Back on His Feet: Keansburg’s Tyree Sutton
Tyree Sutton has always prided himself on his ability to dominate on his feet on a wrestling mat.
“I feel like no one can take me down,’’ he said.
The Keansburg junior 195-pounder is at his most dangerous in the neutral position, where his speed and athleticism allow him to take opponents down and finish them for pins, or score at will with takedowns. That ability is what helped him open eyes during the 2011-12 season, when he became the first freshman and only the fifth wrestler in Keansburg history to win an NJSIAA district title. Not only did he capture the District 22 championship at 132 pounds, he was named the tournament’s Outstanding Wrestler, a rare feat for a freshman.
One year later, he finally met an opponent who could easily take him down - himself. The District 22 tournament went on without him, and his life and wrestling career were at a crossroads.
“I shouldn’t have to lose wrestling to know how much it means to me, but that’s what happened,’’ Sutton said. “I didn’t go to districts. I couldn’t watch. That just crushed my world when they told me I couldn’t wrestle.”
Sutton, who also plays football, missed both seasons during the 2012-13 school year because he was ruled academically ineligible.
“I didn’t want to tell people about it,’’ he said. “If they asked me why I wasn’t wrestling, I just made up excuses and told people I was hurt. I just didn’t take school seriously last year. I had a lot of issues going on at home. I wasn’t focused. I was always late to school.”
“Once wrestling was out of his life last year, he went off the deep end,’’ said Keansburg assistant coach Dave Alsieux, a former star at Manasquan and Centenary College who is close with Sutton.
Not only had Sutton’s grades deteriorated, he was regularly late to school or barely showing up at all. Shortly before this time last year, he learned that he had gotten his girlfriend pregnant. She gave birth to their son, Tyree Jr., on Aug. 16. Before he began his junior year of high school, Sutton, who has never met his own father, had become one himself.
“People told me it was going to be hard, but it just makes me strive harder to be better,’’ Sutton said. "I’ve grown up a lot. I had to. I was quite immature coming in as a freshman and going into sophomore year. I have had to step up to be there for my son.”
Sutton attended summer school and took online classes to work toward restoring his eligibility coming into this school year. He stayed out of trouble over the summer by devoting himself to wrestling. He was a regular at SIR Wrestling in Lafayette up in Sussex County and at Iron Horse Wrestling in Hanover Park. He wrestled 84 matches in offseason tournaments, the equivalent of two full seasons of high school wrestling, to help make up for lost time.
Sutton beat two highly-regarded starters from state power Bergen Catholic, Kevin Mulligan and Christian Jenco, in offseason tournaments. His performance did not go unnoticed, as he said he declined enticements by several non-public programs to transfer from Keansburg. He wants to remain close to his son, who lives in Long Branch with his mother, and he believes he has the tools to succeed right at home with the Titans.
“A lot of people say I’m not going to get better because I train at Keansburg, but I train with a great coach in Alsieux,’’ Sutton said. “He’s done a lot for me. I wouldn’t be where I am without him. Plus I have a lot of support from the teachers and coaches here, and that has made a big difference.”
Upon completing his coursework over the summer, he was informed in August that he would be eligible to play football and wrestle again.
“I was so happy I made it my Facebook status, tweeted it, everything,’’ Sutton said. “I feel like now I can show people how good I’ve gotten and what I can do now. I’m more focused in class and just working harder now.”
Sutton has a full plate for an 18-year-old, but it hasn't stopped him from participating in the sport he loves.
Twice a week, he gets to the wrestling room at 5 a.m. to train with Alsieux for 90 minutes before school. After a full day of classes and practice, he will often do extra work in the room with Alsieux and then travel to Long Branch to spend time with his son after doing his schoolwork. He no longer is late to school, as Keansburg head coach Chris DeTalvo picks him up every day.
Growing up as the son of a single mother, Nikiki Douglin, who has raised four children, Sutton is determined to be there for his boy.
“I feel like I’m just in a better mindset,’’ he said. “Last year, I just didn’t care about anything. I slipped up in class, and I just didn’t focus at all. My son keeps me out of trouble. I stay inside with him all the time. I feel like I would still be in trouble without him. I feel like he has helped me so much.”
“Being out last year showed how bad things can get, and I think this is showing him that his future looks pretty bright if he does the right things,’’ DeTalvo said.
