BY ED HEDES

It's been a long time since I sat on press row at the PIAA Wrestling Championships.

In the past 25-plus years, I've made the trip to Hershey only twice.

Once was about 12 years ago when the PIAA still called the old HersheyPark Arena its home for the basketball and wrestling championships.

The other was in 2009 when THE TIMES NEWS had numerous wrestlers make it out of regionals.

Since I was scheduled to cover a PIAA Girls Basketball game that weekend in Leola, the trip out a day earlier was definitely on the bill.

I covered the PIAA Championships for the first time back in 1976 when they were still held at Penn State University and were wrestled at Rec Hall. It was quite an experience since there weren't many motels or hotels in State College so with it being a last minute decision, I spent the entire cold, March weekend sleeping in my car and moving from parking lot to parking lot whenever campus security would shine that bright flashlight into the window and tell me to get on my way.

I've come a long way since that first state championship I covered. Instead on living out of my car, I'm doing this part of my Press Pass Column at the Best Western Hershey.

I made another trip or two to Rec Hall before the PIAA moved the championships to Hershey in 1979.

I did manage to see Northwestern have three gold medalists under Dave Hawk back then (Dan Blose in 1977 along with Scott Fenstermacher and Greg Stewart in 1979 when the Tigers won the team title).

It wasn't long after that when I relinquished those duties to the late Joe Plasko, who was the man on the scene for us when it came to wrestling, covering the sport for nearly three decades. Last year's PIAA wrestling championship was one of the final events Joe covered for THE TIMES NEWS before his death.

Rod Heckman took over Joe's wrestling duties during the regular season. Rod did an admirable job keeping the rankings and doing features for the wrestling page each week. He'll be the first one to tell you he had some big shoes to fill.

Just as I have had during the post-season.

The one thing I've learned is we'll never replace Joe. I learned that a couple of weeks ago when I covered the District 11 Class AA Wrestling Championships at Freedom.

Joe covered districts by himself through the years. From doing the interviews, to writing the stories, to compiling the results Joe did it all.

A couple of weeks ago when I covered districts, I needed to take along TJ Engle, one of our part time workers, to type in the agate or I still might be there.

Regionals went a little smoother since I only had to do one day and had colleague Mike Haines to help with the other.

Now, I'm trying to handle one final task the state championships without committing a mistake.

Oddly enough, the PIAA is celebrating its 75th Anniversary. I wonder how many remember back to that day, March 18, 1938 when it all began up at Rec Hall.

Twenty-seven high schools accounted for 78 wrestlers that day. There were only 10 weight classes back then, but there are 14 today. You either won by pin or riding time. There was no criteria for points.

There have been plenty of rule changes since then.

Today, sitting here on press row, I feel out of sort in the same seat that Joe occupied since the championships moved to the Giant Center. He should be the one enjoying this special anniversary of the sport he loved to cover so much.

I'm just hoping I can handle the electricity of the finals like he did.

Hopefully he'll keep looking over my shoulder like he has since this post-season has started.