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Scoring Big

by Matt Cosentino; Photography by Tim Hawk

Jen Byrne, Shawnee basketball
Byrne was a key player on back-to-back sectional championship teams in 2014 and 2015, helping the Renegades reach the Group IV state final each year. The senior is currently Shawnee’s leading scorer and will continue her career at The College of New Jersey.

SOUTH JERSEY MAGAZINE: How old were you when you first started playing basketball?
JEN BYRNE: I was in third grade. I played every sport, but I stopped all the others when I was in sixth grade because I just wanted to focus on basketball.

SJM: Do you have any family connections to basketball?
JB: Actually, I have four older brothers and none of them played basketball. They used to play rec basketball, but none of them ever got as serious as I did. I didn’t want to follow in their footsteps in anything; I wanted to be the little sister who did her own thing. But they definitely helped me. They knew everything about basketball and they influenced me as far as playing outside. I just took it to the next level.

SJM: What was it like growing up as the only girl in the family and also the youngest?
JB: People always think it’s tough but I enjoyed it a lot. We all got along and they made me a tougher person. I think that really helps me on the court. They looked out for me and they still do. We’re all still close now.

SJM: Can you put into words what it was like to be part of those special teams the last two seasons at Shawnee?
JB: Going to two state championships is almost unheard of in high school. To do that with the group of girls we had, I think we all had the greatest chemistry on the court, and we’re trying to bring that back this year even though we lost eight seniors. The memories we made are something I’ll never forget and it’s one of the top highlights of my career.

SJM: Last year’s state final was a close loss [by six points to Franklin]. Do you think a lot about certain plays in that game?
JB: Yeah, you definitely think about what you could’ve done better to win the game. But I think afterwards we realized that we got this far for a reason. We’re not going to take anything away from our season.

SJM: You beat Lenape in the South Jersey final both years. Would you say that’s your biggest rival?
JB: I think the whole Lenape district looks forward to playing each other. We’re all friendly with each other off the court, but once you get on the court every team wants to win more than anything. It creates a fun atmosphere, even though it gets a little aggressive.

SJM: With all of the talent your team graduated last year, do you find yourself being more assertive this season?
JB: Last year every team looked at me as a 3-point threat. This year I’m trying to drive more and go down to the block more with my height. If they’re just gonna guard me on the 3, I can find other ways to score. Losing four senior starters from last year, I think everybody needs to step up, and as a senior captain I have to initiate everything.

SJM: What did you learn from playing with Nikola Williams earlier in your career?
JB: She was a fantastic player. She picked up everybody on the court. I tried to focus on her post moves, because she would finish nine times out of 10; even 10 times out of 10, honestly. I just looked up to her and her basketball skill is something we really miss. But I’m trying to fill that role.

SJM: Of course Phillies fans remember Nikola’s dad, Mitch Williams. Could you always pick out his voice at your games, even in a crowded gym?
JB: Yeah, he was at most of our games. He was very supportive.

SJM: Is your family the same way?
JB: My parents come to every game and my four brothers try to make every game they can. I get a lot of support from home, which is something I really appreciate.

SJM: It seemed like the school and community really got behind your playoff runs the last two years, too.
JB: We definitely appreciated that, because sometimes people look past the girls’ sports and they want to focus on the guys’ teams. To see all those people come out to the state championship an hour away meant a lot to us. We wanted to bring home the state championship, but they still supported us through it. All my friends still come to our games. We have one of the best student sections in South Jersey, I think.

SJM: Does it get nerve-wracking playing in front of large crowds?
JB: It makes it more fun. At this point, I’ve been in a lot of tough situations so I’m kind of used to it. I have that experience, so it’s nothing new this year.

SJM: What did you like about the school and basketball program at TCNJ?
JB: As soon as I walked on the campus it was the right size and the right fit. I met the coach, Coach [Dawn] Henderson, and she was fantastic. It seems like I can fit into her system. She came to all my AAU tournaments and I got a lot of support from her. I think it was the right choice.

SJM: Was it important to stay close to home?
JB: Yeah, I definitely wanted to stay close to home. I have a niece and my brothers will be having more kids, so I want to be there for that. And my parents have watched me my whole life so I wanted them to be able to come to my games.

SJM: Even though you won’t be too far away, what will you miss the most about South Jersey?
JB: It’s just such a great atmosphere here. I think I need to get out of the South Jersey bubble, but I’m gonna miss the local places to eat, all of my friends and seeing my family every day. But it will be a good adjustment for me.

SJM: So what local restaurants are you referring to? Braddock’s?
JB: Yeah, Braddock’s, Riviera and PJ’s.

