Consistency at the leadership position is an aspect of coaching that has been pinned down (no pun intended) to the South Brunswick High School wrestling program for 23 years. This number equates to how many seasons Coach Joe Dougherty has been taking teenagers and not only transforming them into great wrestlers, but also into solid and mature young adults.
Earlier this season, the head coach picked up the 300th win of his career, when his team beat Monroe 45-15 on Jan. 13. Those that know him best, including his assistant coaches, a few seniors on the squad, and the high school’s athletic director took the time recently, to reflect on the accomplishment.
Speaking humbly, Coach Dougherty stated, “The win plateau was starting to become a distraction. I just wanted to reach the mark because it’s not about me, but about preparing the kids to reach their goals.”
However, this was not a common sentiment shared. Others thought more highly of Dougherty’s 300th win, including South Brunswick High School Athletic Director Elaine McGrath.
“It’s a thrill. This is what it’s all about,” she said. “It is another career mark in an excellent career.”
Looking back at some of his best memories through the years, Coach Dougherty pointed to the times his squads have beaten South Plainfield, which he called “one of the better programs in the state.”
Dougherty also boasted with pride when mentioning the four district titles his teams have captured throughout his career.
Probably more a sign of the type of man Dougherty is, he made sure to include that he loves, “when kids come back and express what they have learned here and how it impacted them.”
Dan Gavin, junior varsity head coach and assistant to Dougherty, said the SBHS coach leaves a lasting impression on the grapplers, long after they have graduated.
Each year the wrestling team holds a fundraiser for a charitable organization at the district wrestling tournament and dyes their hair as a show of solidarity with their cause. This year the team dyed their hair blue to show support for the mother of senior wrestler Fran White Jr.
White's mother Lilian received a bilateral lung transplant on Feb. 7, after being diagnosed with scleroderma four years ago. The year prior, the boys dyed their hair red to support the younger brother of wrestler David Dominguez, who is battling brain cancer.
“The wrestlers are his kids,” Gavin said. “He loses a lot of sleep over them, but kids who you don’t expect to come back to visit the program, return to say thank you.”
Senior 132-pounder Chad Capraro said he would remember his head coach when his career comes to an end.
“He’s the best coach for sports ever. He taught me so many life lessons and it was a great experience having former wrestlers come back as guests,” Capraro said.
Jake Pietrefesa, another senior on this year’s squad, also spoke positively about Dougherty's coaching style.
“Coach is real laid back,” he noted. “He doesn’t put a lot of pressure on you and is focused on making better people out of us.”
With an extensive resume behind him, Dougherty not only commands the respect of his current and former wrestlers, but also the opposition.
“I admired him when we were rivals and have great respect for him, which has grown ever since I came here,” said Assistant Coach Bobby Januska, who also used to coach the wrestling team at North Brunswick High School. “He has never discriminated against any wrestlers, when it comes to skill, gender, or race and is sure to give the wrestlers what they need.”
Beyond the respect of his peers and wrestlers, there is also the example of Dougherty's longevity. After two decades of leading the wrestling program, Dougherty has provided a steady hand and positive influence for the entire athletic department at SBHS.
“Coach Dougherty displays consistency and has solid values, which he shows through his daily practices with the team and how he conducts himself.” McGrath said with pride. “It’s pretty nifty to have a leader for 23 years, do it day in and day out.”
But the leadership of Dougherty extends beyond how the wrestlers perform on the mat. The coach also tries to instill values that help the kids to achieve as both students in the classroom, and as individuals in the community.
“There are so many components to being good men,” Dougherty said. “You need to be able to provide for your family, be on time, accountable, and you need to make good decisions. It is about stepping up for people that rely on you.”
To ensure that these lessons successfully get passed on to the members of the team, Assistant Coach Brian Voliva noted that Dougherty attempts to build a lasting connection with each wrestler on the squad.
“He connects with every kid on a personal level,” Voliva said. “Through practice and being a role model, he gets to know the kids in detail.”
Senior Luke Rimmer, who wrestles at 152 pounds, said that these lessons indeed hit home for the wrestlers on the team.
“Coach has taught me a lot about growing up and becoming a man,” Rimmer said. “He has helped make me dedicated and taught us how to be able to work as a team.
“I hope he remembers me as having fun and always smiling, but also as a tough wrestler and someone who cares about the team.”
Capraro also thought about how he would like Coach Dougherty to remember him.
“I would like to be thought of as having been one of the hardest working wrestlers, who not only helps his team overall, but also his community,” Capraro said.
Pietrefesa said after graduation he hopes that he will be thought of as a role model for his teammates.
“I would love for coach to remember me as a good leader, but also someone who has a good sense of humor,” he stated.
When that elite win plateau was finally achieved, Januska said the milestone was simply an example of what Dougherty has constructed in South Brunswick for the past 23 years.
“It was a fantastic night. 300 wins is just a byproduct of what coach has built this program to be, but I am happy for him,” Januska said.
The weekend's district tournament also brought more accolades to the program. Ali Yildiz won his second straight title at 171 pounds. Jake Pietrefesa won the title at 182 pounds after defeating Omar Salim of Old Bridge in the final. Justin Lopez (120 pounds), Jordan Pagano (126 pounds) also won their weight classes, while Joe Pietrefesa (195 pounds) and Dallas Siegel (220 pounds) captured second place.
White (145 pounds) won as a third place qualifier after defeating Nick Tallifer of Sayreville 10-3, as did Constantine Rissiotis (160 pounds).
Amidst all this positivity, one can see how a leader of a program is built. As the saying goes, “Success starts at the top and builds its way on down.”