ERIAL — Buena Regional High School wrestler Andrew Johnson was expected to compete Wednesday in his first home match since he received a mat-side ultimatum in December to either cut off his dreadlocks or forfeit a bout that drew national attention.
The dual match against Absegami, however, was canceled hours before it was set to start after a referee said the 16-year-old junior would not be able to wrestle without a covering for his hair.
But Johnson, wearing no hair cover, was on the mat again when the Chiefs competed in a quad match Friday against Cherry Hill East and Cherokee at Timber Creek.
Johnson lost 4-2 to Cherokee’s Andrew Aromando. But he earned his first pin of the season against Timber Creek’s Divante Lopez and won a 3-2 decision over Cherry Hill West’s Mikey Ummarino.
Buena (5-2 this season) beat Cherokee 36-26 and Timber Creek 39-16 and lost to Cherry Hill West 34-24. The Chiefs’ third bout of the night, against Cherry Hill West, did not end in time for this edition.
Buena coach George Maxwell said Johnson, “without a doubt” finds comfort on the mat from the outside noise surrounding the haircut incident.
“He just wants to get back in the flow of things and get back out there,” Maxwell said after the first of Buena’s three matches Friday. “I’m proud of the way he carries himself (and) the way he practices. We always stress with all our guys to go out there, and we’ll go hard six minutes and we’ll see what the score is at the end.”
But Maxwell declined to comment regarding the postponed match. The sixth-year coach also said the statement released Thursday by Superintendent David Cappuccio Jr. provided enough information to explain why the match was canceled.
On Dec. 19, referee Alan Maloney would not allow Johnson to compete with a cover over his hair for a match against divisional rival Oakcrest. Maloney reportedly said Johnson either had to have his hair cut or forfeit the 120-pound bout.
New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association Executive Director Larry White made an appearance Friday to ensure the match went smoothly. He declined to go into detail about the situation.
“It would be inappropriate of me to make any comments that could possibly lead to a preconceived notion on the situation,” White said.
Cappuccio wrote that the school administration received notice Tuesday “regarding the lack of consistent application and interpretation of the current wrestling rules, specifically Rule 4-2-1 involving wrestlers’ hair.”
Cappuccio reached out to the NJSIAA and National Federation of State High School Associations, which governs scholastic athletics, for clarification of the rule.
Cappuccio did not receive an explanation as of Wednesday afternoon. With the match being that night and, “given the time constraints,” he made a decision.
“I determined that it was in the best interest of our student-athletes and staff to postpone the wrestling match,” Cappuccio said. “Without written clarification ... I was not willing to allow our student athletes to be subjected to any potential dispute, embarrassment, or misapplication of the rule”
The postponed Cape-Atlantic League match on Wednesday was against Absegami. The Braves are in the CAL American Conference, while the Chiefs are in the CAL National.
Absegami athletic director and CAL President Steve Fortis said because it is a nonconference matchup, it does not have to be rescheduled.
White confirmed Friday that Maloney is still on “temporary hiatus” and has not officiated an NJSIAA match since Dec. 19. Neither Johnson nor Maloney has commented publicly on the matter.
White said he has “no guesstimation” on the status of the ongoing investigation by the NJSIAA. The incident has led to a national discussion over whether the Dec. 19 incident was racially motivated. Maloney is white, Johnson is black.
“The district and the administration will continue to work with the NJSIAA and the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights to ensure that all facts are uncovered relative to this situation, and will take action according,” Cappuccio said. “We will continue to work to support and advocate for the safety and well-being for all our students.”
The attorney representing Johnson, Dominic Speziali of J. Fine Law Group in Philadelphia, wrote a three-page letter Thursday outlining his complaints to Estelle Bronstein, assistant director of the state Division of Civil Rights.
Speziali said an unknown referee contacted Buena officials Wednesday morning and, without even seeing Johnson, said he could not complete without a head covering.
“(The Absegami match was) abruptly canceled without explanation, and to the dismay of Andrew and conceivably his teammates, who, like all wrestlers, must prepare and sacrifice in the lead-up to every match.”
Maxwell said that Johnson, like all his kids, just wants to wrestle. Friday’s quad match displayed that, according to Maxwell.
“I just think getting back out there was the excitement of it,” Maxwell said. “I don’t think they came out any harder (after missing the Absegami match), the whistle started blowing and we started to get into the heat of the battle.”