By Phil Anastasia
There were shirt-less guys in plaid kilts with painted chests spelling out "H-I-G-H-L-A-N-D" in the top row of the bleachers.
There was a pep band in one corner, striking up a little ditty when a Highland wrestler registered a pin in Monday night's 41-24 victory over Gateway-Woodbury in the opening round of the South Jersey Group 2 tournament.
There were spectators filing all four seating sections of the gymnasium nearly to capacity.
It felt like old times.
It felt like something new, too.
"One-hundred-and-thirty strong," Highland coach Mike Davidson said of number of wrestlers in the youth program that has begun to revitalize the high school team.
That was the best thing about the atmosphere in one of South Jersey wrestling's most famous gymnasiums: It heralded the future as well as honored the past.
And let's not forget the present.
Fueled by seniors Martel Harrison and Joe Rodano, Highland picked up bonus points in six bouts -- igniting the pep band with five pins -- and advanced to face Clayton-Glassboro in Wednesday night's sectional semifinals.
"Best atmosphere I ever wrestled in in my life," said Rodano, 138-pounder who improved his record to 25-3 with a second-period pin.
Other than Paulsboro, Highland probably has the richest tradition among public-school wrestling programs in South Jersey. The Tartans won 13 sectional titles and nine state titles from 1981, the year after the creation of the team tournament, to 1996.
All that glory came under legendary former coach Ralph Ross, who built the Tartans into a powerhouse with a black-hat mystique that rivalled the auras surrounding programs such as Camden basketball and Paulsboro wrestling.
"The house that Ross built is coming back," said Davidson, who graduated from Highland in 1997.
A lot has changed in 15 years. Highland was a Group 4 power under Ross. Now, the Tartans are a Group 2 program. And they face tough duty against second-seeded Clayton -- which beat Highland 30-26 on Dec. 19 -- with powerful top seed Delsea likely waiting for the winner in Friday night's sectional finals.
But clearly this is a program on the rise, at once embracing its rich history and creating its own new tradition. The student body senses it. The community senses it.
"I'm looking around the gym and I'm seeing guys from the '84 team, the '93 team, the '96 team," Davidson said. "It means so much to see these guys come back."
Highland is young, with freshmen such as Lucas Siegfried (28-2), Josh Clark (27-4), George Duddy (20-8) and Dillon Prendergast (19-10) and sophomores such as Nick Theisen (26-4), Sheldon Morris (25-5) and Mark Gillis (16-13) forming the nucleus of the squad.
And the youth program is primed to start pumping talent into the program on a yearly basis.
That's not lost on seniors such as Rodano and Harrison, who improved his record to 18-1 at 285 pounds with a first-period pin.
"I wish I was a freshman," Harrison said. "It's a good time to be a Highland Tartan."
Contact staff writer Phil Anastasia at firstname.lastname@example.org or @PhilAnastasia on Twitter.