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Egg Harbor Township’s Andrew Ngo wrestles Taylor Robinson, of Wilingboro, during the 126 lb. final of the Art Marinelli Wrestling Tournament, at Egg Harbor Township High School, Thursday, Dec. 27, 2018. Robinson won the match. (VERNON OGRODNEK / For The Press)

Buena wrestlers bond over haircut controversy

FLEMINGTON — The gymnasium at Hunterdon Central Regional High School served as a refuge for the Buena Regional High School wrestling team Thursday.

The six black-and-red mats that covered the gym floor provided relief from the chaos that has swirled around Buena’s program in the wake of a viral video that showed Chiefs 120-pounder Andrew Johnson having his dreadlocks cut off just before his bout against Oakcrest a week ago.

Finally, they were able to just wrestle again.

“This whole thing has brought us together as a team,” senior 152-pounder Ryan Clark said after winning his second-round match at the Hunterdon Central Invitational. “We’re like a band of brothers fighting through adversity, through unnecessary pressure. And Andrew is in the band.”

That said, Johnson and his brother, freshman 106-pounder Nate Johnson, did not compete Thursday. Parents Rosa and Charles Johnson were also not in attendance.

Buena coach George Maxwell declined to comment on the situation.

Clark was among six varsity wrestlers the Chiefs had at the 16-team tournament, which is considered one of the top holiday events in the state. He was joined by senior Chris Doughty (160 pounds), junior Austin Rickert (132), senior Jaden Roberts (182), senior Luke Souder (138) and sophomore Tom Thompson (220).

“I’ve known Andrew since I came to Buena in first grade,” Clark said. “From the bottom of my heart, we would take a bullet for each other. He’s being a trooper about everything. This whole thing had been blown out of proportion, but it doesn’t seem to affect him.”

SNJ Today Sports Director Mike Frankel published a video on Twitter last Friday that showed Johnson getting his dreadlocks cut off by school athletic trainer Denise Fields last Wednesday while Maxwell looked on.

The haircut was reportedly ordered by veteran referee Alan Maloney, who refused to let Andrew Johnson wrestle because he did not have a legal hair cover when he took the mat against Oakcrest.

Johnson is black. Maloney is white.

The state Division of Civil Rights has opened an investigation into the incident. Maloney is suspended awaiting the results of the NJSIAA’s investigation.

Wrestling community sees shades of gray in impromptu haircut

Amid the bustle of a seven-team wrestling tournament at Gloucester City High School, Absegami wrestling coach Shawn Scannell spoke softly, considering his words, about a recent incident in which a Buena wrestler was forced to cut his hair or forfeit a match.

According to the rules of the National Federation of State High School Associations, a wrestler’s hair “shall extend no lower than the top of an ordinary shirt collar in the back, shall extend no lower than earlobe level on the sides and shall not extend below the eyebrows in the front.”

Hair that does not conform to the rule shall be contained in a legal hair covering, or the wrestler shall not compete. For hair coverings to be legal, they must be worn under the headgear or be part of the headgear, according to the rule.

The rule was changed a few years ago, requiring the hair coverings to be attached to the headgear.

Johnson did not have that type of hair cover last week.

“He didn’t have the cap that attaches,” said Souder, who won his first-round bout Thursday via decision. “I guess he didn’t know he had to have one. It’s no one’s fault. It’s just a rule. His hair was too long, and (the haircut) was what happened. If my hair was too long, it would have been cut, too.”

A week earlier, Johnson and the Chiefs had competed in the Robin Leff Tournament at Southern Regional High School in Stafford Township.

It was not known whether the hair cover he wore was attached to the headgear, but he was not penalized or reprimanded.

“I don’t remember if he had one or not, but I know it wasn’t an issue for us,” Southern coach John Stout said Thursday at the Hunterdon Central tournament. “I don’t get why this has turned into such a big deal. You are responsible for having the proper equipment. Having the right hair cover is the same as having your shoelaces taped (so they don’t become untied). It’s a rule. But it should have been taken care of in the locker room room before the meet.”

According to Stout, referees are supposed to attend prematch weigh-ins, but those are frequently handled by the respective coaches. Referees also conduct a prematch meeting with teams in which fingernails, facial hair and hair length are examined.

In a statement released Monday by Johnson family attorney Dominic Speziali, “The referee here (Maloney) was late to the meet and missed weigh-ins. When he did evaluate Andrew, he failed to raise any issues with the length of his hair or the need to wear a head covering.”

After the haircut, Johnson won his match in sudden overtime to help Buena earn a 41-24 victory over Oakcrest. Fans gave him a standing ovation as Maloney raised his arm and teammates were quick to congratulate him.

Frankel posted the video on Twitter under the title “the epitome of a team player.”

“That’s exactly what it was,” Clark said. “Every single one of us was so proud of (Johnson).”

Others disagreed.

A number of athletes, celebrities, civil rights advocates and politicians, including Olympic champion wrestler Jordan Burroughs, Chance the Rapper, film director Ava DuVernay and Gov. Phil Murphy, expressed their anger and frustration over what they viewed as a racist act.

