Robbinsville High senior Garrett Bilgrav (pictured front center) turned athletic and academic success into a spot at Columbia University. Pictured are (back) coach Brian Dempsey, head coach Sean Flynn, coach Dan Hughes, (front) dad Paul Bilgrav, Garrett Bilgrav and mom Brooke Bilgrav.

In January 2017, after just winning his 100th match in a dual meet at Steinert, Logan Fox had this to say about then-sophomore Garrett Bilgrav: “Garrett’s got insane potential. I can’t say enough good things about him. That kid’s going to be insanely talented this year, next year and senior year. Look out.”

Fox’s forecast was anything but insane and it meant the world to Bilgrav, who grew up admiring numerous Raven wrestling standouts.

“It was after the Steinert match; I remember that vividly,” he said. “He’s a great kid, I always looked up to him. He was a great mentor for me throughout my career when I was wrestling. It was really wonderful when he said that. I owe a little to him. He really did help me out. That’s all it takes, is one person to believe in you.”

He made believers of everyone before it was all over.

After finally placing in the NJSIAA State Championships—taking 7th place after two years of near-misses—the Columbia University-bound senior stamped himself as one of the greatest wrestlers in Robbinsville High School history.

His 145 career wins set the all-time mark in Mercer County. H also has RHS single-season records in team points (249), pins (29) and takedowns (94); and career marks in team points (757), pins (81), technical falls (12), takedowns (293) and near falls (146). He was a three-time district champion, a two-time region winner (and three-time finalist) and three-time state qualifier.

In addition, he represented his school and team with class and dignity.

“He’s the guy that’s done everything the right way,” third-year Ravens coach Sean Flynn said. “He’s what we want the kids in our program to be like. He’s an outstanding student, took all AP and honors classes. He has an outstanding GPA, he does the right thing in school. His teachers have high praise for him, his work ethic. And it’s the same thing in the wrestling room. He does everything we ask him to do, he’s a leader on and off the mat. Obviously his wrestling credentials speak for themselves.”

Bilgrav’s final appearance on the state stage resulted in mixed emotions. On one hand, he was seeded third at 170 pounds and finished eighth in Atlantic City. On the bright side, he had come within one win of placing the previous two years and finally got to ascend the podium despite being stunned by Camden Catholic’s 14th-seeded Martin Cosgrove in the second round. It would have been easy to pack it in, but Bilgrav regrouped.

“He could have gone right in the tank and feel sorry for himself,” Flynn said. “Obviously he was disappointed. But he had a night to sleep on it, came back the next day and went to work. He showed a lot of perseverance. It’s tough when those expectations are so high, when you suffer an unexpected loss. To come back and win a bunch of matches to place is a testament to the kid he is.”

Bilgrav rallied to win three straight consolation matches before falling to St. Peter’s James Cruz. He rallied again, taking a 10-0 major decision over Wayne Valley’s Reid Colella in the match for 7th place. It was fitting he ended his outstanding career with a victory.

“Thursday was a tough night, it was hard to go to sleep honestly,” he said. “But I got some encouraging words from the family and my support people. They helped me bounce back and I think I made a statement when I bounced back. I’m not gonna lie, you do have those initial thoughts (of packing it in) but you can’t let them tie you down and stop you. I wanted a state medal and I knew I wasn’t leaving there without one.”

And when it finally happened?

“I just got a burst of adrenaline,” he said. “The last few times I was in that same blood round but I didn’t feel the same. This time I felt different. I was really ready to go. All the other training came down to that one moment and I just let it go.”

Surprisingly, Bilgrav’s training over the years was not as intense as one might expect for such a great wrestler. Because of his love for baseball, he would go to clubs and tournaments during the wrestling season but focused on the diamond during the spring and summer. He was on the Robbinsville Little League All Stars as a youngster and continued to play at RHS through last year. But he will not return this spring.

“I knew wrestling was the sport for me,” Bilgrav said. “I loved it more. I always wanted to practice, I always couldn’t wait for the next practice and that wasn’t the same for baseball. I kind of knew this was the direction I was heading. Last year kind of sealed the deal. I didn’t want to pursue baseball as much as wrestling so I just dropped it this year. I wasn’t playing as much, I was more focused on wrestling, I was missing games and practice for wrestling. It was kind of like, ‘I should just drop it, I’m not really helping out my team.’”

Anyone who knows Bilgrav knows he wants to help his team. He doesn’t say much, but his work ethic screams volumes.

“He’s definitely a lead-by example guy,” Flynn said. “He works hard, pushes the other guy, challenges him on the mat. But he’s not a guy that’s gonna get in your face, call you out. That’s not the type of kid he is. But he obviously set an example for how things are done. He was an ideal guy. We have a small room with not a lot of guys in our program, and everybody sees the things he’s doing and the way he’s working. They know if they start doing the same thing they can accomplish great things.”

Bilgrav feels the less said, the better.

“I think leading by example is a great way to teach someone a lesson,” he said. “You can’t be a great wrestler in a day. It doesn’t happen overnight. Work has to happen in the room; then you go out there and take care of business. Seeing great work ethic and trying to base your work ethic off of that really helps other guys.”

Bilgrav’s work ethic on and off the mat has landed him with an Ivy League program next year. As a member of the National Honor Society who chose to take Chinese over Spanish at RHS just “because they offered it,” Garrett opted for Columbia over Brown and Penn.

“I knew I wanted to be part of a great program; a growing program with a bright future and a coach I can connect with and teammates I can connect with,” Bilgrav said. “I think Columbia is doing the right things, especially in the wrestling program. Obviously they also have a great academic structure. I got that feeling when I stepped on campus. It’s really hard to describe, but I felt I really belonged there.

“I was also talking to Brown and UPenn. They were almost leading me on, I didn’t really know where they stood on me, it was hard to get a grasp of where I was at with them. They seemed interested but Columbia seemed a lot more interested. I couldn’t pass the opportunity up.”

He will major in mechanical engineering, something he had his heart set on since beginning high school.

“I know it’s a really versatile degree,” he said. “I just love that side of physics and math, so that’s really where I’m headed.”

Flynn feels he is also headed for big things on the wrestling mat in college.

“He just needs more mat time,” the coach said. “He’s been a multi-sport athlete, he’s never really wrestled all year-round because of that. He’s gone to clubs during the season and competed in high school nationals, but he’s never trained while playing baseball. I think his best wrestling is ahead of him and he can accomplish a lot of things at the next level.”

For now, he can look back at an outstanding career at the high school level. He attributes his county record for wins to fighting through aches and pains.

“Obviously it’s hard to stay healthy throughout all four years,” he said. “I love the sport. I didn’t want to sit out any time when my knee was hurting or my hip was hurting. I still wanted to wrestle and get on the mat. I look back at that and looked at all the times I could have sat down. But I just kept going, and I think it shows.”

But he lists his proudest accomplishment as placing at states, particularly since he had to rally to do it.

“Obviously things didn’t go my way and I faced adversity,” he said. “Everyone does at that time of year. Everyone is probably hurting, but you push through. I finally made it and I’m not trying to stop there. All the accolades mean a lot, but I always try to look to the future and try and improve, not just me as an athlete but as a person as well. I kind of take that as going in the right direction and doing the right things.”