SJM: Aside from playing, do you also like to follow college and pro basketball?
JB: Oh yeah. SportsCenter is on my TV every morning. My friends make fun of me, but if a college basketball game is on I’ll always watch it. I love watching women’s college basketball. I like the NBA, but I think college is a lot more disciplined and about fundamentals, so I appreciate that.

SJM: Do you have a favorite college team, besides TCNJ?
JB: I enjoy watching Notre Dame for women’s basketball. I recognize a lot of players that I’ve seen at AAU tournaments. I feel like they’re always an underdog and they always play hard.

SJM: What’s your favorite basketball movie?
JB: I’d have to say Coach Carter. It shows that whatever tough situation you’re in, you can get out of it. The coach pushes his players through every obstacle. I think I need to bring that to practice and pump up the girls to get them through it.

SJM: What is something about you that might surprise people?
JB: I really like history and I think people would be surprised by that. Sometimes I watch the History Channel by myself. I have a history class now and I’m really engaged in it. I take school very seriously, so people think I’m just trying to get good grades. But I really enjoy learning about world cultures and U.S. history. I watch Jeopardy every night.

SJM: Are you going to study history in college?
JB: I’m going to study business but I’ll always have a passion for learning about history. But business is something I’ve always been interested in. I’ve taken a business class every year and I think I can do well.

Maddie Sims, Lenape basketball
A senior forward, Sims is a four-year varsity player who led the Indians in scoring each of the last two seasons. She is looking to spark Lenape to a sectional championship this year before continuing her career at Division I Siena College.

SOUTH JERSEY MAGAZINE: When did you start playing basketball?
MADDIE SIMS: I started playing in kindergarten. My mom was my coach until about third grade, and then I started in the travel programs. I played every sport, but basketball was the one that stuck with me. I actually liked soccer better than basketball, but in seventh grade I changed my mind.

SJM: Your team is playing so well this year. Is your senior season meeting your expectations?
MS: Yeah. We always have the same expectations. We want to get back to the South Jersey final and hopefully win this year. We just play hard every day and we never take anybody lightly, because you never know what’s going to happen.

SJM: Does coming close to the South Jersey title the last two years really drive you?
MS: Yeah, especially since we lost to Shawnee the last two years. I know what it takes to get there, and now I just need to push past that step.

SJM: Do you consider Shawnee your biggest rival?
MS: Yeah, I would probably say Shawnee just because of what happened the last two years. I’d also say Cherokee. That game always gets so intense and physical.

SJM: You’re on track to finish your career with over 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. Which one of those milestones means more to you?
MS: Probably rebounds. I had a coach my freshman year in AAU who really took pride in rebounding, so I think that just put it into my mind. Rebounds can sometimes lead to points, offensively or defensively. I don’t really think about points too much.

SJM: You’re about 6-foot-2. Are you comfortable with your height, or was it ever an issue that you didn’t like standing out in a crowd?
MS: I’ve always been the tallest. I’ve been the same height since seventh grade. I guess when I was younger I just wanted to fit in like your average girl. But now I’m totally comfortable. I stand tall and I think basketball has really helped with that. Being tall is normal in basketball.

SJM: Did you and your brother [6-foot-6 sophomore Andrew] play against each other a lot growing up?
MS: We used to play against each other a lot. As we’ve gotten older, we don’t necessarily play against each other, but we help with each other’s game. He can shoot really well, and that wasn’t necessarily my game, so he’s helped me develop that. I’ve helped him move his feet quicker on defense and try to anticipate where to go next. We’re really close; he hangs out with my friends and I hang out with his friends. It’s just one big group.

SJM: Did you enjoy the recruiting process or did it get overwhelming?
MS: It was fun but it did get overwhelming at times. I tried to embrace it as much as I could, just because I was grateful to even have that stress level, if that makes sense. It was good stress.

SJM: Why did Siena win out over all the other schools that recruited you?
MS: They were just really consistent. Their coaches are great and they were truthful with me the whole time. They told me what I did good and what I did bad. They were coaching me even though I hadn’t committed to them yet. The program is up-and-coming … and I’m hoping we can go to the NCAA Tournament. They’re looking really good right now so I’m very excited.

SJM: Are you worried at all about going to school far away from home?
MS: I’m a little nervous, but honestly it’s mostly about the cooking aspect and doing laundry and all of those responsibilities. But I’ll get used to it.

SJM: Do you consider yourself a big basketball fan?
MS: Yeah, I watch a lot of college basketball. I don’t really watch the NBA; I like college more. I love March Madness and everything.

