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?

 

 

 

 

The SportsTalk Shop: “Calm” Before the Storm

It’s been an exciting run of high school sports action so far this winter.  You have your dominant teams (like Bethlehem Catholic & Nazareth wrestling, Allen and–up until Friday–Bangor boys basketball teams that have been undefeated).  You also have teams that are surging of late (Parkland & Liberty boys basketball, Easton & Nazareth girls basketball), along with other schools (Emmaus, Becahi & Whitehall boys, Parkland, Allen and Bethlehem Catholic girls basketball & Parkland, Northampton & Easton wrestling) that have been very consistent all season long.

Things start to get serious for teams as we head into the final two weeks before the post-season commences in all of the winter sports.  Teams fighting for playoff spots start facing “do-or-tie” games in order to qualify, and other schools are looking to solidify as many home games and higher seeds as possible as the league and district playoffs appear on the horizon.  Wresters are also tuning up and trying to zone in on individual matchups and target the weight classes that they will be competing at for the post-season.

This Thursday, we’re going to be taking an in-depth look at the local wrestling season with the Morning Call’s Tom Housenick and RCN’s own wrestling analyst, Jim Best.  They’ll be identifying the top athletes and best match-ups going forward, in addition to talking about the wrestling season overall and handicapping the District XI Team Wrestling Tournament, which will be on RCN-TV the following week.

We’re also going to feature Rodney Williams—a standout high school basketball player from the Washington, DC region who’s now having tremendous success for the Drexel men’s basketball team.

Your comments are most welcome in advance of the show (email us at rcnsportstalk@rcn.com) and tune in this Thursday, live at 7pm on RCN-TV, to hear our wrestling experts’ responses to your questions/opinions.

In the meantime, here’s a look at some of our recent broadcasts of both local wrestling and high school basketball.

We’d also like to let you know that we are now offering exclusive, behind-the-scene tours here at RCN-TV to charities, youth and community groups, schools and local organizations (20 members or less).  Discover how television productions like “Community Spotlight,” “Pennsylvania Crossfire,” “Nuestro Valle,” and even our own “SportsTalk” shows work and learn different aspects of the broadcasting industry. Tour times are flexible and our staff will work hard to accommodate your needs.

If you are interested in a tour, please call our studio manager, Rick Geho, at 610-443-2909 to learn more.

 

Don’t forget to check the RCN schedule here on the website for our upcoming games as the contests get more heated, with local teams jockeying for a spot in the league and district playoffs—along with fighting for the best possible seeds!

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.