CHERRY HILL-- Interim head coach Frank Plefka and his wrestlers are fully aware of the history of Highland wrestling.
Before Friday’s South Jersey Group 4 victory over Cherry Hill West, Plefka challenged his Tartans to make history.
The Tartans responded with their first sectional crown since 1996 in a 35-32 victory.
“I talked downstairs and I said we always talk about the history of Highland wrestling,” Plefka said. “We have a big board in the room and I’ll ask them trivia questions from it. They know about everything. I told them “We know the history of Highland, now let’s go make history at Highland and be part of that history.” It’s such an overwhelming feeling. I’m thrilled for this group of kids.”
Highland’s sectional triumph came after a season of turmoil in which its head coach resigned and a number of issues hampered having a full lineup.
“I can’t say enough,” Plefka said. “Between all the turmoil we faced this year. We had the coaching change, we’ve had kids out for academic reasons, we’ve had kids out for disciplinary reasons, illness and injury and it really was a tumultuous season with all of those factors, but, at the end, we were able to harness them together. They were resilient enough to learn the lessons that needed to be learned during that time and come together as a team.”
“We’ve been waiting for this all season,” Highland 138-pounder Justin Cariss said. “We’ve had to go through a heck of a lot of adversity and it’s just a great feeling to not just win this, but see how far we came and how close we got through the adversity we had to go through. We’re a family. We do everything together and it’s just a great moment I get to share with them for the rest of my life.”
But everything the Tartans went through made them closer, and it gave each wrestler the mentality to fight for every second, which is exactly what they did on Friday.
Most would point to four pins, including three in a row at 106, 113 and 120 as the keys to victory .
As important as they were, the efforts of Noah Shaffer at 160 and Emidio Mariani at 126 in defeats meant the same, if not more, against two of the Lions’ best grapplers in Xavier Barker and John Howe.
“The losses were just as important,” Plefka said. “That kid Howe is another stud and only giving up a major is a win for us, that’s plus two for us. Because (Howe) has pinned so many kids in South Jersey this year so that’s what it takes this time of year.”
With a 12-point lead in hand heading into Cariss’ bout at 138 pounds, the Tartans sideline that was packed with a relentless energy all night began to pace knowing what was ahead of them.
As the final seconds ticked down on Cariss’ 5-0 decision win over Sean Tyler, the Tartans, already jumping up and down, waited for Cariss to have his arm raised and sprint over into the arms of anyone willing to catch him.
“It’s a great feeling,” Cariss said. “It’s been 22 years since we’ve won a sectional title. I’m glad we get to bring this back to Highland.”