Coming into this season, Palmerton coach Dave Lavin was optimistic his wrestlers could improve on their performance from last year.

The second year mentor has watched the Blue Bombers exceed expectations so far.

After years near the bottom of the Colonial League standings, Palmerton has jumped a number of rungs up the ladder this year. Last week, the Bombers knocked off Northwestern and Wilson on consecutive days, a feat that wouldn't have been possible for them in past years against two clubs that have traditionally been among the Colonial upper echelon.

Heading into this week, Palmerton has a 9-4 record, including 6-2 against Colonial League competition. That has already surpassed last year's marks of 4-13 overall and 2-9 in the league.

The Bombers have put themselves in position to qualify for their first-ever berth in the District 11 Team Championships, to be held February 4-5 at Freedom High School in Bethlehem.

The top 10 teams, ratings-wise, in Class AA and AAA make the cut, and unofficially, Palmerton is sitting with the seventh best rating in AA at the moment.

Lavin is certainly pleased with the progress his program is making.

"It is maybe a little surprising, to come so far with so many young wrestlers," said Lavin. "When you lose two state-caliber wrestlers like Dan Costenbader and Mike Englert, it is always a question as to what the impact is going to be, but they have all stepped up and made us a much more well-rounded team so far.

"We have never made District Duals before, and that has been our goal this year from the start."

A year ago, Palmerton was hurt by lack of numbers. This season, the Bombers have 14 grapplers, which means fewer vacancies to work around.

"It's nice that we have a complete team," said Lavin. "We've been solid up and down the line-up, and we have done a good job, but as a coach, it can be a little scary, because an injury to one guy can change a season."

The Bombers have remained healthy for the most part, and the addition of some new talent to go with the development of the returnees has made the difference.

Freshman Josh Evans, a two-time District 11 junior high champion, has made his presence felt with a 17-3 mark, wrestling at 112-119.

"Anytime you get someone like that coming into your program, there's anticipation," stated Lavin. "Josh has adjusted to the different level. You have to be multi-dimensional and not just use the same things that worked in junior high, and he has started to open up with his style."

Sophomore Joseph Bubble (10-9) has come up with some big wins, including a fall over Northwestern's Dylan Badesso to clinch the win over the Tigers.

"This is Joey's first year on the varsity and his third year overall, and he is starting to get it," noted Lavin. "He understands he has a role, and he is willing to sacrifice and wrestle anyone to help the team."

Another sophomore, Dillon Masington, leads the Bombers in wins with 18 and is starting to use his martial arts background to his advantage.

"Dillon has tons of athletic ability, and he has great hips, so he is tough to take down and score on," related Lavin. "He has found a physical wrestling style that is working for him."

Junior 215 pounder Kane Kralik placed sixth at Districts last year and is 17-5 to date. "People have high expectations for Kane," mentioned Lavin. "He is gifted with great balance, and he is getting more aggressive, which helps when we need to score some bonus points."

Another junior, Cody Grohotolski, is 13-6 at 140, shoring up the middle of the line-up. "Cody is a tough wrestler with tons of ability, and he is someone else we look to for bonus points," said Lavin.

Travis Wolfe, a junior at 145, has also made strides, evening his record at 9-9 after a 1-8 start. "Travis broke his collarbone last year, and he's been under the radar," stated Lavin.

The Bombers' co-captains, junior Sam Oberlander (17-5) and Jarrett Kleintop (11-10), have also been instrumental in their improvement.

"Our captains have provided leadership," stressed Lavin. "The other kids listen to what they have to say, and they keep the team's morale up, so that we are all on the same page."

While Palmerton has momentum, it also has its work cut out with four tough matches before the Feb. 2 cut-off for District Duals. That includes Colonial League matches at Bangor Wednesday and at Saucon Valley in a rescheduled meet on Feb. 2, as well as at home against archrivals Northern Lehigh on Saturday and Lehighton on Monday.

"Every match is big for us, but the Northern Lehigh and Lehighton matches are ones that the fans and wrestlers have talked about here for a long time," remarked Lavin. "With the great wrestling history of Northern Lehigh, they are going to come in here to try and make a statement. They will show up ready to wrestle. It's the same with Lehighton. We're excited that, for the first time in awhile, we can compete with them."

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DISTRICT DUALS RATINGS - With District Duals approaching, TIMES NEWS area teams are vying for spots in the competition.

As of today, in Class AA, Palmerton (9-4), Lehighton (11-8) and Tamaqua (9-6) are ranked among the top 10 in the latest unofficial ratings.

Northern Lehigh improved to 8-7 with Monday's win over Wilson; the Bulldogs were ranked 12th and remain in the running.

Northwestern is 6-9 overall but gets to drop two losses to non-Pennsylvania teams (Springfield Central and St. Benedict's Prep). Panther Valley is 8-11 overall but 6-8 against Pa. competition.

Other AA teams in contention for the top 10 include Bethlehem Catholic and Allentown Central Catholic from the Lehigh Valley Conference; Pen Argyl and Saucon Valley from the Colonial League; Tri-Valley, Pine Grove and North Schuylkill from the Schuylkill League; and Pius X.

In Class AAA, Pleasant Valley is 11-4 overall and sits ninth in the unofficial rankings.

Keep in mind that the ratings, which use a point system of four points for a AAA win, three points for a AA win, one point for a AAA loss and zero points for a AA loss (with the point total then divided by the number of Pa. matches), are only used to determine the top 10 teams in each class. The District 11 committee then reseeds the teams.

With a week before the Feb. 2 cutoff, weather can also play a role, if matches are called off and unable to be rescheduled in time. It is definitely down to crunch time.

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OFF THE MAT RANKINGS - Eight TIMES NEWS area wrestlers are ranked in this week's Off The Mat Class AA State Rankings by Mark Dugan of Clearfield.

103 - Nick O'Donnell, Panther Valley (8th).

125 - Zane Heller, Northern Lehigh (6th)

140 - Kolby Mashack, Tamaqua (8th); Nikko Stevens, Northern Lehigh (11th); Anthony Farole, Lehighton (14th).

145 - Ty Herzog, Northern Lehigh (14th).

171 - Colin Hedash, Northern Lehigh (2nd).

215 - Garth Lakitsky, Tamaqua (5th),

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BEARS THIRD AT CLEARFIELD - Pleasant Valley finished third at the Clearfield Bison Duals last Saturday, losing to host Clearfield 34-30 but defeating Montoursville (58-15), Valley (50-22), General McLane (38-36) and Reading High (65-9).

Ernest Klingel, Mike Dahlstrom and Hunter Deihl each finished at 5-0 on the day for the Bears, while Kenny Yanovich, Sean Bianco and Alex Yanovich were each 4-1.

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COAL CRACKER ROUND ROBIN - Panther Valley is hosting its Second Annual Coal Cracker Round Robin Tournament this Saturday, beginning at 9 a.m.

Wrestling action will be held on four mats. Medals will be awarded to the top three wrestlers in each weight class. There will also be trophies for the team champion and Outstanding Wrestler. Each wrestler will get up to five matches, if possible.

The field for this year's tournament includes Panther Valley, Jim Thorpe, Catasauqua, North Schuylkill, Allentown Central Catholic, Midd-West, Columbia-Montour Vo-Tech and Lackawanna Trail.