Gene Barber Absegami wrestling
Absegami High School wrestling coach Gene Barber watches a recent practice at the Galloway Township school. Barber will retire from coaching after this season, his 33rd. He goes for his 500th win tonight. Danny Drake

Call it a cliche.

Call it corny or unoriginal or whatever you want.

Gene Barber doesn't care.

It's not the Absegami High School wrestling "team."

The most successful high school wrestling coach this area has ever known will be the first to tell you - it's the Absegami High School wrestling "family."

And in the Absegami wrestling family, "he would be the Godfather," said former Absegami athletic director Harry Ackerman, a personal friend of Barber's.

Ackerman was the athletic director at Absegami during the 1977-78 school year. He interviewed and selected Barber as the head coach.

Barber, 58, came highly recommended after successful high school and collegiate careers, but Ackerman didn't know him personally at the time.

"When you would walk into a wrestling practice, see what was going on and see him in action, you just knew that this guy was going to be OK," Ackerman recalled.

Thirty-three years, 482 wins, 17 Cape-Atlantic League Conference titles, 12 District 32 team titles, six South Jersey titles and four Group IV State titles later and Ackerman looks like a bit of a soothsayer heading into Barber's final season as head coach.

"Gene Barber is Absegami wrestling," said Shawn Scannell, one of the top wrestlers in Absegami history, who is a longtime assistant coach for Barber.

"He's the figurehead. Everybody in the state knows Gene Barber and they know Absegami wrestling because of him."

Scannell won 107 matches at Absegami and won the 171-pound state title in 1996 before moving on to wrestle at Rider, where he went on to become an all-American.

His older brother Bob Scannell was a two-time state placewinner in the mid-80s.

The Scannells were just one of the great wrestling families to come through Absegami.

There were the Blacks - Labe, Jeff and Phil - who combined to win 381 matches between the three of them, led by Labe (142), a three-time state champion.

Ryan and Nick Bridge won 136 and 131 matches, respectively, with Ryan winning two state titles and Nick one.

The Chapmans, the Weeds, the Dempseys, the Flegels and the Hammonds – just to name a few.

Just names to some people, but not Barber.

"I'm going to miss the people at Absegami and everybody that wrestled for us," said Barber, who will teach physical education at the school for another year. "We look at ourselves as a family and it's been like that for 33 years. That's what I'm going to miss. …It's a total family effort. You learn to make exceptions and sacrifices. Everybody has a role and everybody has to do their part and that's what we preach with our team. You have to be unselfish as a team to be successful as an individual."

Barber's son Matt wrestled for him earlier this decade and his daughter Gina was a team manager. His other son, Mike, is a senior on this season's team.

And then there is Kathy Barber, Gene's wife of 27 years, who is by all accounts the program's No. 1 fan.

She's is at nearly every meet, home and away, and cheers from start to finish for every single member of the team.

She has stitched commemorative pillows, created banners and even drawn caricatures (which are quite good) for the team and the athletes for certain achievements.

"I think she might miss it more than I do," Gene jokes. "But really, she's always been there to pick me up and put things in perspective. She's always been behind me."

The pair jokes that Kathy is in charge of the program's public relations.

"We are still in contact with so many of the kids that aren't kids anymore," Kathy said with a laugh. "Now they're in their 40s and they have kids of their own."

"I have gotten e-mails from (former wrestlers) saying he had a profound effect on their lives and they wouldn't be where they are without him. He's so low-key and humble that he doesn't even know the profound affect that he has had on people."

A recent e-mail from a former wrestler perhaps summed it up best.

"Someone wrote to ask me if he was really retiring and I said, 'Yeah'," Kathy said. "They said, 'It won't be Absegami without him.' "

More time with family

Barber is still in phenomenal physical shape.

You can find him running around Absegami's sprawling campus up to three and a half miles a day up to five days a week.

He says he could probably "go another 10 years or so" with coaching but would like to spend some more time with his family and leave on his own terms.

"We're really looking forward to the first major family vacation we've ever had next Christmas," Kathy said. "It only took 24 years (the age of Barber's oldest son, Matt.)"

Barber's 482 wins are good for fourth all-time in southern New Jersey, one behind close friend and fellow Paulsboro alum Paul Morina, who coaches at Paulsboro.

Absegami was the No. 1 team in the state from 2001-2004.

The Braves won four straight South Jersey and State Group IV titles and won 103 straight matches during the run.

Absegami went from 1996-2007 without losing a single match in the CAL, reeling off 11 straight Cape-Atlantic League American Conference titles during the run.

Scannell would like to take over for Barber, but he knows he would have some big shoes to fill.

"I take great pride in the program and I would be truly honored if I could pick it up where he left off and go from there," Scannell said.

Barber said he might pop his head into the wrestling room once in a while next season and could see himself getting involved in the state tournament or something along those lines.

"I've had a good run, no regrets," Barber said. "I've been around a lot of great people and we've accomplished a lot. I've been fortunate enough to have some great teams. There were a lot of great wrestlers and great people. That's why every morning it's easy to wake up and go to work. I feel really blessed."

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