18 over Morristown and 45-16 over West Essex.

"It's a testament to Sussex County," said Gill, now 473-147-5 in 33 seasons. "We're an offshoot or branch from Newton's storied tradition. We're a stepchild of [legendary Braves coach] Henry Boresch."

Bateman spent five seasons in charge -- going 32-39 -- until Gill took over for the 1980-81 season. Gill served the previous two seasons as Bateman's assistant -- totaling 35 seasons as the man in the blue shirt and grey slacks so synonymous with Kittatinny wrestling. Gill is Kittatinny wrestling.

"I'm a creature of habit and a lot of the things I do today came from him," Gill said. "He must have saw something in me and I hope I've proved him right. We won the [Sussex County Interscholastic League title] the year after he left so that should have been his."

Gill recalls going to Lehigh University matches with Bateman when Turner was the head coach of the then Engineers. Those teams featured such greats as Mark Lieberman and Darryl Burley, as well as Olympic champ Bobby Weaver.

"We'd go to Grace Hall [the original Pit] and they saw I was with Bateman, and they'd let us in for free," Gill said. "We'd sit right in the front row."

Many of Kittatinny's former wrestlers have gone on to coach themselves -- one right in Sussex County. Newton coach Eric Bollette has the unique perspective of competing for and against Gill. As a wrestler in the early 1990s, Bollette was a standout and member of the school's first sectional championship team in 1991 -- the first of 17 titles under Gill's watch.

Gill and former assistant Linn Crawn -- who passed away in August -- are held in the highest regard by Bollette and many others who have donned a blue and grey singlet.

"He's had a big impact on my career, as did Linn," said Bollette, whose Newton teams beat Kittatinny for the program's only sectional titles in 2009 and '10. "He's just as intense now. I don't think the years have mellowed him at all. The wins and losses are important [at Kittatinny], but a lot of character building goes on. Our matches with them have been good. I once told him he couldn't retire until I beat him."

In typical fashion, Gill had no idea that Kittatinny was near or had surpassed 500 wins. I have to apologize to the wrestling program for not realizing it sooner myself so it could have been celebrated at the home match following the road win at the West Milford Duals.

For a program that's now in its 38th season, reaching 500 wins is pretty impressive. Coincidentally, Voorhees, which started the same year, joined Kittatinny with the Hunterdon County school's win over Delaware Valley on Friday.

The next milestone will be 500 coaching wins for Gill. He sits atop the Sussex County all-time list, followed by High Point's Jeff Hull (288) and Boresch (250).

"Jeff Hull and Dennis Connallon [at Pope John] are right up there," Gill said. "Now [John] Gardner [254 wins] is right behind and Bollette is doing a hell of a job. Doug Vetter is doing a lot of good things at Lenape Valley. This is great for my school."

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