HERSHEY - Jim McCabe can finally shave off his beard.
"It's coming off tonight," said the Tamaqua coach moments after Garth Lakitsky's 2-1 victory over Milton sophomore Ryan Solomon gave the Blue Raiders their first PIAA State wrestling champion.
McCabe let his facial hair grow for good luck as Lakitsky, a senior 215 pounder, pursued his dream of State gold, which ended with Lakitsky atop the Class AA award stand Saturday at the Giant Center.
Tamaqua Area High School has offered the sport since 1968, when the program began with Paul Dodson as head coach and Eric Zerbe as an assistant.
Since then, the Raiders have had 14 different grapplers qualify for the State championships, with seven of them making multiple trips. Tamaqua has a total of 10 State medals.
The pursuit of that elusive State gold has spanned generations.
Lakitsky's father, also named Garth, was a muscular 167 pounder for the Raiders who earned a third place medal as a junior in 1985 and placed fourth in 1986.
The elder Lakitsky has helped guide his son on the mat along his journey and watched him finish what he had started.
"Thank God. We needed it," said Garth, Sr. as his son received the gold. "I didn't do it, but he did it. He's our first champion. I'm very proud of him. He had an undefeated season (42-0). He did it all. I'm very happy."
Perry Breiner was Tamaqua's first State qualifier in 1976, wrestling at 132 pounds. Breiner went on to coach the Raider matmen, including his son Andy, who became the school's first State finalist as a junior 145 pounder in 1999 but settled for silver. A year later, Andy Breiner took home a bronze medal at 152.
After that, the next Raider who had a shot at a State title was Matt Benza, who finished second at 125 pounds in 2001.
Perry Breiner was in Hershey to watch Lakitsky make Raider history.
"I think it's fantastic for the whole Tamaqua program and all those little kids out there watching," said Perry. "What a good kid. 42-0 is unbelievable.
"Garth wrestled smart in the final match. He (Solomon) didn't tangle up with Garth because Garth would have pinned him. Garth did what he had to do."
Tamaqua assistant coach Greg Stewart knows something about winning State titles. Stewart is still THE TIMES NEWS area's only two-time PIAA gold medalist, winning the AA 112 crown in 1978 and 1979 while at Northwestern Lehigh.
"I'm emotional about this," said Stewart after Lakitsky's win. "I don't recall being this excited when I won it."
Stewart had some advice for Lakitsky. "I told him to never take anyone for granted," Stewart related. "Everybody was telling Garth that he was probably going to win, but you just can't go out there thinking you are going to win. You have to wrestle your butt off and never count on anything."
The hard work paid off for Lakitsky, who actually had a losing record (13-16) as a freshman before qualifying for States as a sophomore, going two-and-out in Hershey, and advancing to the semifinals last year before finishing fourth.
"I remember thinking to myself that, as a freshman, he had a long way to go," recalled McCabe, a State qualifier himself at Mahanoy Area in 1992. "Within a year, that long way was shortened."
Lakitsky now holds Tamaqua school records for wins in a career (129-27) and season (42), as well as for pins in a season (33). This year he dominated like few wrestlers have ever done on the scholastic level.
The State title is one to savor and something that could provide momentum to the Raider program, if people want it that way.
"That's out of Garth's hands and my hands," said McCabe. "The kids who are coming up have to want to mimic what Garth was doing, to continue what we've been doing here the past 11 years. It has to come from within if you want to be a good wrestler, and Garth has that."