Phil Anastasia: Paulsboro High claims 1,000th victory in wrestling

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Paulsboro's Anthony Bennett, class of 2011, is congratulated by John D. Rastelli, class of 1940, after Paulsboro defeated Haddon Township for its 1,000th victory.

One way to find Paulsboro is to take Interstate 295 to Crown Point Road and ride that narrow two-lane through the marshes and past the truck depots and across the big, steel bridge.

Another is to step back in time.

The past always seems to come alive on winter nights inside the little, tan-bricked gymnasium at Paulsboro High School.

That happened again Wednesday night, when a group of teenage wrestlers reached a historic milestone in a journey begun by another group of teenage wrestlers in the year before World War II.

Paulsboro's 59-6 victory over Haddon Township was the 1,000th win in the history of a program that began varsity competition during the 1940-41 season.

The Red Raiders are the first high school team in the East and just the third in the country to win 1,000 matches. Granite City, Ill., was the first, and Vacaville, Calif., accomplished the feat on Jan. 22.

"There's something about this sport and this town, all the way through the years," said Paulsboro coach Paul Morina, who has a 508-29-4 record in 26 seasons.

This was a special night for the boys on the mat, even the little guys who competed against Haddon Township's junior program before a packed house a couple of hours before the main event.

But this moment probably meant even more to the former wrestlers who filled the alumni seating section and the old-timers who have been faithfully following the Red Raiders for years and years.

History hangs heavily in the air in this little corner of Gloucester County, hard by the Delaware River, deep in the shadow of the oil refinery.

Paulsboro is a place where older men wear shiny red jackets and older women wear red sweatshirts and everybody else wears a red hat or a red T-shirt, or both.

This is an older town - sprung up near the site of Fort Billings, which was built on the first land purchased by the United States government on July 5, 1776 - and populated by blue-collar families who found something special in this most demanding of sports.

Norman Hangen introduced wrestling to Paulsboro High School in the late 1930s, first as intramural competition - he taught ballroom dancing in those gym classes, too - and then as one of the first varsity programs in South Jersey.

Success was swift, stunning, and sustained.

Paulsboro has lost 77 times in 68 seasons (three seasons were suspended because of World War II). The Red Raiders have fashioned 30 undefeated seasons. They've won 27 state titles in the 29 years in which the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association has sponsored the team championships.

There's something about the sport - the combative nature of the competition, the individual struggle inside that circle, the shared sacrifice - that always has resonated with folks in this gritty, little town.

It's a family sport in Paulsboro. The eras are marked by famous names such as Morina and Hamilton and Duca and Suter and many, many more. The program's fabric is woven with fathers and sons, uncles and nephews and cousins.

Season after season, decade after decade, Paulsboro wrestling has featured star athletes and average ones, too - generation after generation of tough, scrappy kids who have embraced the challenge of upholding the tradition.

That hardly happens anywhere else, in any other sport. And it almost never happens over the course of 70 years.

Paulsboro is a different kind of place. The old movie theater on Broad Street has been shut down for years, and many of the older houses and belgian-brick garages and plate-glassed store fronts have seen better days.

But the success of the high school teams, especially in football and wrestling, seems to pump rich, red blood into the old town.

That's why the football field always is ringed with "railbirds" and why the little gymnasium - capacity 900, as long as the fire marshal, who probably was a wrestler, is looking the other way - always is filled on cold winter nights when the Red Raiders take the mat and make more history, one more victory at a time.

 


Phil Anastasia:

Reaching 1,000

Wrestlers hit historic milestone in a journey begun in the year before the United States entered World War II. Phil Anastasia, A1.

 


Contact staff writer Phil Anastasia at 856-779-3223 or panastasia@phillynews.com.