GLEN RIDGE, NJ-- He is, without question, the greatest wrestler in the history of Glen Ridge High School. And for that matter, Joe Dubuque may be one of the top overall athletes, ever, from the school.
Twenty years ago, Dubuque won his first NJSIAA wrestling championship, as a junior, when he defeated John Mankovich of Wallkill Valley in the 112-pound final, at the Meadowlands Arena, in East Rutherford.
Now a husband and father of two children, Dubuque, 37, is having a tremendous career as an assistant wrestling coach, at Princeton University. During his time at Glen Ridge, he put together a 134-7 record, winning four consecutive Essex County and District 13 championships, as well as three Region 4 titles, two state crowns and, in 2001, was a senior national champion, as well.
Dubuque would attend the University of Indiana, where he won two straight NCAA championships, both at 125 pounds, in 2005 and 2006. He was also a 3-time NCAA All-American in college.
Joe had made an immediate impact as a high school wrestler, when as a freshman in 1998, he finished fourth in the state at 103 pounds, However, as a sophomore, Dubuque didn't earn a medal at the state tournament, after winning gold at the county, district and region championships in the same 103 pound category.
Heading into his junior year, it was obvious Dubuque's focus was crystal clear, as he bumped up a weight class, to 112.
"For me, my first state title kicked off everything in my career," Dubuque recalled this week. "It was the first big tournament I won, I didn’t win states as a youth wrestler, so winning a tournament that I went to watch as a kid and fantasized (about) winning was huge for me. It was also the first big goal that I set and accomplished in my wrestling career."
Dubuque admitted that winning a county, district and region title were important, as well, but like any champion-type competitor, it was about standing on the ultimate podium on the final day of the high school wrestling season.
"I mean I had goals of winning counties, districts and regions, but the state tournament was the pinnacle of high school wrestling. Winning that match was one of the most amazing feelings I had up to that point in my life," Dubuque said.
In 1999, the state tournament had been moved from the familiar Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City to a new convention center, also in Atlantic City. However, that venue, while pristine, was not adequate for the demands of a large throng of fans who attended the state finals. In 1998, Boardwalk Hall had held over 14,000 for the finals (a record at the time), and the following year, as Boardwalk Hall was being renovated, the new convention center only held about 9,000 fans, and there were huge barriers obstructing views of many fans.
The NJSIAA knew the site had to be changed in 2000 and the Continental Airlines Arena, also known as the Meadowlands Arena, or the Brendan Byrne Arena (take your pick) was more than accommodating in offering its facility. The choice was a natural. The arena, which was home to the New Jersey Devils and New Jersey Nets at the time, held nearly 20,000, at full capacity, and parking would not be a problem.
Since the work on Boardwalk Hall wouldn't be completed until the 2001-2002 season, it was decided that the Meadowlands would host the state finals in 2000 and 2001.
While Dubuque was locked into winning a state championship 20 years ago, there was also a possibility that his opponent in the final would be a familiar foe. One of Joe's best friends then, and still today, is Anthony Montes, of Nutley High. Both Dubuque and Montes had made it to the state semis in 2000.
"Joe and I had said it would be great to wrestle for a state championship at the Meadowlands, in front of a huge crowd," recalled Montes. "We almost made in in 2000."
"Anthony was wrestling really well and almost beat me at the (2000) regions," said Dubuque. "I believe the score was 5-4 in the finals. I think Anthony upset the second seeded wrestler at the state tournament."
Montes, who had a tremendous wrestling career at Nutley and was graduated in 2002, earned his first of three consecutive state medals in 2000, but lost to Mankovich in the semifinals. Meanwhile Dubuque was facing Bob Stinson of Camden Catholic in the other semi.
"Stinson had upset me in the (state) quarterfinals, when I was the top seed," recalled Dubuque of that 1999 meeting. "So avenging that loss, in my junior year, was something I was hoping to do."
Montes recalled the excitement as both he and Dubuque competed in the state semis, in 2000, on opposite mats, at the Meadowlands.
"We're both wrestling at the same time, in the semifinals," recalled Montes. "I remember looking over and seeing that Joe had won his match, and he was really fired up. I was hoping I could win, but it didn't happen."
Ironically, Montes and Dubuque would wrestle what I always said was one of the best matches I ever witnessed, but that would be a year later and that story, while known to many, will wait until the 20th anniversary, in 2021.
Dubuque's first state title in 2000 came on March 12, 2000, on a Sunday afternoon.
"To be able to do it 15 minutes from my home town, in front of my family and friends, was just awesome," Dubuque recalled.
Hard to believe that was 20 years ago. Joe Dubuque had established himself as a champion, in 2000, and a year later, he would elevate that status to a legend. (But that will wait until 2021).