Steve Martell’s final high school wrestling match occurred on March 6, 2004, when, at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, he concluded an undefeated season by winning the 152-pound NJSIAA championship, defeating Kody Hamrah of Bishop Ahr in the final.
Martell became just the second state champ in Caldwell High School history, with Blake Maffei earning the Essex County school’s first championship 13 years earlier.
For Martell, the 10th anniversary of his state championship presented a good time to recall that 2003-2004 season. And with a special afternoon planned at Princeton University on Dec. 14 for all the living NJSIAA champions, the memories came flooding back for Martell, today a police officer in nearby Little Falls, NJ.
“It’s hard to believe 10 years have passed,” said Martell, who wrestled on the collegiate level at Johnson and Wales University in Provident, Rhode Island. “In a way, it doesn’t seem that long ago, but, yes, it’s been a while now. A lot of people still remember that I won a state championship, and it’s something which has carried me in life, today. I think having gone through the tournament and competing in such a tough weight class that year showed me what I’m capable of doing, not only as an athlete, but a person.”
When reminded how difficult it is to win a state championship, Martell agreed.
“There have been some great wrestlers in this state that didn’t win one,” Martell said. “I felt very confident going into that weekend in Atlantic City that I could do well. But it really didn’t hit me until I was preparing for the championship match and seeing some of the guys who weren’t in the finals, guys that I knew were really good. That’s why the match at Princeton on Saturday will be really special.”
On Dec. 14, Princeton will face Rutgers in a NCAA match at legendary Jadwin Gym, but before the first bout commences at 5 p.m., the Tigers will be honoring the NJSIAA champions. Princeton assistant coach Joe Dubuque, himself a two-time NJSIAA champion at Glen Ridge High School (2000 and 2001) before winning a pair of NCAA titles at the University of Indiana (2005 and 2006) has been proactive in putting together the event. Dubuque will also be hosting a wrestling clinic at Princeton on Saturday, which starts around 2 p.m.
In the annals of New Jersey high school athletics, few sports invoke the passion that wrestling does and Princeton head wrestling coach Chris Ayres, who graduated from Newton High in Sussex County, NJ, can’t wait for Saturday’s festivities.
“We’re very excited about the opportunity for our program to compete at Jadwin Gym, once again,” Ayres said. “And wrestling Rutgers is a natural for us, especially with what we have planned for that day.”
The first New Jersey state champions in high school wrestling were crowned back in 1934, meaning a wrestler from that era could very well be a World War II vet and is in his late 80s. In 1934, there were nine champions, with five hailing from Ayres’ alma mater. The weight classes back then started at 95 pounds and extended through the heavyweight bracket.
“I’m pretty sure Newton still has the most state champions,” said Ayres, proudly. “It’s amazing how this sport keeps people together, long after their final match.”
For Martell, the opportunity to see men who attained state gold provides a unique opportunity to mingle among a small fraternity. Ironically, as a freshman, Martell wrestled Dubuque, twice, in an Essex County and District 13 final at 119 pounds.
“Joe was really good,” Martell said with a laugh. “He handled me pretty easily. But I wouldn’t trade those times for anything. It made me a better wrestler, for sure.”