Streak no stress for Blair wrestlers
It's not about the streak anymore.
Yes, the Blair Academy (Blairstown, N.J.) wrestling team has won 28 consecutive National Prep championships, an impressive feat that has drawn national attention. And yet, to those inside the program, the exact number seems to become less and less important with each passing season.
The team has reached the point where numbers can't be used to convey the level of success Blair has enjoyed. When the streak is twice as old as the average age of an incoming freshman, all that history can seem overwhelming, or even meaningless.
"It's a long history," says coach Jeff Buxton, who is in his 28th year at the helm of the country's No. 1 high school wrestling program. "They were winning before I got here, and it was winning before the current kids got here. It's something we're all aware of every time we walk into the gym."
And while it may be impossible for the current team members to fully understand what's come before them, they all respect it.
Tucked away in Blairstown, the Blair Academy campus doesn't scream wrestling. It doesn't "scream" anything. With a total enrollment of 430 students (about 220 boys), the quiet, secluded grounds wouldn't seem to be the type of environment that fosters a national sports powerhouse.
That's where the tradition and reputation of Blair come into play. With a history that includes 35 senior nationals champions and countless high school All-Americans, it's the destination of choice for the country's top wrestling prospects.
Blair senior Sean Boyle went 54-0, won a state title and earned a New England championship as a sophomore for his hometown high school in Lowell, Mass. After that season, however, he realized that in order to get to the next level as a wrestler, he needed a greater challenge. After carefully maintaining his academics and getting all A's and B's, he transferred to Blair.
"It's a prestigious program, No. 1 in the country," says Boyle. "Everyone knows that Blair is the best program from top to bottom, and they always have guys who continue to wrestle in college. That's what I wanted."
Wrestling at 112 pounds as a junior last year, Boyle won individual titles at the National Prep Tournament and the Beast of the East tournament and was named an honorable mention All-American. Now he's committed to Michigan, one of the NCAA's top programs.
Boyle's story is hardly unique. In addition to nearby New York, Pennsylvania and New England states, Blair draws top-level talent from around the country. This year, there are wrestlers from Texas, North Dakota, Virginia and Arizona on the roster.
Evan Silver, a National Prep champion at 103 pounds last year as a freshman, is from Maryland.
"It's a cycle in that way," says Buxton. "When these kids go on to college and have success, whether it's in wrestling or just in their career and life, other kids see it and want to duplicate that. That's really one of the strongest draws for potential student-athletes."
Perhaps the strongest draw for Blair is Buxton himself. He may not have been there at the beginning of the school's championship run, but as the coach for almost three decades, he's had the biggest hand in the continued excellence.
Blair's dynasty spans generation after generation, and Buxton has coached some of the greatest wrestlers in the country. He's taught All-Americans, future NCAA champs and an Olympic gold medalist, and almost to a man his pupils cite him as the heart of the Blair Academy wrestling program.
Buxton's teaching ability and unique style make believers out of the most skeptical newcomers. The results certainly help, too.
"You just get that sense right off the bat with him," says junior Chris Villalonga, who went undefeated and won a National Prep title at 125 pounds last season. "His coaching style is great. He'll spend time with you on your moves, critiquing and teaching one-on-one until it's perfect. And he does that with everyone on the team."
Some of his more well-known practice techniques are the so-called "caveman drills." Buxton frequently brings his squad to a friend's farm, where they swing sledgehammers, flip large tractor-trailer tires, split wood and push each other around in wheelbarrows.
The Blair coach swears by these unorthodox methods, noting they help improve strength, agility and grip, among other things. "It's not conventional, but it's something different to keep the kids motivated and energized, instead of doing the same thing in practice day after day," he says.
Buxton also preaches the value of competition, and that can be seen in the schedule Blair Academy wrestles every year. In addition to pounding on each other in practice every day, the team travels to Ohio for the Walsh Ironman tournament and to Delaware for the Beast of the East tournament.
Held each December, they are two of the most prestigious events in high school wrestling. And the National Prep Tournament, held every February on the Lehigh University campus in Bethlehem, Pa., features more than 100 of the country's top prep programs.
Blair's only loss last year came to Graham (St. Paris, Ohio) in the Ironman, but Buxton considers such a grueling schedule a necessity.
"We have so many talented wrestlers, we have to get out there and face the best if we want to see what we're made of," he says. "Graham got the best of us last year, but that's something to learn from. We were able to come back by the end of the year and win another national championship."
Those National Prep titles just keep piling up. With four individual defending champs returning this year - and four wrestlers in the top five of their weight class in the W.I.N. Magazine preseason national rankings - expect another title to be added in late February.
That would make 29 in a row and 30 overall, but the Blair Academy wrestlers are focused on something more important than numbers.
"There's so much tradition here, we can't really speak to the past," says Villalonga, who's ranked No. 2 in the country at 130 pounds this season.
"But we want to honor the name. Blair is the very best in high school wrestling, and it's on our shoulders to honor that."
Mike Grimala covers high school sports for ESPN RISE.
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