SJM: Can you learn things to translate to your own game?
MS: Yeah. I try to watch the forwards and what they do to get open, how they get in position. The players are so much stronger and faster in college, so I like to see all the ways they help their team.

SJM: Is it hard to believe your high school career is almost over and you’re almost a college player yourself?
MS: Yeah, I would say it’s a bittersweet feeling. I feel like I was just a freshman last week and it’s pretty crazy that it’s almost over. It’s been fun. I wouldn’t want to play anywhere else in South Jersey but Lenape. It will be sad when it’s over, but it also got me to where I am.

SJM: Do you know what you’re going to study at Siena and what kind of career you want to go into?
MS: I think I want to study sociology. I’d like to go into the FBI and be a profiler. I watch a lot of Criminal Minds and I’ve always been interested in why criminals did what they did. Everyone always looks at the victims, but I always wanted to know why people did what they did and what their stories were.

Sophie Fontaine, Haddonfield swimming
A senior standout who owns five school records, Fontaine took second in the state in both the 200 freestyle and 100 backstroke last year. She hopes to add a state championship to her résumé before going on to swim at Yale University next year.

SOUTH JERSEY MAGAZINE: Swimmers have such hectic schedules, with practices and meets for their high school team as well as their club team. Do you enjoy keeping busy like that?
SOPHINE FONTAINE: I definitely do, but it sometimes gets to be a lot trying to manage schoolwork and also trying to have time for friends and family. But I also don’t know what I would do without it. It provides a structure and discipline that helps me in all areas of life. I think I’d be kind of lost and bored without it.

SJM: Is there ever a down time in the year as far as swimming goes?
SF: Usually the spring, after everything is finished with high school and club swimming. It’s kind of nice to have the spring off with everything that’s going on with school, especially this year with graduation and prom.

SJM: Is this the same schedule you’ve been on since you were little?
SF: Yeah, I actually started with the club team I’m with now (the South Jersey Aquatic Club) when I was in seventh grade. So I’ve had the same club schedule, and then high school obviously started when I was in ninth grade.

SJM: How old were you when you first got interested in swimming?
SF: Probably when I was about 7. I had always taken lessons, but I joined Wedgewood Swim Club when I was 7 and that was my first team experience. … I always liked the water. I was always in the pool for hours and hours every summer when I was little.

SJM: After coming so close to winning a state championship last year, is that something that’s driving you this season?
SF: It’s definitely something that drives me in practice. Coming so close last year but not getting it is something I’m working for this year. My team also made it to the state final but we ended up losing to Chatham. So that’s something we’re working for as well.

SJM: Do you prefer freestyle over backstroke?
SF: It kind of varies depending on the day. Usually for high school I swim more freestyle than backstroke, but on my club team I do a little bit of everything.

SJM: You hold five individual school records at Haddonfield. Do any of them stand out above the rest?
SF: At our meet against Chatham in the state final [last year], that’s when I broke the record in the 500 free. And sophomore year, I think it was the semifinal meet against Ocean City, I was feeling really good that day and that’s when I broke the 200 free, the 100 fly and the 100 free. I think the excitement of those meets, when it’s a different environment and everyone is cheering, makes me want to do well for my team and get points for my team.

SJM: It gets pretty loud during those big meets. Can you hear all of that when you’re swimming?
SF: Yeah, definitely. You hear it in relays a lot more, because that’s an intense environment.

SJM: Not many people would turn down Yale, but why was that the right school for you?
SF: I think it was ultimately the place where I felt like I would be the most supported as a student and an athlete and as someone who has other interests. I think the location is really good. My parents and my sister can come to meets more often than if I was further away. The coaches are very similar to my club team coaches now, who I’ve done very well under. So it was kind of a mix of all of those things.

SJM: And of course you have to be excited to call yourself an Ivy League student. SF: Yeah. I had looked at other Division I schools, but I’ve always been very focused on academics and other things. I volunteer through school and I’m a member of a couple clubs, so I wanted a place where I could bring everything I like together without focusing too much on swimming.

SJM: Do you know what you want to study?
SF: I’m thinking either global affairs or political science right now, but I’m not sure yet. I’d like to go to law school afterwards. Both of my parents did, so that’s the plan right now.

SJM: What will you miss about this area when you’re away at college?
SF: Haddonfield is so small and I’ve been with about a third of my graduating class since kindergarten. So going to a new place where I don’t know many people is going to be a little daunting. But I already know the team, and one of my best friends from school, Layla Lopez, is going to Yale as well, so it will definitely be nice to have a familiar face. There’s also a runner from Haddonfield going to Yale, Austin Stoner.