On Thursday, representatives from Philadelphia-area TV stations showed up at Hunterdon Central.

“We are entertained by the media,” Souder said. “We know that it wasn’t that big of a deal, then the next day someone said (the video had gone viral). I think they were joking. I was like, ‘No way.’

“My whole school was like, ‘Oh my gosh, he had to cut his hair, but no one in the gym was like, ‘This is racist.’ Everybody was like, ‘Oh crap, he’s got to cut his hair to help the team.’ He did something to help the team, and that’s the story there, really. He did something to help our team out.”

Craig Matthews / Staff Photographer  

Fire officials from the state, county and Margate are investigating a blaze that destroyed two buildings and damaged a third Thursday on Central Avenue in Ocean City. The three homes were unoccupied at the time of the fire, Ocean City fire Chief Jim Smith says.

Ocean City fire spreads through multiple beach homes

OCEAN CITY — A large fire destroyed two beachfront homes and severely damaged a third in the city early Thursday morning.

But homeowners who had left for the offseason were grateful the damage was contained to the homes themselves.

“All we can say is thank God no one was in the house,” said Denise Dandrea, an owner of one of the properties that was destroyed.

The three homes were unoccupied at the time of the fire, said fire Chief Jim Smith.

Fire officials from the state, county and Margate are investigating where and how the blaze started.

A neighbor on 48th Street spotted flames surging through the roof of the middle building on the 4800 block of Central Avenue and reported it at 3 a.m.

Ocean City firefighters responded in under two minutes from the nearby station on 46th Street, but the fire was already in the process of consuming two properties.

“I think our biggest challenge with this fire was a delayed notification,” Smith said. “It was already going upon our arrival.”

Denise Dandrea and her husband, Joe, of West Chester, Pennsylvania, own the first-floor unit at 4835 Central Ave. They said they received a call from Smith at 7 a.m. and immediately drove down to their beach house.

The couple stood atop the dunes looking down at a charred bed frame and a tile floor that now hung vertically, the remnants of their former home.

“It’s a shock,” Joe Dandrea said.

Bob Lawrence, of Ocean City, owned the building next door that housed 4829 and 4831 Central Ave. His building, which was built in 1986, was also destroyed.

Lawrence lives elsewhere in Ocean City and was notified of the fire later by a neighbor. He said no one was in the house because he only rents it out in the summers.

“When you put things in perspective, It’s a lot better than someone dying. No one died in my home or in anybody else’s home,” he said.

Firefighters worked for more than five hours, spraying water on the homes and fighting flare-ups until about 11 a.m. They crouched down in the sand, leaning on one another to hold the powerful hoses and continued to spray water on a melted washing machine and other charred debris in the back of the homes.

On the opposite side, plastic beach buckets from one of the home’s garages floated in the water that continued to pool around the firehoses on Central Avenue.

The fire did not reach a new building under construction on the north side, but had melted some of the newly installed windows so they slid outward.

Matt Kane, of West Chester, said he and his wife could see embers coming off the fire Thursday morning while standing on the porch of their beach house six homes down on Central.

“They were aglow and washing toward the beach,” Kane said. “That was pretty scary, wondering whether or not they were going to land on our roof and start trouble there.”

Kane said he thinks the city should look into creating a centralized alarm system to help with potential spreading.

“Smoke detectors are wonderful, but only if you’re around to hear them,” he said.

The Strathmere Fire Department was called to provide mutual aid, sending one engine and a first responder truck, until clearing the scene at 6 a.m.

Also providing aid were the Margate Fire Department, Upper Township EMS and Marmora Fire Department.

Homeowners and beachgoers who had stopped their midday walks continued to watch crews work from the dunes dotted with traces of blackened embers.

“We will rebuild,” Joe Dandrea said. “What else is there to do, right?”

GALLERY: Ocean City fire severely damages 3 beachfront homes

As state licenses are reinstated, Miss America is headed to court

While the Miss America Organization has reinstated licensing and named new leadership for several state pageants, the organization is expected to head to court early in 2019.

Atlantic City Superior Court Judge Michael Blee granted an order to show cause in a lawsuit filed by a former MAO board member and four state organizations, according to court officials.

However, Blee did not issue the temporary restraining order against the organizations’ current leadership that the suit sought.

The MAO did not respond to request for comment Thursday. Carlson and Hopper previously called the lawsuit “meritless.”

A court date has been scheduled for Jan. 25, where Blee is expected to rule on several issues detailed in the lawsuit, which claims Chairwoman Gretchen Carlson and President and CEO Regina Hopper orchestrated an “illegal and bad-faith takeover” of the MAO, beginning in January 2018.

Carlson, Miss America Organization respond to lawsuit

The civil lawsuit and call for leadership resignations stem from an ongoing battle between the MAO and the state-level pageant leadership.

Since June, volunteers with the organization have said there has been a lack of transparency over the MAO’s decision making, including the elimination of the swimsuit competition and other changes to the pageant structure.

According to the lawsuit, state directors from the Miss Georgia, Miss Pennsylvania, Miss Tennessee and Miss West Virginia pageants who spoke to the media on the issue had their state licenses revoked or terminated.

