Behind the Mic: The State of District XI Wrestling Address

Gary will be returning with a new blog on May 22.  This week, he’s asked RCN’s Jim Best to guest blog.  Viewers should recognize Jim from RCN-TV’s coverage of high school wrestling.

The State of District XI Wrestling Address:

The 2016-17 high school wrestling season has come and gone. At face value, what a great season it was. In the AAA ranks, Nazareth and Bethlehem Catholic had three epic dual meets, and Nazareth finally cracked the code to knock off the Golden Hawks for a District XI team title and then went on to capture a coveted Pennsylvania State Championship team title by defeating the Golden Hawks in a come-from-behind victory in the finals of the team championships. In the AA ranks, Saucon Valley continued their dominance, but Wilson High School showed that they are back in the mix of things with a young and talented team. At the conclusion of the individual post- season, District XI crowned four state champions in the AAA division, and Nazareth, Bethlehem Catholic and Northampton placed first through third respectively in the team standings. Many fans of District XI wrestling are chanting the phrase, “We’re back!” in reference to the statewide dominance of District XI wrestling in the 1980s and 1990s.

So, it’s all good in the District XI wrestling world, or is it? Dig a bit deeper, and an argument can be made that District XI wrestling is struggling. Why? For starters, the balance of wrestling power weighs heavy towards five teams. In AAA, Nazareth, Bethlehem Catholic and Northampton have separated themselves from the rest of the AAA field. In fact, those four AAA state champions were all from either Nazareth (2), Bethlehem Catholic (1) or Northampton (1). In AA, the balance is a bit more distributed, but Saucon Valley and Wilson appear to have distanced themselves from the rest of the competition. I happened to have spent a lot of time at the District XI Junior High Championships in February, and I can tell you, based on what I saw at that tournament, that those five teams are going to continue their dominance for at least the next six years. Meanwhile, the majority of the other District XI wrestling teams are left hoping for a slightly above average team record and, if they have a really over-achieving season, they qualify for the team districts where they will eventually run into one of the five “superpower” teams and suffer a humiliating defeat. The result…as evidenced by steadily declining entry numbers in the junior high district tournament, participation numbers in the sport of wrestling are down across the district (as they are across the state) and a classic case of “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer” is in full process. Good news for District XI wrestling? I don’t think so.

A second hint that something is amiss in the District XI wrestling world is the resignation of several prominent coaches across the district following this past season. When at least three quality head coaches decide to resign in the same year, you have to scratch your head and ask, “Why is this happening”? While I don’t think there is any one specific reason, I do think that the time and energy commitment it takes to build a top team in the district has taken a toll on the personal lives of many head coaches. In addition, those coaches who have not seen their expected level of success over many years, despite their non-stop effort to build a top program, eventually get to the point when the say, “Why am I doing this”? It is admirable to want to help wrestlers become better wrestlers, and better people in the process, but to keep running into the same wall over and over again, and not see different results, is frustrating. Quality coaches resigning from their positions while still in their prime coaching years should be a big red flag to all District XI Wrestling fans.

I apologize if I have painted a grim picture of District XI wrestling. From a broadcaster’s perspective, the District XI wrestling world couldn’t be better. My partner (Scott Barr) and I get to call some great dual meets, and the finals of the District XI individual championships seem to get more action packed every year. As a fan of wrestling, with no invested interest in the success of any one team, all IS good in the District XI wrestling world. However, as an ex-District XI wrestler and head coach, with an invested interest in helping to maintain or grow interest levels in the sport of wrestling, I have serious concerns about the current “state of affairs” within the district. In my humble opinion, an honest and in-depth conversation which begins the process of solving the existing problems is long overdue. Where, and with whom, does that conversation begin?

 

 

 

 

Behind the Mic: The Streak

Scott Barr is the RCN wrestling “guru”.  He has even written a book about District XI wrestling which goes back to its inception.  This past weekend, Scott announced the District XI individual wrestling championships as he has done for so many years.  He, along with Jim Best, did their usual impeccable job.  But one occurrence happened for Scott while doing the match that has NEVER happened before – the Easton Red Rovers did not crown a champion!  I asked him to reflect on the end of what came to be known as “The Streak”.  Here is his essay:

And, so, it’s over.

Just like that, when the buzzer sounded on the final weight class of the 2016 District XI Wrestling Championships, it was over.  After 14 championship bouts, for the first time since 1947, none of the winners was wearing an Easton Red Rover singlet.  All I could muster, on the air, was, “It feels weird.”

Jack Logic first told me about “The Streak” in the late 1980’s.  Nobody except Jack was really talking about it, but it was a remarkable accomplishment even then.  By the turn of the century, with The Streak still intact, I began calling it “the greatest streak in all of high school sports.”  Though I can be prone to exaggeration, I believed this statement to be true.

When Dick Rutt won the first championship, ever, for the Red Rovers, Harry Truman was president.  It was the first time that Easton had ever fielded a team.  His coach was Gust Zarnas, a man who played professional football for the Bears and Packers before World War II.  Last week, we were in Liberty’s Memorial Gymnasium to see if Easton could crown their 186th champion, 69 years later.   Of course, they could not, and The Streak went from reality to immortality.

There were years where the Red Rovers had only one champion.  Bob Ferraro, Dwight Danser, Dan Kasperkowski, Greg Geiger, and Elijah Brown come to mind.  More often, multiple champions represented the legendary teams from Easton.  In 1949, there were nine champions.  In 1996, the first seven weight classes had Red Rover champions.   A friend of mine, Pete Stoelzl, was crowned as the 100th champion in Easton history in the mid-1980’s.