SJM: What’s something that people would be surprised to know about you?
SF: One of the things I started after my freshman year of high school that I’m hoping to continue in college is being involved in the group Students Helping Honduras. I actually went to Honduras twice—in between freshman and sophomore year and sophomore and junior year—to build schools and stuff like that. That’s something that influenced what I want to major in in college and also where I wanted to go to college; a place where an interest like that is supported.

SJM: Did you get to interact with children in Honduras?
SF: That was a big part of the trips. We were focused on building the schools, but we also got to spend a lot of time with the kids. I take Spanish in school so I could communicate with them a little bit. It was definitely interesting to see a perspective that’s so different from what I’ve experienced.

Spencer Cook, Washington Township basketball
A three-year varsity starter, Cook had a breakout season as a junior, averaging a team-high 16.9 points to earn all-conference first-team honors. Now a senior, the point guard is the best player on one of the best teams in South Jersey.

SOUTH JERSEY MAGAZINE: I know there were high hopes for this season with almost the entire team back from last year, but did you expect to be this good?
SPENCER COOK: I definitely had high expectations coming in and we put in a lot of work in the offseason. Like you said, we have a lot of returning guys. I don’t know if this is where we expected to be, but we’re really happy that this is the situation we’re in and we’re just going to keep working hard every day.

SJM: Have you been a basketball player since you were a little kid?
SC: Yep, I’ve been playing a long time. Basketball was always [my No. 1 sport].

SJM: You made a lot of improvement between your sophomore and junior seasons. Looking back, was that the key to your development?
SC: Yeah. I remember at the end of my sophomore season I just really wasn’t happy with how I was playing. I made it a point that summer to work really, really hard, almost every single day, on my game. I think it’s paid off.

SJM: What specifically did you want to get better at?
SC: I worked on my ball handling a lot and became more of a point guard. Sophomore year I was more of a shooter and wing-type player. But I worked really hard on ball handling and watched some tapes of good point guards and how they see the floor. I tried to incorporate that into my game.

SJM: What point guards do you respect and admire?
SC: Definitely Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving and old Deron Williams. Old Deron Williams was my favorite player. He used to be so good.

SJM: Do you notice other teams playing you differently now, whether it’s junk defenses or just special attention?
SC: Definitely, especially in division games. Almost every game they try to take me away as much as possible. That comes with [the territory]. But Justin Ortiz has stepped up big this season and he’s been really important for us. Nick McGough has been playing really well lately, AJ Michaels too. Everybody is stepping up.

SJM: What’s the toughest place for you to play?
SC: Last year I would say Cherry Hill East, just because of their fans. But there’s no team that stands out this year.

SJM: Any particular players you enjoy going up against?
SC: I love competition, so I like playing against players who were on my AAU team [the South Jersey All-Stars], some guys from Eastern and Shawnee and Cherry Hill East.

SJM: How’s the recruiting process going?
SC: It’s going well. I was kind of unsure coming into the season what I was going to do. I got a couple Division II looks and a look from Navy, but I actually committed to the Stevens Institute of Technology. I think it’s the best fit overall for me. They’re an up-and-coming Division III program. The thing that really stands out for me is the education there. I think they’re top three in the nation for value for your money and I can come out and definitely get a good job after going to that school.

SJM: So you’re originally from California?
SC: Yeah, I was born there and we moved here when I was 4. I don’t remember it but we’ve been back to visit a couple times. It’s really nice there.

SJM: What did you like about growing up in Washington Township?
SC: I feel like it’s not a huge town, but there’s a lot of things going on there. It’s a good environment with good people.

SJM: The guys on the team seem really close with each other.
SC: Definitely. We’ve been playing together our whole lives, going back to a fifth-grade travel team.

SJM: Do you have a favorite basketball movie?
SC: That’s a good question. I don’t know if I can pick. I guess I would say Space Jam. … I don’t watch a ton of basketball movies.

SJM: Do you watch a lot of basketball games?
SC: Yeah, I like college and the NBA. I like the Sixers, even though they’re not that good. College basketball, I’ve always been a Duke fan. I just like watching good competition.

SJM: You’re a Duke fan? I’m a Carolina fan, we have to stop the interview now.
SC: [Laughs] OK.

Timmy Perry, Cherry Hill East basketball
A 6-foot-10 senior forward, Perry helped the Cougars win back-to-back sectional championships the last two years, the first in school history. The Division I recruit is the son of former Temple star and NBA player Tim Perry.

SOUTH JERSEY MAGAZINE: What’s it been like to be part of some history-making teams at Cherry Hill East during your career?
TIMMY PERRY: It’s been an amazing feeling and a great experience to have such great teammates and make such great memories on and off the court. The gym was always packed and I got great support not only from my teammates, but from people from my school who believed in us.

