Tucked away in the flinty hills of northwestern New Jersey, on a ridge overlooking the village of Blairstown, sit the lovely old gray-stone-and-brick buildings of Blair Academy. If something in the surrounding thickly wooded hills seems vaguely familiar, it's probably because Friday the 13th was shot here, in town and at a summer camp down the road. You remember the plot: Maniac ambushes a camp full of scantily clad teens, dispatching them so quickly they never know what hit them.
That's not so different from the plot that is acted out each winter by Blair's wrestlers, though it has been a long time since they sneaked up on anybody. For four of the last six years Blair has been ranked No. 1 in the country, not only among prep schools but among all high schools. That's not bad for an academically ambitious boarding school with 430 boys and girls. Last year heavyweight Steve Mocco was the national high school wrestler of the year; this year six Blair wrestlers are ranked among the nation's top eight in their weight classes, including two No. 1s: Zack Esposito at 152 pounds and Kurt Backes at 189. "Our trophies have outgrown our trophy case," says coach Jeff Buxton, gesturing to a small forest of gleaming statues, some nearly as tall as his wrestlers.
Last Saturday afternoon at Lehigh's Stabler Arena, Blair ran its streak of national prep school championships to an amazing 23, winning nine of 14 weight classes in a field of 127 teams. How dominant were the Buccaneers? They scored 396 points; runner-up DeMatha of Hyattsville, Md., had 153.5. The outstanding wrestler award went to Blair junior Mark Perry, who won all five of his matches by pins or technical falls. It wasn't hard to figure out which team the crowd had picked as heavies: Every point scored against Blair was cheered lustily. "A badge of honor," said Buxton, grinning. "Our kids love that atmosphere."
Among top wrestlers Blair is viewed as a kind of finishing school at which they can boost their grades and polish their moves (sometimes after high school is over; the Buccaneers annually have a handful of postgraduate wrestlers who spend a year at Blair before heading to college). Perry, in fact, is from Stillwater, Okla., where his uncle, 1988 Olympic champion John Smith, is Oklahoma State's coach.
Blair's facilities aren't the draw. There are two mat rooms, but they date to 1910. The school's isolated location helps because it enhances the training camp atmosphere. "Girls are the only distraction we have," says Backes.
More important are Buxton, who's been at Blair since 1982, and his five assistants, all onetime college wrestlers, two of them former All-Americas. A short, bowlegged man who walks with a slight limp as a result of a recent hip replacement, Buxton is one of those coaches who's always learning. In the off-season his wrestlers do conditioning workouts that he picked up from Russians who had wrestled at Blair, including running relays while carrying logs or rolling a cast-iron buoy. "He's as intense as Dan Gable," says Tom Hutchinson, who was a Blair assistant coach before moving to the head job at rival Hill School in Pottstown, Pa., "but he's smart enough to hide it better."
Blair isn't bound by New Jersey public school rules, which limit wrestlers to 25 matches before the sectional duals and impose strict limits on the length of the season. When the folk-style wrestling season ends, the Buccaneers switch to freestyle or Greco-Roman in hopes of qualifying for national teams. They wrestle pretty much year-round, which in a technical sport is a definite advantage.
Not to say this is a wrestling factory. Buxton picks good, motivated kids who often are admitted to the most prestigious colleges. (Two of this year's postgrads will go to Harvard.) For a parent, what's not to like, apart from the $28,000 price tag? Classes are small, study hall is mandatory every night from eight to 10, and there's even some social polishing by way of a semiformal dinner twice a week.
For Blair's rivals, things are only going to get tougher. The school is raising funds to build a new gym. "We'll be able to host national-caliber tournaments and have a top training facility," says Buxton, eyes gleaming at the thought of just how serious things will then get.