Middle Township High School wrestling coach Matt Wolf won't have an easy task giving out the Most Improved Wrestler award at the team's end-of-season banquet.
There are simply too many worthy candidates.
Wolf has made a habit in his four years as the Panthers' coach of helping mostly inexperienced wrestlers turn drastic improvements from one season to another.
"They really have bought into what we've been trying to do," Wolf said.
Senior Brandon Belger certainly is a candidate.
Belger went 2-16 as a freshman on the junior-varsity level.
Belger quickly improved to 13-10 on varsity as a sophomore and 15-13 last season with a third-place finish in District 32.
Belger won the Nottingham Invitational Tournament at 220 pounds and is 11-2 this season. His biggest win came in a dual with St. Joseph on Jan. 4, when he won a 5-4 decision against defending District 30 champ and state qualifier Roy Lucas.
"That just boosts my confidence," said Belger, 17, of Rio Grande. "I beat a kid who qualified for states last year - it does nothing but help me. Now I have that confidence to know that as long as I wrestle my match, I can probably beat anyone."
Belger said everyone on the team has bought into Wolf's system.
"Coach Wolf has got it down," Belger said. "Coach's system is good. Myself, I have done it for four years. He coaches for the kids. He's for the program."
Junior Nate Enders is another candidate.
Enders took his lumps like most freshmen, with a 3-12 record.
That jumped all the way to 19-11 last season with a second-place finish in districts.
He is 7-5 this season with a pair of third-place finishes at the Nottingham Tournament and the Overbrook Christmas Tournament.
Enders, 17, of Belleplain, said Wolf is the program's father figure.
"We look up to him," Enders said. "He gets us to want to practice. He gets us to want to wrestle. We want to be at practice every day."
Wolf is big on weightlifting. The team lifts at least three days a week for one hour and follows that up with an intense two-hour practice of drilling and technique.
"Part of my philosophy is that we want to make them better athletes," Wolf said. "That may not pay off over the course of three weeks, but it shows up after 12 months."
Enders will be among the favorites at 132 pounds come districts.
"We work hard in the weight room and in the wrestling room," Enders said. "Coach tells us to keep up a good tempo as much as we can. He says, 'Those who remain will be champions.' "
Junior Ronray Harris (113 pounds) started wrestling in eighth grade.
He went 8-10 as a freshman.
Harris went 23-10 last season and finished third in District 32.
This season, Harris won the Overbrook Tournament and finished second at Nottingham and the Red Bank Regional Buc Classic. He is tied with Belger for the team lead in wins (11).
Senior Jamaine Haines (152) didn't start wrestling until he was a sophomore and struggled through a 1-10 season last year.
Haines is 5-4 this year and took third at the Buc Classic.
Senior Dylan Mooers' 6-17 freshman season was his first in the sport.
Mooers (182) went 18-9 last season and is 7-3 this year.
Joe Johnston (195) went 3-23 as a freshman and 0-2 as a sophomore. After a 6-7 junior season, Johnston is off to a 9-3 start.
And the list goes on.
Wolf says the key is to avoid complicating an already difficult sport.
"I like to think we do a couple of things well (rather) than a lot of things on an average level," Wolf said. "There are 90 billion moves in wrestling, so we don't want to make it too difficult. I say, 'You see that leg? Go get it.' "
Middle won five matches the season before Wolf took over as coach but has reeled off three straight 10-win seasons.
The Panthers are 2-1 with a second-place finish at the Buc Classic and third-place finishes at the Nottingham and Overbrook tournaments.
Perhaps the only thing Wolf stresses more than conditioning and discipline is classwork.
Wolf is proud to point out that he had 10 senior varsity letterwinners last season and all 10 went on to college. Six are playing a sport collegiately.
"It's incredibly rewarding to have a kid come up to you and say, 'Thanks for everything you did,' " Wolf said. "That's why you do it. You may not see that in a newspaper, but that's why you do it - to help the kids succeed. There is no greater reward than that."
Contact John O'Kane: