Crowther, Vander Valk valued Knights leaders



o-captains Joe Crowther and Dan Vander Valk played integral roles in making the Old Bridge High School wrestling team’s season a successful one.

Both grapplers won their respective weight classes at the District 20 competition to move on to the Region 5 competition. Crowther, 25-4 on the year, again took first place in the regional event, and he won the Greater Middlesex Conference (GMC) Tournament earlier this winter. Vander Valk, who is 21-7, was second in his division at the GMC but was eliminated in the regional competition.

"Joe and Dan are outstanding leaders, and I was lucky to have them," said veteran Old Bridge Coach Ken Scott. "It’s like having two extra coaches in the room. They truly set the standard for the team, not just on the mats, but in the classroom. They are excellent examples of what we want our program to be."

Sporting a career mark of 71-24, Crowther heads to the state tournament at 140 pounds. That should be no surprise to Old Bridge fans, as the senior comes from a wrestling family. His father, Harry "The Cradle" Crowther, starred for Cedar Ridge High School, as did his uncle Lenny. Brothers Harry and Cliff also made their mark at Old Bridge. Paul Fredericks, an uncle on his mother’s side, is also a former wrestler. And they all come to watch Joe compete.

Naturally, one of Joe Crowther’s strengths is the cradle; he also excels from the bottom. Of course, he has been wrestling since the third grade and has had some fine tutors along the way.

"Joe is a finisher, a hardworking kid who will work at a task and do it well until it’s complete," Scott said. "That’s how he won the District; he refused to quit, and in the end he won. He just has a lot of heart."

Coming off of a 20-win season, expectations were high for Crowther. "I didn’t really think about it that much," he said. "I just tried to work hard and take things one match at a time."

He also credited Vander Valk and teammates Omar Munoz and Kevin Quinlan with helping sharpen his skills in their practice matches.

"I try to be smart out there," Crowther explained. "I have an in-between style; I’m not too aggressive and I’m not too defensive. I try to take what my opponent gives me."

What Crowther, who has 10 pins, will do more often than not is provide an opponent with six torturous minutes of give and take. Ranked in the top 10 percent of his class, Crowther uses his mind as much as his formidable athletic skills to succeed.

On the other hand, Vander Valk came into the season not knowing his role. He was 11-11 last season and at one point he ended up in a reserve role.

"I pulled him out of the lineup last year," Scott said. "He never said a word, and I never heard from his parents. That’s the kind of kid he is. He took that as a marching order to work harder. And did he ever work. I wanted to make him a captain, but I wasn’t sure where he would fit in, so I hesitated. He was not going to b denied. He did his talking through his actions."

The day after football season ended, Vander Valk, ranked eighth academically in a class of 640, was in the wrestling room getting ready. He was much improved on his feet, and when wrestle-offs began he made his mark quickly and became the starter at 152 pounds.

"The most important thing for me was maturing," he said. "I didn’t have mat sense. I’d just try to score, and that’s how I’d get caught. Now I can manage a match and pick my spots."

A few-early season wins built Vander Valk’s confidence — and he was off and running. His excellent senior campaign has improved his career record to 42-28.

Something of a throwback, Vander Valk is a three-sport man, mixing football and baseball with wrestling. He admits that in an era when many athletes concentrate on one sport, it’s increasingly difficult to play three.

"I would probably be a better wrestler, for example, if I concentrated on it year-round and were able to put everything into it," he said. "But I’m very glad I’ve had the opportunity to play three sports at the varsity level. That’s been a great experience, too."

Despite their successes on the mats, neither Crowther nor Vander Valk is certain if he will continue in college. Both have been accepted to Rutgers University but are weighing their options.

Not to fear, though; the Crowther and Vander Valk names are not likely to go away from Old Bridge wrestling. Crowther’s cousins Len and Keith are now competing at Sandberg Middle School, while Vander Valk has three younger brothers. Nick, a sophomore, competed for the Old Bridge junior varsity; Mike competes for Salk Middle School; and Steve, a first-grader, is about to enter the Mat Rat program.

"Kids like Joe and Dan are part of the reason I stay in coaching," Scott said. "And it goes way beyond wrestling. They’re good people."

Crowther was joined at yesterday’s Super Regions in Red Bank by teammates Justin Smigelsky, Mike Carro and Sal Iodaci.

Smigelsky is also a Region 5 champion and is guaranteed a spot at the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association Wrestling Tournament, to be held this weekend at the Meadowlands Continental Airlines Arena, East Rutherford.

Smigelsky powered his way to the 103-pound title on Saturday at Hunterdon Central High School. Previously, Smigelsky had won the District 20 event and finished second in the Greater Middlesex Conference (GMC) tourney. The junior’s record stands at 25-3 on the season.

"Justin’s a battler," Coach Scott said. "He has a lot of experience and he’s been there before, taking second in the Region and District last year."

Iodaci, 20-6, took second place in his weight class in Region 5, losing a 9-7 decision to East Brunswick’s Tom Corio. He also finished second in the District 20 competition to Corio.

As with Iodaci, Carro was a finalist at Region 5 and took second in the 119-pound weight class.