The Streak was already six years old when Steve Powell, Easton’s current coach, was born.  Steve is on my “Mount Rushmore” of District XI wrestling, and I can’t imagine the pressure he has endured throughout his tenure.  He told me, years ago, that he never thought about keeping The Streak alive.  I’m sure he was lying.   By tournament time, for the past 10 years, it’s all anyone was thinking about.

Face it—no matter who you cheer for, you liked The Streak.  When you talked with wrestling fans in other parts of the country, you told them about it.  And you spoke with pride about how tough District XI is in wrestling.  You may even have called it “Wrestling Country”.  And you told those folks how one school has epitomized the consistent excellence produced in this area.  You have been amazed by The Streak, and you wanted them to be amazed, too.

Perhaps, in a way, it’s fitting that 2016 should be the end.  This season, District XI Wrestling has lost icons Ray Nunamaker and Tony Iasiello who passed last summer.  Bill McCoach, the “voice” of the wrestling tournament for 50 years, has announced that he will not return.  Bob Kern, the long-time referee and coach, announced his retirement as well.  And now, we will not have The Streak, either.

At the end, it was long-time rivals from Nazareth and Northampton that had the honor of dispatching The Streak.  It was a merciful blow, dealt by deserving champions.  Like Maximus lying on the floor of the Coliseum in the climactic scene of “Gladiator”, we all knew that the time had come to honor this ‘once in forever’ accomplishment.  None of us will be here when this record is broken.

Indeed, the wrestling gods have spoken and The Streak is dead.  Long live The Streak.

 

 

The SportsTalk Shop: District Wrestling Individuals Preview

 

The biggest weekend for high school wrestling fans is nearly upon us and RCN will look to feed its rabid fans’ appetites over the next several days. A full preview of all of the weekend’s weight classes will be on our “RCN SportsTalk” show this Thursday live at 6pm (we’ll also talk a little Penn State football as well). Also, RCN-TV will broadcast the District 3A Championships on February 22. In the meantime, here are a few notes on several of the schools that should do very well in the tournament, along with video highlights of the area’s top wrestlers and teams.

BECAHI
Clearly, the best team in this tournament. The Golden Hawks cruised to their fourth straight 2A district championship and are coming off their fourth straight team state title, beating their four opponents by a whopping 235-18 (they also owned 27 of the first 28 takedowns registered in their dual meets). The program is so much on a roll that Becahi hasn’t lost a dual meet since February 16, 2011 (to Easton). Luke Karam (currently 28-2) and Zeke Moisey (32-0) lead an uber-talented squad that figures to dominate eight or nine of the 14 weight classes. Anything less than seven gold medals this weekend would be a major shock.

LIBERTY
The Hurricanes had a banner season under Jody Karam this year. His team beat Easton for the first time since 1991, they won the competitive Virginia Duals American Division, they finished second at the Penn Manor Tournament and battled Parkland before losing by a close margin in the first ever “Ultimate Qualifier” dual meet. Jake Gunning and Orlando Miller, who never wrestled prior to high school, both own 27 wins a piece heading into the tourney. Noah Klingborg and Andrew Gunning both had exceptional years, and K.J. Fenstermacher proved to be one of the most exciting freshman wrestlers in the area. For more on the Hurricanes, check out their recent appearance on “RCN SportsTalk” on free RCN On Demand (the show entitled “Bethlehem Wrestling”).

NAZARETH
If not for Becahi, Nazareth would be getting a lot more attention. Sage Karam (if he’s not racing in Daytona) is one of the key wrestlers to watch at 145 lbs. Tyrone Klump (who pinned in a big state semifinal bout at 120 lbs.), Brandon Lane (285 lbs.), Travis Smith (113 lbs.), Josh Golden (220 lbs.) and Tyson Klump (106 lbs.) are just a few of the wrestlers with chances to medal this weekend. The Blue Eagles, fresh off their 3A District XI team title and a bronze finish in the PIAAs, are the tournament’s favorites to capture the most gold medals in individuals if all goes right.

EASTON
First of all, congratulations to Head Coach Steve Powell for earning his 500th coaching victory during the team district tournament this year. Don’t know of a classier wrestling coach in the area, nor do I know of anyone in the state that would ever say a bad word about him.

This wasn’t quite the typical Easton year. Although they had a very good squad, they lacked the one or two dominant standout wrestlers, like a Jordan Oliver-type, that you could almost guarantee a gold medal coming out of the district tournament. Nevertheless, they have several solid wrestlers in the middle-to-heavier weight classes who could contend, and two or three gold medals for the Rovers would not be out of the question.

PARKLAND
After beating Easton early in the season, it looked like the Trojans could be the team to beat in 3A. They battled Nazareth in an exciting District Championship Battle Royale before dropping the meet, but came back strong and had an impressive run in the PIAAs. Their list of candidates to contest for gold this weekend is quite long, including Jacob and Ethan Lizak, Josh Ortman, Marques Sturdivant and Omar and Nezar Haddad. There will be some exciting bouts all throughout the tournament, but it would not surprise me if Parkland comes away with the most medals.

Who else do you feel has a chance to medal at this year’s District XI Individual Wrestling Tournament? What do you think of the dominant run of Bethlehem Catholic, the possibility of them jumping up to 3A and all the other issues surrounding their program? Send an email to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com with your opinions and thoughts and tune in to RCN-TV this Thursday at 6pm to hear your comments read on-air, plus a full preview of this year’s tourney.