Wrestling: Matt McKenzie Will Go Down As One of Wall’s All-Time Greats
ATLANTIC CITY — Matt McKenzie's career did not end as he had planned. The top of the medal stand in Boardwalk Hall was his goal, and in the end, it was not to be.
There was disappointment from all angles, starting with the Wall senior himself. A state third-place finisher as a junior and undefeated entering the NJSIAA Individual Championships, McKenzie had his eyes set on becoming the third wrestler from Wall to win a state title and first since Nick Roy went back-to-back in 2001 and 2002. From the outside perspective it’s a simple numbers game: McKenzie was the No. 1 seed and finished seventh.
McKenzie losing in the quarterfinals and wrestling back for seventh may not seem like much on the surface, but it is a testament to his drive, determination and ability to push past an injury enough to cement his legacy.
In doing so McKenzie secured his third state medal and concluded his career as Wall’s all-time wins leader.
“When you talk about what it takes to win the state tournament, it takes a great wrestler and somebody that has put the time in and all the obvious things, but a part of it is also having a little luck with outside factors you can’t control,” said Wall head coach Brian Fischer. “He just happened to catch a bad break with an injury again. But for him to able to come back when his ultimate goal was swept out from underneath him, for him to be able to come back mentally and put it all back together enough to find himself on the podium again, I give him all the credit in the world.”
“It was tough,” McKenzie said. “But I had to do it.”
McKenzie was the best he’s ever been during the regular season. His decision not to play football was a difficult one, especially since the Crimson Knights ended up winning the South Jersey Group III championship, but it allowed him to rest his surgically repaired right shoulder to make sure he entered wrestling season 100 percent. During his junior year McKenzie was known as much for his bulky shoulder brace as his ability, but he didn’t need it this season. He was bulldozing his way through opponents. The low-scoring, nail-biting wins of previous years were a thing of the past.
Everything changed in the Region 6 semifinals when McKenzie re-injured the shoulder. He was no longer 100 percent, and so back came the shoulder brace. However, McKenzie would go on to defeat Neptune’s Nick Faber, 4-2 with a takedown late in the third period, to claim his first region championship and improve to 35-0. He earned the top seed in the 195-pound bracket at the state tournament.
The hope was that McKenzie’s latest shoulder injury would be just a minor setback, that his brace would get him as close to 100 percent as possible and allow him to chase a state title. In reality the injury was worse than ever. It was hard to tell in his first two bouts in Atlantic City. He won 9-1 over Christian Brothers Academy’s Cameron DiGiorgio and then blitzed Emerson-Park Ridge’s Josh Lewis with a 15-0 technical fall in 3:53. But then came his first major test against Collingswood’s Michael Taulane and the first noticeable sign all was not well with McKenzie.
The state quarterfinals are a place where not having all your tools at your disposal can bite you, and that’s exactly what happened in a 4-2 overtime loss to Taulane, who eventually reached the state final and placed second. Taulane scored the only takedown in the bout in overtime and held on for the win.
“He’s hurt, so we asked him what he wanted to do,” Fischer said. “He told us he wanted to go back out there and find a way to get on the podium.”
His dream shattered, McKenzie had to regroup for another bout the same night where he needed a win to secure an all-state finish. He gutted out a 2-1 victory over Voorhees’s Lewis Fernandes but then fell to Westfield’s Jack Miller in sudden victory overtime, 5-3, to drop into the seventh-place bout.
Not many wrestlers can say they won their final high school match. Matt McKenzie can. He defeated Delsea’s Tommy Maxwell, 3-1, to compete a career that was spectacular in its consistency.
“He never packed it in,” Fischer said. “We’ve all seen kids over the years pack it in for various reasons. It’s something about this sport that it takes a person with mental toughness to overcome the adversities that are put in front of you.”
“It was good to get a win in my last high school match,” McKenzie said.
The statistics are striking for McKenzie. He finished with a 145-14 record to become Wall’s career wins leader and tie for 10th in Shore Conference history. He is a three-time state medalist at 195 pounds placing fifth as a sophomore, third as a junior and seventh as a senior. He is a three-time Region 6 finalist (2017 champ) and a three-time District 23 champion. McKenzie, Roy and Bob Seidel are the only wrestlers in Wall program history to win three state medals.
He started his high school career at 170 pounds, a weight almost always occupied by juniors and seniors, but still managed a 32-5 record and a fourth-place finish at regions. During his freshman season he did not surrender a takedown or back points. In his entire career he has never been pinned, never lost be technical fall and never lost by major decision. He was taken down just five times in four years.
Thirteen of his 14 defeats came against wrestlers who became state medalists and all 14 were state qualifiers. Ten of his losses came by one point and three others were by two points. His biggest loss was a 5-1 decision during the 2016 state tournament. Eight of the 14 losses were in overtime. McKenzie wasn’t perfect, but man was he hard to beat.
He also helped the Crimson Knights reach three NJSIAA sectional championship matches in four years It was his victory in the final bout of the 2014 Central Jersey Group II final that clinched a 33-26 win over Long Branch for the program's first sectional title.
“There are some great names that have been through our program and he’s right up there with all those guys,” Fischer said.
McKenzie is a Division I recruit with serious interest from Rider, Clarion and Bloomsburg. All three compete in the Eastern Wrestling League.
Wherever he ends up, that program will be getting standout grappler who is committed to doing everything in his power to ensure success for himself and his team. More importantly, they’ll be getting a truly great young man.
“I can’t tell you how many people I run into that tell me what a great kid he is, what a sweet kid he is,” McKenzie. “But when he gets out on the mat he’s ready to tear someone’s head off.”
Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.