SJM: What did you learn from playing with [current Penn guard] Jake Silpe the last couple of years?
TP: I learned a lot from Jake. I learned about leadership qualities and he’s an amazing person on and off the court. He taught me a lot and helped me come into my own as a basketball player.

SJM: Now that he’s gone, how are you dealing with becoming the leader and focal point for the team?
TP: I’m embracing it. I have to be more of a leader now that Jake’s gone. We had a few things we had to adjust, but overall we’re working hard and trying to get better.

SJM: What has the recruiting process been like for you? Does it get overwhelming or are you enjoying it?
TP: Sometimes it can be a little annoying, but it’s fine. I’ve taken visits to Temple and Drexel, but I don’t know where I want to go yet.

SJM: I can’t imagine why you would want to go to Temple. Is your dad pushing you in that direction?
TP: My dad just wants me to go wherever I feel is best and that I’m happy with. He doesn’t really care about, ‘You have to go to Temple because I went there.’ He’s not that type of person.

SJM: You’re not old enough to remember him as a player, are you?
TP: He was playing overseas, he wasn’t playing in the NBA when I was born. But I’ve talked to some people and I’ve seen films here and there. I know how he was as a player.

SJM: Do you think you’re similar to him as a player?
TP: In a lot of aspects, people do say we have very similar games. But I’m learning from him, so I guess we’re going to be similar in a sense.

SJM: You seem to take defense seriously, like your dad did. Is that important to you?
TP: Yeah, defense is just as important as offense. If you’re not stopping the ball, what good is your offense?

SJM: Do you ever tease your dad about getting traded for Charles Barkley?
TP: [Laughs] No, I haven’t done that.

SJM: Have you always lived in this area? What do you like about growing up in South Jersey?
TP: I grew up in Cherry Hill. I moved to Mullica Hill in third grade, but then I came back in eighth grade. There are so many activities here. When I lived in Mullica Hill, there wasn’t anything—there was just land. But here there are malls and restaurants and you can go out with your friends. You’re not so limited.

SJM: Do you watch a lot of basketball when you’re not playing?
TP: I watch a lot of college basketball; I’m really into LSU. I like the Spurs in the NBA. I like sound basketball teams.

SJM: Who are some of the guys you enjoy playing against in high school?
TP: I like playing against Spencer [Cook]. We’ve been on the same team for AAU, so it’s a lot of fun. I like going against Eastern because of my friends over there. It’s always nice when you have friends on the other team. You battle it out, then at the end you go over and shake hands.

SJM: Obviously you miss Jake this year, but can your team go as far as it’s gone the last few seasons?
TP: Hopefully. We have some key pieces we need to work out, but if we’re able to get those in order we’ll be OK. If we’re able to capture the moment and not get wrapped up in other things, I think we can make it to that level again.

Brandon Barbella, Eastern wrestling
A district and region champion last season, this senior 132-pounder is looking to qualify for states for the third year in a row and place in Atlantic City before heading off to wrestle at Clarion University.

SOUTH JERSEY MAGAZINE: Are you enjoying your final season at Eastern?
BRANDON BARBELLA: It comes with responsibility. A lot of kids look up to me and we have a lot of freshmen. It feels a little weird being a senior; it came a lot faster than I thought it would. This is my last chance to prove that I’m state-caliber kid and I can get on that podium for top eight.

SJM: How are you adjusting to new head coach Brian Boland?
BB: Last year he was an assistant under Coach [Bobby] Stinson. Mr. Boland has stepped right in and I don’t think he missed a beat. We latched on to him pretty quickly as a team, and we’re all like family. It’s really coming together; you can see each match that we wrestle, we’re getting better.

SJM: Wrestling has to be the toughest sport, both physically and mentally. Do you agree with that?
BB: Absolutely. A lot of people underestimate just being able to step out on the mat by yourself in front of a hundred people sometimes. It’s not easy. It’s definitely a mind game, just trying to last through March. It’s a long, grueling season, especially for kids who are cutting weight. I think one of the things I excel in is the mental approach, and there’s also a physical toll. The ones who put in the work see the results.

SJM: How old were you when you started?
BB: I was actually playing football for the pee-wees on the 60-pound team and my coach told me I was a good tackler. So he said, ‘Why don’t you try out for wrestling?’ I was 5 years old in my first season and I didn’t win a match. I went 0-16. I said, ‘I’m not doing this anymore,’ but I stuck with it and picked it up quickly after that.

