The Lower Cape May Regional High School contingent could have fit into a car for the trip up the Garden State Parkway to the state individual wrestling championships at Boardwalk Hall this weekend.
But the Caper Tigers' three state qualifiers were not about to abandon their bus for the biggest event of their careers. More importantly, they weren't about to abandon the driver of the bus.
Lower Cape May Regional School District's director of transportation, Joe Battle, has driven the bus for the wrestling team for 36 years.
Battle is more than a driver, though - the 63-year-old West Cape May resident is a fan, mentor and even an occasional coach.
"It's awesome," Lower coach Rocky Ciccozzi said Saturday afternoon. "The guy loves our kids. He does everything possible for our kids. He talks to them before and after the matches. He's just a grandfather figure to us all."
Battle grew up in Nashville, N.C. He didn't know much about wrestling before moving to New Jersey to work for Lower Cape May in the mid-1970s. But he eventually became close with former Caper Tigers coach Bill Garrison.
"We kind of became like brothers, almost," Battle said.
More than 30 years later, Battle knows all the intricacies of the sport.
Lower Cape May state qualifier Zach Hicks referred to Battle as "a coach" when speaking about him Saturday. One day earlier, Battle actually was a coach.
Ciccozzi was unable to make it out to the mat for Cory Damiana's prequarterfinal match, so Battle took his place in Damiana's corner.
"It was exciting," Battle said. "I felt honored that I was even asked to go out there in the place of Rocky. ... That was the highlight of my career."
Another highlight came two years ago, when the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association honored him with a lifetime achievement award at the Region 8 tournament.
Battle said he was sitting in the stands when he heard his name called for that award. He looked around at first, thinking there must be another Joe Battle.
"I mean, I travel with the team, I love the team, I'm driving the bus for the team, but you never expect to get a lifetime achievement award for something like that," he said.
Caper Tigers state qualifier Eric Pruszinski said the award was deserved. Pruszinski said Battle's words of encouragement before and after matches are helpful. And during matches, the Lower wrestlers can hear him cheering.
"It's important. We always listen to him," Pruszinski said.
Battle said he probably will retire from his position in the district in a few years, but he said he still will follow the wrestling team - to the chagrin of his wife, Juanita.
"She doesn't like wrestling," Battle said with a smile. "She says I'm spending too much time away from home during wrestling season. (After the tournament), she knows I'll be home a little more."
This weekend, though, the team needed him. Ciccozzi, who was a wrestler himself when he first met Battle, said all three state qualifiers requested that they take the bus to Boardwalk Hall.
"It's just a tradition that JB always drives us up," Pruszinski said. "He's always there for us."
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