As the sole captain of the Princeton High wrestling team, James Gates is looking to set a good example for his younger teammates.
“Wrestling is just all about putting in more work and being tougher than the other guys,” said senior star Gates. “I just have got to work hard and then hopefully they (his teammates) work hard.”
Gates displayed his toughness by taking third at 170 pounds as PHS started its season by hosting its annual Garden State Classic in late December.
“We had some good wrestling,” said Gates, reflecting on the 10-team tournament.
“Our varsity guys went and wrestled well. It was a really tough competition this year. There are a lot of good teams, all the teams here were pretty good. This is probably some of the hardest wrestling we’re going to see for a while.”
As he heads down the homestretch of his high school career, Gates is determined to produce a very big season.
“I want to win all my matches,” asserted Gates. “My big goal would be to place in districts, make it to regions, and hopefully make it to states. I want to just have a strong season and represent the school well.”
In representing PHS, Gates draws inspiration from Little Tiger head coach Rashone Johnson.
“Our coaching staff is great,” said Gates. “Coach Johnson is crazy. His pre-match speeches get you really pumped and ready to wrestle. You go out there like an animal after you hear Johnson.”
Johnson, for his part, is expecting Gates to provide stability this winter for the Little Tigers.
“I want him to just be consistent,” said Johnson, when asked about Gates. “He took third today so that’s definitely an improvement from last year.”
In addition to Gates taking third, Johnson got several other good efforts from his wrestlers at the Garden State Classic. Junior Patrick Sockler took third at 126, while classmate Tommy Miers garnered two wins at 132, helping the Little Tigers hold their own at the top of the lineup.
While Johnson had hoped to see his team do better overall at the season-opening event than the ninth place finish it earned, he saw some intangibles from his wrestlers that bode well for the rest of the season.
“One thing that you can’t coach is toughness and I saw all the guys fight today, which I thought was really good,” said Johnson, who is in his 14th season at the helm of the PHS program and has added former PHS wrestler Marc Santiago ’09 and John Darling, a former Division III All-American wrestler at The College of New Jersey, to his staff.
“If you don’t have fight, I can’t really give that to you, but if your technique is messed up I can fix that. I saw a lot of stuff that I can fix today.”
In fixing things, Johnson is focused on instilling confidence into his team and getting his wrestlers to take an aggressive approach during their bouts.
“Getting the guys more confidence during their matches and to score,” said Johnson, reflecting on his coaching goals this season.
“Be more sure of yourself when you go out there. Guys were doing that today but got some tough draws out there and we didn’t quite push through. The guys actually didn’t wrestle badly today, we just didn’t wrestle good enough to win in some of those matches.”
Looking forward, Johnson sees his team steadily improving with more match experience as the season unfolds.
“We still have young guys; we only had two seniors in that lineup today,” said Johnson. “The future is looking promising and these guys are going to get a lot better as the season goes on.”
Aside from Gates, Johnson is hoping for big things from a trio of juniors.
“You got Victor Bell in there, you got Thomas Miers, and Patrick Sockler,” noted Johnson, whose squad took fifth of 10 teams in the Patriot Tournament at Secaucus High last Friday with James Verbyst taking first at 113 pounds, Sockler at 126, and Miers at 132.
“Those guys all have experience from last year coming back on varsity and they did some work over the summer. I’m looking for those guys to show me something.”
Johnson is excited to see which of his younger wrestlers will seize the opportunity to make a name for themselves as the season progresses.
“I’m looking for everybody to step up, that’s the beauty about wrestling and a team sport that’s also an individual sport,” added Johnson, whose younger wrestlers include freshmen Verbyst and Dylan Demerest together with sophomores Alex Freda, Dave Beamer, and Noah Ziegler.
“Every time a senior graduates, it’s always fun to see the next year what opportunity is going to come through. Don’t look at it as an obstacle, look at it as an opportunity to wrestle varsity and get my name on the wall, put my team on the wall, and get on a banner. How are you going to be remembered?”
Gates, for his part, knows the team has to keep its nose to the grindstone to make some special memories.
“We got a lot to work on, a lot of running to do,” said Gates, who looks to get off to a good start in 2014 action on January 4 when PHS heads to Voorhees High to face Hopewell Valley, Lawrence, and the host Vikings. “It’s going to take a lot of work.”