SJM: The district and region tournaments are so enjoyable to watch. What’s it like to be part of?
BB: I thoroughly enjoy the postseason. I like winning as a team too, but I think it’s cool to see how far you’ve progressed as an individual throughout the season. It’s all about you, and you can see the hard work that you’ve put in since the Monday after Thanksgiving. I love the atmosphere, and being in the finals is the best because everybody is watching you. [At regions] they do the introductions, they break it down to one mat, one year they had the spotlight. It’s really cool, and I like feeling that pressure.

SJM: Going to states in Atlantic City takes things to whole other level. Do you feel like having that experience the last few years will benefit you this year if you make it back?
BB: Absolutely. I remember the first time I stepped on the mat there, and it’s a whole different experience being at Boardwalk Hall. There’s nothing like it. I looked up and saw the lights and I said to my coach, ‘How did I get here?’ That was my sophomore year, and I definitely think the experience will help me. It’s something you have to get used to. You have to be mentally prepared for it.

SJM: Had you been to states before as a fan?
BB: Oh yeah. I think the first time I was there was in 2008, when I was watching Eastern guys like Robert Deutsch, Preston Kieffer and Hank Stinson. But there’s nothing like being out there wrestling. It’s a totally different experience from being a fan.

SJM: Do you guys stay together as a team in Atlantic City?
BB: Yeah, it’s funny you ask because we’re actually making plans now. The whole team plans on going down and we try to stay together, because the team aspect helps. Teams like Bergen Catholic take up an entire section; they’re loud and they cheer on whoever is wrestling. It’s something you strive for as a team to have everybody there.

SJM: Who are some wrestlers that pose a challenge and you like going up against?
BB: There was a kid I wrestled this year, Quinn Kinner from Kingsway, who bumped up all the way from 106 to 126. I wrestled him at 132 at the South Jersey Duals. He was very strong and he was technical. I like wrestling guys who are similar to my style, because I know it’s gonna be a close match. It comes down to who wants it more, who has better technique and who can mentally stay in the match.

SJM: How did you settle on Clarion as the right school and wrestling program?
BB: There were a few things. The first thing that attracted me to the school was a guy named Kyle Kiss. He wrestled Anthony Trongone in the state finals, I think it was 2008, the first year I went. I got a call one day from the Clarion [assistant] coach and it was Kyle Kiss. I told him I was one of his biggest fans. So I went for a visit and met with the guys. Then I figured out that the wrestler who’s at my projected weight class, 141, is ranked 13th in the country right now. His name is Brock Zacherl. So once I found out he would be my partner for the next three years, that was a huge factor. I’m going to get better when I go there. The coaches told me they need some Jersey blood on the team, so once I found out I was the only Jersey guy, I said I would definitely come. … So it was a combination of the coaching staff, the kids there and the atmosphere. I like the cold weather too. It’s right near Pittsburgh, so it’s right up my alley. They’re also getting a brand new wrestling gym, so it’s almost where I was supposed to be.

SJM: What do you like about growing up in South Jersey?
BB: One thing I definitely like is that you’re an hour away from the beach and Philly is right over the bridge. I like the seasons; it’s not bitterly cold or really hot the whole year. My family is all here. I just think it’s a great place to grow up. And there’s no better school to go to than Eastern.

SJM: What are your hobbies outside of wrestling?
BB: I’m a huge video gamer, I like to fish, I’m a workout freak. Honestly, I just like hanging out. I love the beach and I’m an outdoor kid. I like to do anything but wrestling when it’s not time to wrestle. But when it’s time for practice, that’s when you get serious. I also love to travel.

SJM: You’ve probably traveled a lot through wrestling.
BB: I’ve been as far as California, Michigan, Florida. I’ve been everywhere for wrestling and I’ve seen a lot of things through wrestling. It’s a great sport and I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. Even when the going gets tough, I love wrestling.

Alex Martin, Moorestown swimming
A two-time individual state champion in the 100 backstroke, Martin also shines in the freestyle and has helped the Quakers win two straight state team titles. He has committed to the University of Michigan to continue his career.

SOUTH JERSEY MAGAZINE: How did you get into swimming?
ALEX MARTIN: I was maybe 6 when I started swimming competitively. I was never supposed to be a swimmer. We were supposed to live at the beach in the summer, and you can never do that if you’re a swimmer because it’s a summer sport. My dad was a wrestler and a football player, so my parents kind of wanted me to do that. But then I was swimming at Sunnybrook, which is the local pool near our house, and the swim coach happened to see me and said, ‘Hey, he’s pretty good, he should try out for the swim team.’ So I ended up trying out and I made the Sunnybrook swim team. I never looked back after that.

