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The Blair Mat Project Deep in the woods of New Jersey lurks the nation's premier high school program

March 04, 2002
March 04, 2002

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March 4, 2002

The Blair Mat Project Deep in the woods of New Jersey lurks the nation's premier high school program

Tucked away in the flinty hills of northwestern New Jersey, on a
ridge overlooking the village of Blairstown, sit the lovely old
gray-stone-and-brick buildings of Blair Academy. If something in
the surrounding thickly wooded hills seems vaguely familiar,
it's probably because Friday the 13th was shot here, in town and
at a summer camp down the road. You remember the plot: Maniac
ambushes a camp full of scantily clad teens, dispatching them so
quickly they never know what hit them.

This is an article from the March 4, 2002 issue

That's not so different from the plot that is acted out each
winter by Blair's wrestlers, though it has been a long time
since they sneaked up on anybody. For four of the last six years
Blair has been ranked No. 1 in the country, not only among prep
schools but among all high schools. That's not bad for an
academically ambitious boarding school with 430 boys and girls.
Last year heavyweight Steve Mocco was the national high school
wrestler of the year; this year six Blair wrestlers are ranked
among the nation's top eight in their weight classes, including
two No. 1s: Zack Esposito at 152 pounds and Kurt Backes at 189.
"Our trophies have outgrown our trophy case," says coach Jeff
Buxton, gesturing to a small forest of gleaming statues, some
nearly as tall as his wrestlers.

Last Saturday afternoon at Lehigh's Stabler Arena, Blair ran its
streak of national prep school championships to an amazing 23,
winning nine of 14 weight classes in a field of 127 teams. How
dominant were the Buccaneers? They scored 396 points; runner-up
DeMatha of Hyattsville, Md., had 153.5. The outstanding wrestler
award went to Blair junior Mark Perry, who won all five of his
matches by pins or technical falls. It wasn't hard to figure out
which team the crowd had picked as heavies: Every point scored
against Blair was cheered lustily. "A badge of honor," said
Buxton, grinning. "Our kids love that atmosphere."

Among top wrestlers Blair is viewed as a kind of finishing
school at which they can boost their grades and polish their
moves (sometimes after high school is over; the Buccaneers
annually have a handful of postgraduate wrestlers who spend a
year at Blair before heading to college). Perry, in fact, is
from Stillwater, Okla., where his uncle, 1988 Olympic champion
John Smith, is Oklahoma State's coach.

Blair's facilities aren't the draw. There are two mat rooms, but
they date to 1910. The school's isolated location helps because
it enhances the training camp atmosphere. "Girls are the only
distraction we have," says Backes.

More important are Buxton, who's been at Blair since 1982, and
his five assistants, all onetime college wrestlers, two of them
former All-Americas. A short, bowlegged man who walks with a
slight limp as a result of a recent hip replacement, Buxton is
one of those coaches who's always learning. In the off-season
his wrestlers do conditioning workouts that he picked up from
Russians who had wrestled at Blair, including running relays
while carrying logs or rolling a cast-iron buoy. "He's as
intense as Dan Gable," says Tom Hutchinson, who was a Blair
assistant coach before moving to the head job at rival Hill
School in Pottstown, Pa., "but he's smart enough to hide it
better."

Blair isn't bound by New Jersey public school rules, which limit
wrestlers to 25 matches before the sectional duals and impose
strict limits on the length of the season. When the folkstyle
wrestling season ends, the Buccaneers switch to freestyle or
Greco-Roman in hopes of qualifying for national teams. They
wrestle pretty much year-round, which in a technical sport is a
definite advantage.

Not to say this is a wrestling factory. Buxton picks good,
motivated kids who often are admitted to the most prestigious
colleges. (Two of this year's postgrads will go to Harvard.) For
a parent, what's not to like, apart from the $28,000 price tag?
Classes are small, study hall is mandatory every night from
eight to 10, and there's even some social polishing by way of a
semiformal dinner twice a week.

For Blair's rivals, things are only going to get tougher. The
school is raising funds to build a new gym. "We'll be able to
host national-caliber tournaments and have a top training
facility," says Buxton, eyes gleaming at the thought of just how
serious things will then get.

COLOR PHOTO: GEORGE TIEDEMANN/GT IMAGES Gregg Romano (foreground) and his Blair mates again put foes in an unenviable position.