Over the weekend, the MAO selected leadership for three of the state pageants involved in the suit: Georgia, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.

The licensing was also reinstated for the Miss Florida Scholarship Pageant Inc.

On Wednesday, the MAO announced that the state licensing for the Miss New Jersey Education Foundation had been renewed, after terminating the licensing agreement earlier this month.

According to a Miss New Jersey board member, no specific reason was given as to why the license was revoked.

After the 2019 Miss America Competition in September, state organizations were issued one of four letters from MAO lawyers either ending the licensing agreements or asking for reasons why the state organizations publicly took actions against the MAO and its brand.

The MAO states in the state organization agreement it has the right to terminate the licensing contract with or without reason.

In June, 22 state executive directors, including Sally Johnston of the Miss New Jersey Education Foundation, signed a “vote of no confidence” online letter that called for the immediate resignations of Carlson, Hopper and the entire Miss America Board of Trustees.

Miss America seeks funding for 2019 pageant, cuts ties with Miss NJ

After being notified of the default on the contract, the Miss New Jersey board of directors complied with the request, submitting their reasons. When the licensing, which was to expire Dec. 31, 2019, was terminated, the Miss New Jersey board filed an appeal to the MAO.

With the licensing reinstated, Johnston, a pageant volunteer for more than 50 years, stepped down and the Miss New Jersey board of directors elected David Holtzman, of Ventnor, as executive director.

“The new operations proposal will give New Jersey an even stronger program for the young women who see the Miss America system as a path to education and service,” said Holtzman said in a statement. “As we begin a new era of Miss New Jersey, we want to thank the many volunteers who worked so hard to give us a strong foundation to build upon.”

Holtzman could not be reached for additional comment Thursday.

The newly reorganized board of directors is scheduled to meet in January.

According to the MAO press release, the New Jersey chapter will seek out corporate and organizational partners as well as new board members from around the state.

Miss America in A.C.

Craig Matthews / Staff Photographer  

A large fire at 4800 block of Central Ave. in Ocean City left multiple beachfront property owners like Joe Dandrea, devastated Thursday. Dec.27, 2018 (Craig Matthews / Staff Photographer)

New owner, renovations likely for three historic affordable housing complexes in AC

ATLANTIC CITY — Three historic buildings, long ago turned into affordable housing units, will be bought and renovated by WinnCompanies of Boston, using $37 million in public and private funds, according to the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority.

The buildings are the 66-unit Schoolhouse Apartments at 61 N. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., which was the Illinois Avenue School and the Boys Vocational School in the early 1900s; the 20-unit Disston Apartments at 1711 Arctic Ave., a YMCA widely used by the black community in the early 20th century; and the 67-unit Liberty Apartments at 1519 Baltic Ave., in the former Liberty Hotel.

No one from WinnCompanies could be reached for comment on the plans.

Atlantic City Report

About $4.45 million would come from the CRDA as a loan, according to a resolution approved by the state agency last week.

“These properties have a historical place in African-American history in Atlantic City,” said CRDA Executive Director Matt Doherty. “This (project) addresses concerns brought up in the Johnson report about neighborhood blight and public safety.”

The Johnson report focused on how to return Atlantic City to local control. It was submitted to Gov. Phil Murphy last September by special counsel Jim Johnson, and recommended the state continue oversight of the city through 2021. It also suggested ways to improve economic and social life in the city.

The buildings, which were converted to apartments 40 years ago, will remain affordable housing, but their conditions will greatly improve, Doherty said.

Winn would pay $17 million for the three properties, then spend $15.9 million on direct construction, $4.8 million on soft costs such as engineering and design, and a $3.6 million developer fee, according to CRDA Director of Planning and Development Lance Landgraf.

“These three properties have had so many violations of code and health, this would be a boon to the whole neighborhood and the surrounding area,” said Councilman Kaleem Shabazz, as he urged the CRDA to support the project. His ward encompasses the properties.

“It would be a tremendous development in the heart of the city and help families have a safe, clean, decent housing experience,” said Shabazz. “I understand Winn has done this work all over the country. People in Bridgeton are pleased with what they did there. People remain in the units while they develop them.”

Last year, WinnCompanies purchased and began renovating the Bridgeton Villas Apartments, with the promise of preserving them as affordable housing for the next three decades, said WinnDevelopment President Larry Curtis in a press release at the time.

It worked with Gateway Community Action Partnership, the City of Bridgeton, and the State of New Jersey on the $18.7 million project covering eight buildings and 156 units, the company said.

All three Atlantic City buildings are currently owned by a company called JJJ LLC, said Landgraf.

“Projects like this do not happen without subsidies. The profit margins are extremely small,” said Landgraf.

The state Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency is a partner, and the project is getting property-tax credits for historic buildings.

“This gets to the heart of part of our mission in the city and Tourism District,” said Board Chairman Robert Mulcahy III. “It’s what we are supposed to do. Winn will manage the projects on a continuing basis after the units are improved. It adds to stability and to the continued upkeep and maintenance of the homes.”