Taking the Helm of PHS Wrestling Program, Monzo Emphasizing Basics, Systematic Progress
TAKING HOLD: Princeton High wrestler Chloe Ayres, top, controls a foe in a match last year. Junior Ayres, who placed first at 105 pounds last winter in the first-ever NJSIAA girls’ championships, has emerged as a leader on the mat for the Tigers under new head coach Jess Monzo. PHS, which started 1-8 in dual match competition, has meets at Nottingham on January 15 and at Ewing on January 17 before hosting a quad meet on January 18. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Bill Alden
For Jess Monzo, coaching wrestling is a labor of love.
“There is always something that drives you and you want to give back and you want to do exactly what your coaches did for you,” said Monzo, who wrestled for Clifton High and Montclair State before getting into high school coaching with stints at Jefferson Township, David Brearley, Matawan, Freehold, and East Brunswick.
“You want to do that and more for the next crop of kids. Wrestling is in my blood, it is going to be in my blood until I can’t do it any more.”
This winter, Monzo, 39, has brought his passion for the sport to Princeton High where he has taken the helm of the wrestling program, succeeding longtime coach Rashone Johnson, now an assistant principal at the school.
“When I spoke with the kids, I instilled the message that we are going to start with a good foundation; we are going to try to grow numbers and do things in progression,” said Monzo.
“There are some kids in my program right now that are very good and may have aspirations after high school. Chloe [Ayres] has won a state title and other kids have done very well in the region tournament. Their aspirations are to make it to the states and place down there. I have kids like that and kids who never wrestled before and came out this year. My big thing was that we are going to build the basics.”
Monzo got his start in wrestling as a freshmen at Clifton High when he was encouraged to take up the sport by legendary coach John Monaco, a two-time New Jersey state champion wrestler.
“He came down and talked to the football team my freshman year and took one look at me and asked me why I was playing football,” recalled Monzo.
“I weighed like 90 pounds; he told me I should be wrestling the lowest weight class which was 100 pounds at the time.”
Following Monaco’s advice, Monzo went out for wrestling and never looked back.
“It was something where size didn’t matter any more after playing football against kids that were 150, 200 pounds and weighing 90 pounds,” said Monzo.
“It was something I fell in love with and never stopped. I always looked to progress and to continue.”
The deep bond with Monaco helped steer Monzo into coaching. “I had a great relationship with John and I still do to this day,” said Monzo, a three-time conference medalist at Montclair State who injured his neck in the league final as a senior and was unable to keep competing.
“It is learning the life lessons and the morals and values that he taught us and knowing that my career ended a couple of weeks short.”
As Monzo builds a relationship with his PHS wrestlers, his holistic approach is resonating.
“They have embraced it, they are loving it,” said Monzo. “They are learning this culture that I want to set, the standard that I want to set. They have accepted it with open arms and it has been great.”
In developing that culture, Monzo has faced a logistical challenge as the program doesn’t have its own wrestling room and is sharing the gym with the PHS varsity basketball teams to conduct practice.
“We work with each other, everyone is held accountable and everyone does what they need to do to be successful,” said Monzo, who has relied on such veterans as junior Ayres, sophomore Aaron Munford, junior Chris Sockler, senior Dominick Riendeau-Krause, and junior James Romaine to set a positive tone.
“It is a big give and take but these kids come in everyday with that understanding and the expectation that they need to get better. They come in and roll the mats out everyday, they roll the mats up and put them away. Some people would say it shouldn’t be like this but they just accept it and are understanding of it.”
Defending state champion Ayres has helped her teammates get better. “Chloe is fabulous; in school, she is not a very vocal person but in the wrestling room, she is as vocal as anyone else,” said Monzo.
“She will let you know when you are not pulling your weight. She is great to have because she doesn’t care who you are; if you are not pulling your weight, she is yelling at you.”
Sophomore Munford has been pulling his weight, emerging as a star at 138 pounds.
“Aaron has made some outstanding jumps; he was a JV wrestler last year and was sitting behind Alec Bobchin, a region champion and state place-winner.” said Monzo, noting that Munford did get some varsity experience last winter, posting an 11-0 record.
“He is a guy that has made tremendous improvements; he went to different camps across the country last year. He put a lot of work in, he is one of the first people in the room, he is one of the last people to leave. He is in the weight room whenever he can. He is really trying to etch his name into Princeton’s rich history. He knows he has three varsity years to get it done. He is putting the work in and it is showing.”
With the Mercer County Tournament slated for February 1, Monzo believes his wrestlers can make some history at the competition.
“Some of the guys have wrestled well against Mercer County teams, whether they win or lose, they wrestled full six minute matches and have done very well,” said Monzo, whose team is 1-8 in dual meet competition and has meets at Nottingham on January 15 and at Ewing on January 17 before hosting a quad meet on January 18.
“You put five or six place-winners up there and your team can do well. We have some guys who can perform at a very high level. I am interested to see how seeding shakes out and how the wrestling goes. At the end of the day, we are wrestling the persons on the mat, we are not wrestling the name. We are wrestling a body, so we will see what happens.”