SJM: Do you think you were a natural in the sport?
AM: Yeah. I was always drawn to the water. Even when I couldn’t swim, I would run into the water and almost drown myself, and my parents would pull me out. I’d get so mad at them for pulling me out of the water. So they would literally put me at the top of the beach—this was before I could walk—and wait for me to crawl all the way down to the ocean. I’d get hit by a wave and they’d pick me up and start all over. They’d do that all day long. So I’ve always been a natural swimmer.

SJM: Speaking of the beach, what’s your favorite Shore town?
AM: I love Long Beach Island, that’s my favorite place. We go there and Avalon just about every summer.

SJM: Is the busy swimming schedule something you’re used to by now?
AM: Definitely. It’s gotten to be really repetitive and normal. I feel weird on days when I don’t practice. If I told someone my schedule day by day throughout the week, they’d think I was crazy. It’s just something you have to work up to and get used to. At this point, it’s just how I live.

SJM: Are there days when you really don’t feel like going to the pool though?
AM: Of course. I’ve had many, many days like that. When somebody says they love going to swim practice every day, I never believe them. It’s so repetitive. To be a really good swimmer, you have to work so much harder than in a lot of other sports, I think. … You hate it all the time, but when you look back you realize you love it.

SJM: What’s your favorite event?
AM: My favorite is probably the 100 backstroke or the 50 free. I like the backstroke because I can breathe. I actually had a lot of breathing problems when I was younger. I had sports-induced asthma and never even knew it until I was like 14. So I swam backstroke could my head was out of the water and I could breathe the whole time. Then it just turned into my best stroke.

SJM: Are you driven by the chance to win your third straight state title in the backstroke?
AM: Yeah. We never really taper or rest for that meet, because we always have our rest meet for my club team right after that. So I feel like that meet is always a good indicator for where I should be at the end of the season. I’m always going there and having a lot of fun racing. I just focus on doing the best I can and enjoying the sport.

SJM: Who do you see at the toughest competition this year?
AM: I haven’t really looked at any other swimmers in New Jersey or looked at the meet sheets or anything. But I know Jason Arthur [of Teaneck High School], he’s a good friend of mine, will be there and he’ll definitely be going fast. He’s one kid I’ll definitely be looking out for.

SJM: Do you think the team has a target on its back after winning back-to-back state championships?
AM: I think so. It’s kind of interesting, because last year we were so good and we lost 18 seniors. It’s cool to be in a position where last year we were such a powerhouse, and now we have to try to live up to those standards. I can see the drive in a lot of the underclassmen to live up to the standards the juniors and seniors have set the last few years. But I also think we’ve done a good job of keeping things in perspective and realizing how much we lost last year. We’re going meet by meet and trying to get faster each time, instead of saying we have to win every meet and win the state championship. The best way to accomplish those things is to think about getting faster each meet, working on the little things and just having fun.

SJM: The University of Michigan has one of the best swimming programs in the country. What did you like about it?
AM: I think the biggest thing for me was the atmosphere the swim team has. I was looking at a lot of big swimming schools, and what I found is that they’re all similar as far as the academic standards, at least the schools that I was looking at. It really came down to the coaches and the team atmosphere. Mike Bottom is just an awesome guy, regardless of swimming, and I think he’s a genius as a swim coach. I liked how their swim team seemed like a family, and on top of that it’s an awesome academic school with a really, really good business school, which fits perfectly with me.

SJM: Is that what you want to study?
AM: Yes. I’m thinking investment banking is really cool, but to be honest, I’m very open-minded.

SJM: What did you think of Ann Arbor?
AM: It’s really cool because it’s such a college town, but it’s also a city too.

SJM: Are you ready for Michigan winters?
AM: Oh yeah. I actually just bought big snow boots a few weeks ago and I’m looking to get a nice warm jacket too.

SJM: Obviously you still have your college career ahead of you, but down the line would you say swimming in the Olympics is a goal?
AM: Yeah. It’s always been a goal in the back of my mind. It’s really the peak you can reach in swimming, and I’m the type of person who always believes you should strive to be the best you can be. I feel like going to the Olympics is the epitome of that. It’s never been Plan A though. A lot of people set their sights on the Olympics and they have no backup plan. So if they don’t make it, they don’t really know what to do. You can’t swim forever, so I’ve always put it in my mind to stress academics as much as possible while still excelling in the pool. I want to get a great education in college, and if the opportunity arises to have a shot at the Olympics, I’ll definitely take it.