Sutton’s newfound equilibrium in school and at home has coincided with an impressive start to this season. Scan the Newark Star-Ledger rankings at 195 pounds and you see the usual suspects before you land on Sutton at No. 4 in the state. A wrestler who didn’t appear in one match last season, wrestling for a school that has never even produced a Region VI champion or a state place-winner, is considered someone with the potential of reaching the final four at the Individual Championships at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City in March.
Sutton’s most impressive victory so far came in a match against Brick Memorial, the Shore Conference’s top-ranked team and the defending Group IV champions. The Titans had an opponent cancel on them because of a snowstorm and responded to an email by the Mustangs looking for a team to round out a quad meet. It resulted in a bout between Sutton and Brick Memorial 182-pounder Nick Costa, who is currently ranked third in the state in his weight class.
Costa bumped up to 195, and Sutton beat him by major decision, 12-4. Costa finished seventh in the state at 182 last season, so it was a clear sign that Sutton has the potential to go deeper in the state tournament than any wrestler in Keansburg history. He craves match-ups like the one against Costa because they are rare on the schedule for the Titans, a small Group I school from a town that is all of one square mile.
“I feel like I need to not just win in those matches,’’ Sutton said. “I have to major, tech, or pin these kids. I feel like it’s not a win unless it’s a decisive win. Being ranked fourth, I still don’t think my name is out there like it should be.”
Sutton is not the underdog from the small school with a chip on his shoulder. Regardless of the sparse history of individual success in his program, he takes the mat like his opponent should be the one who is nervous facing him. On Thursday, Keansburg faces Middletown North in a dual meet, where Sutton hopes to collide with sophomore Chad Freshnock, another strong contender for the Region VI 195-pound title.
“He wants to test himself against the top kids in the state,’’ Alsieux said. “He’s not a cocky kid, but he’s confident. He knows he can win, and that’s half the battle as a high-level wrestler.”
He has worked diligently with Alsieux to shore up any weaknesses in order to prepare himself for the rugged individual tournament.
“I worked on top because I could ride people, but I couldn’t turn them and score, so I’ve worked on that,'' he said.
“With his athleticism, we just want him to create scrambles because he’ll find a way out of them,’’ DeTalvo said.
After missing the district tournament last year, he has his sights set on a return to the top of the podium this season to become the second two-time district champion in Keansburg history. Most likely standing in his way will be Christian Brothers Academy senior Mike Oxley, the defending District 22 and Region VI champion at 195 pounds, who is ranked No. 6 in the state by the Star-Ledger. Oxley is ranked No. 1 in the Shore at 195 by theshoreconference.com, while Sutton is No. 4.
“I can’t wait for districts,’’ Sutton said. “I’ve got it marked down on my laptop, my calendar, my phone. I look at the rankings every day. Even though they don’t change, I look at them every day. I can’t wait to wrestle Oxley. It’s going to be a good match.”
Wrestling has anchored Sutton’s life after it nearly came unraveled when he was set adrift last season because of his own mistakes. He is determined to not waste a second chance.
“He kind of broke under the pressure instead of rising to the occasion last year, but this year, with the support he has had from Mr. Stark (athletic director Tom Stark) and the coaches and teachers, it’s been a 180-degree difference,’’ Alsieux said. “You have to grow up quick in his situation. It’s not an easy life that he has, and I think that wrestling and athletics is his outlet.”
Sutton has only hinted at his ultimate potential, as he knows his eating habits and work in the weight room could certainly improve. He is a once-in-a-generation wrestler at a small school like Keansburg. However, ensuring Sutton makes it to the bright lights of Boardwalk Hall is not what keeps DeTalvo up at night.
“I feel more pressure to just help him make it better for himself and his family,’’ DeTalvo said. “The wrestling stuff is all a bonus. This sport is going to teach him a lot about life. I am more concerned with him going to college, getting a degree, wrestling at an elite level and getting the best opportunity to provide for his son.”
“I was kind of naïve coming here,’’ Alsieux said. “They’ve got a lot of different challenges here that they don’t have at other schools. Wanting to go to college here is different than in other towns because in other towns, they expect to go to college, and here they expect to go to work.
“Mr. Stark and the new administration have been pushing to kids that we want to get you college-ready. Tyree can get a free education, and that’s a big thing for him especially. He’s such a good person, and he wants to better his life and go to college.”
One year after his life threatened to spiral out of control, Tyree Sutton is in the position where he is most dangerous: Back on his feet.
“Wrestling is my opportunity to go to college and do something with my life,’’ he said. “I lost it once, and it’s not going to happen again.”