Less than a year ago, Palmerton almost lost its wrestling team.
Now, they're the talk of the town.
Last Saturday at the Southeast Class AA Regionals, four Blue Bombers earned a trip to Hershey to compete in the state championships. It's the most the school has ever sent to the tournament and the most this season among TIMES NEWS area teams.
"It definitely was a thrill," said Palmerton head coach Dave Lavin. "It was my first time getting any out and it's just a fun thing because it means so much to the guys. The way they react in those matches to get to states, it's awesome.
"It's been a long road, I guess. This is my third year as coach. My first year we were 3-14. Last year we were 12-7 and then after turning the corner a little bit and having some success there was the story that we might not have a team."
Last spring as the school board tried to meet a budget and were forced to find ways to cut, several athletic programs including the wrestling one were in danger of being dropped. But thanks to a quickly formed committee, Save Our Sports, which raised over $40,000, most of those programs were saved for this season.
"Give our guys a lot of credit," said Lavin. "We had some excellent support which made this season possible. But our thing was always just to do what was in our control. We focused on getting better in the off-season even when it looked like we weren't going to have a team. They still were working out, they were lifting and they were wrestling. And that's what I wanted them to do. I said the other stuff is something that's not in our hands right now and we just have to focus on getting better and it'll work out, and it did. And they didn't miss a step."
The Bombers enjoyed one of their best seasons ever, posting a record of 17-8 and earning appearances in District Duals and the Colonial League playoffs.
"It kind of felt like we had something to prove because we did so well last year and then we were faced with the possibility of not having a team," said Lavin. "It was just an unfortunate situation and luckily it panned out the way it did where we had the team. At first there was obviously some disappointment that we might not have the chance because I knew there was talent there this year."
Three of Lavin's talented grapplers are seniors and making their first trip to states.
Kane Kralik, at 220 pounds, took third at both districts and regionals and currently has a record of 36-3. Sam Oberlander, the Bombers' 120-pounder, was third at districts and fourth at regionals. Oberlander earned his 100th win at regionals and has a mark of 37-5. Cody Grohotolski earned a silver medal at districts and placed fourth at regionals. The 152-pounder is 30-7 this year.
"With the seniors, definitely their goals were to get through to regionals and have a couple of them get to states. Kane was very close last year and I know this meant a lot to him. Sam had a couple things on the line. He got his 100th win to stay alive. If he had lost he would have been at 99 and that would have been the end of his career. So he got that and then used that momentum to get through to states. And Cody, I told him once the brackets came out at districts that he was the darkhorse not just for districts but also regionals. I told him he was going to turn some heads and make it to states."
The trio will be joined by Josh Evans, a sophomore who took second at districts at 113 pounds and qualified for states with a fourth-place showing at regionals. Evans has a record of 30-7.
"Josh showed that you don't just have to be a senior to get to states," said Lavin. "That was always sort of the Palmerton thing. Many have said when I'm a senior I want to go to states. Why limit it to one year?
"Hopefully it gives the younger kids something to work towards. The mentality here has changed and I think that showed this weekend. People didn't have the goal to go to states. They didn't have the goal to win matches as a team. But we won matches as a team and performed as a team and guys whose goals were just to get out of the districts and just to be at regionals showed they can wrestle at the state level. Now the other guys see that and they need to up their goals."
As for the four Bombers competing at states, their goals continue to change. Now, just a trip to Hershey isn't good enough.
"They're not satisfied just to be there," said Lavin. "There are really tough guys at states and they're tough to beat but I think we're on that level where our guys can compete with pretty much anyone at their weight. If they come in with the same attitude that they came in with at districts and regionals, they have a very good shot to place."