SJM: Who are the swimmers you love to watch?
AM: I love watching [Michael] Phelps, which is the typical answer. But I just think to be the best in the world or the best ever in the sport, you kind of have to have his mindset. He’s so confident he’s going to win every single race and he’s so driven to take every moment possible and get better at his trade. So I love watching him, because he’s so unique. I also really like this backstroker named Nick Thoman. I think he got the silver in the 100 back in the London Olympics. I trained in North Carolina for about three weeks, and he was one of the guys who was my backstroke mentors. He taught me so much and he’s one of the happiest people on earth. He’s always laughing and telling jokes, so I loved to be around him. He took the sport of swimming from this cold-hard workout to a fun atmosphere.

SJM: What kind of things are you interested in away from the pool?
AM: I like playing golf; I love going to the beach and surfing and skimboarding; I like playing the piano. I recently tried playing the ukulele, too. I tend to gravitate toward music and the beach and board sports.

SJM: What do you like about going to school at Mooretown?
AM: It’s an awesome school all-around. They seem like they have all of their ducks in a row and look at every aspect. I think it’s generally one of the more academically challenging schools. I’ve found that a lot of my friends who have gone to college, Moorestown set them up to do really well when they got there. And Moorestown as a town is so cool, because it’s a little town and everybody knows each other.

Collin Wickramaratna, Cherokee wrestling
As a freshman 106-pounder last year, Wickramaratna took second at both the district and region tournaments to qualify for states. Now a sophomore 113-pounder, he’s aiming to claim the titles this time around and return to Atlantic City.

SOUTH JERSEY MAGAZINE: After such a successful freshman year, have you raised the bar even higher for yourself this year?
COLLIN WICKRAMARATNA: Yeah, I had to raise it a little higher this year because I achieved a lot of my goals last year. I surprised myself, especially at the regions. I knew I would be starting, because we didn’t have another 106-pounder at the time. But the surprising part was taking second at regions. I wasn’t expecting to make the finals, but when I got there I realized, ‘I can do this.’

SJM: You were seeded seventh at regions but ended up taking second. What was the most important match during the tournament for you?
CW: Probably the semifinals, because that’s what got me to go to A.C. I beat a kid from Eastern, Jordan Pinette. I wrestled him this season too.

SJM: Do you prefer wrestling the tougher kids rather than someone you can easily pin?
CW: Yeah, because it gets me ready for regions and states. It’s all good kids at that point. I learn what’s working, what’s not working, what I need to fix and what I have to do to get better.

SJM: How old were you when you first started wrestling?
CW: I believe I was 5 or 6. I started in the Lenape [youth] program because my dad was coaching over there. He loves wrestling; he wrestled in high school and for the Air Force.

SJM: Did you play other sports too?
CW: I started at a karate place before I went to wrestling. Then all the way up to eighth grade it was wrestling and baseball, but once I got to high school I just focused on wrestling.

SJM: What’s it like having a talented wrestler like Conner Cosgrove on your team who is close to your weight class?
CW: It’s nice having someone very close to my weight to work with. Usually when we’re warming up, he tells me not to worry about the crowd and to wrestle my match.

SJM: How would you describe your wrestling style?
CW: I’m aggressive and I have mat awareness. I learned to be more aggressive from my coaches. I wasn’t shooting much, so they told me to shoot more and they helped me to set up stuff.

SJM: Wrestling is such a demanding sport. What is the toughest part of it for you?
CW: When you’re getting ready to suck weight, that’s probably the hardest part. Once you make weight and start wrestling, that’s the easy part. Luckily my dad wrestled, so he helps me control my food and my diet. I can only have my three meals and maybe an apple for a snack.

SJM: In addition to your wrestling, people probably know you for your last name. Do you hear a lot of weird pronunciations of it?
CW: Yeah, I hear it at away schools and they call us out to shake hands. The district tournament is at home so they know how to say it, but they said it really weird at regions. It doesn’t bother me; if it’s a problem, they can just say ‘Wick.’

SJM: What were your impressions of wrestling at states last year for the first time?
CW: It was a little disappointing because I didn’t win any matches. But it was fun just being there because it’s so big. The way it was all set up was pretty nice.

SJM: What are your goals this year?
CW: To make it to Sunday at states, because if you make it to Sunday it means you’ve placed. If my head is there, I think I have a shot. My head wasn’t there last year on the first day. And I have to win [districts and regions]. I think I have a good shot, just like last year.

SJM: What are some of your interests away from wrestling?
CW: Me and my friends from school and the wrestling team, we all have this game on our phones called Clash of Clans. So we all hook up and play that game. You build your own base and go into war and attack the other clans.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 11 (February, 2016).
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