After the opposing team is finished running around the mat and warming up, and just as the late arrivees into The Den kindly shove themselves into one of the few empty spots left in the bleachers, the lights go out inside Delran High School’s gymnasium.
One light remains, though, just above the mat. And then the 80s soundtrack kicks in over the speakers. Suddenly, a couple dozen Bears bust through the doors and jog around in a circular motion.
They illuminate the gym. The atmosphere is electric. And if it doesn’t get a young wrestler fired up for a rivalry match, nothing will.
But the true motivation for the Delran wrestling team comes from the names and faces that populate the banners in the gym and are honored inside the practice room. The only thing stronger than the rich history of the program is the effect it has on the teenagers currently wearing the brown and gold singlets.
“It’s something special,” said senior Zach Zuckerman, a two-time district champion. “This sport is a big part of my family, and we have a great wrestling program here.”
Zuckerman’s uncle is former longtime Delran High wrestling coach Dennis Smith. Both Smith and Zuckerman’s father, Andy, are former state champions.
Zuckerman’s teammate a year ago, Brian Miraglia, who currently wrestles at Rider University, became Delran’s all-time winningest wrestler last winter. Although he hasn’t wrestled at the school in 25 years, former state champ Brett Matter’s name still hovers over the program as the gold standard for wrestling excellence that Bears of the past and present strive for daily.
“It’s inspirational,” Zuckerman said. “When we’re back there warming up, looking at the names, it motivates you.”
Zuckerman and the current, senior-laden Bears are doing their best to keep the legacy going. The Bears worked their way to a 45-25 win over Cinnaminson on Jan. 29 to improve to 17-4 on the season and remain unbeaten in Burlington County Scholastic League competition.
The wins are important, surely. But so is the workmanlike attitude the seniors bring to the wrestling room every day of the season and the effort they pour out onto the mat every night the lights go out in The Den.
“We lose a lot of seniors this year,” coach Nathan Marter said, “and a part of my challenge to them this year is, ‘What kind of impact are you going to have on the underclassmen? What are you going to show them? What traditions are you going to leave with them that they want to live up to for next year and continue that tradition on?’”
As the wrestling season heads toward its final month, the Bears have a few dates circled on their schedules. On Feb. 22, they can leave a significant mark on the program by taking the District 24 team title.
Last year the Bears were runners-up. They haven’t won a district team title since 2014.
“It’d mean everything,” said Sean Theis, one of three senior captains on the team with Zuckerman and Eren Ibas. “It’d be awesome. We have a lot of great wrestlers so I definitely feel like we can do it.”
“We fell short last year, and all it did was make us want to work harder and win it this year,” Ibas said. “I feel like everyone pushes each other. And we have a young group, too, so we’re all trying to leave a good example for the younger guys that are coming up.”
The Bears’ leaders have been doing that well in 2020. Ibas showed his perseverance last week in continuing to work until collecting a pin in the final minute of his 152-pound match against Cinnaminson.
“Eren is by far the hardest working kid in the room; he never stops,” Marter said. “He never has an off day. He gives everything he has all the time.”
Zuckerman and Theis are quieter, Marter said, but set the tone through the examples they set in and outside of the wrestling room.
“Sean is a good kid in the classroom and a good kid outside of the building, well respected, and Zach does all the right things in the room and out of the room,” Marter said. “They’re a blessing to have this year, leading this group.”
Every senior has their own individual and team goals as they enter the final months of prep competition, whether it’s to advance to the individual state tournament (in Zuckerman’s crosshairs) or to simply leave everything on the mat and continue to improve each day as they begin to dwindle down in the season’s final four weeks.
They know it’s time to empty the proverbial tank. They want to make sure that when they walk out of the school’s wrestling room for the final time in March that they can do so knowing they gave themselves and their team every opportunity to succeed.
“You have to live it up,” Ibas said.
“This is it,” Theis added. “It’s been a long ride, it’s crazy. But it’s been fun. I’ve learned a lot of life lessons and in working hard, I’m going to continue to carry that (mindset) into the future in college.”