When Shawn Albert took over as head coach at Jim Thorpe this season, he knew he would have to build the foundation for the Olympians' wrestling program.
A year ago, Jim Thorpe did not win a dual meet. With the Olympians moving into the Schuylkill League's Division I this year, Albert realized he had his work cut out for him.
A former wrestler at Upper Moreland High School and Bloomsburg University, Albert had been an assistant coach at his scholastic alma mater before serving as a volunteer coach at Thorpe for two seasons under Guy Franko.
As a middle school social studies teacher in the district, he was aware of how the students viewed the program.
In order to turn things around, the attitude toward Jim Thorpe wrestling had to change.
The Olympians have been taking steps in that direction. Thorpe has won five meets this season, but more importantly, participation in the program has increased, with 23 wrestlers getting at least one varsity match.
"In a small school, you have to be able to recruit kids," said Albert. "It's a matter of talking to the kids every day, and letting them know they can be a big part of the turnaround.
"We knew we had to change the culture toward wrestling at Jim Thorpe, and these kids have responded and are running with it."
While the numbers are encouraging, translating the enthusiasm into wins is a major task, especially with an inexperienced cast.
"District 11 wrestling is unbelievable. To me, it's the best district in the state, as far as consistency goes over periods of time," commented Albert. "Coaching in District 11 is a challenge, because there's a big difference between the elite teams and everyone else.
"We are definitely making strides. We started out strong, and we got five wins, but we're not there yet. The kids are moving forward, and people are noticing it."
Albert knows Thorpe must also upgrade its technique if it is to succeed against better competition. The Olympians are still seeking their first win against Schuylkill Division I opponents, and the District 11 Class AA tournament is on the horizon for next week.
"We're starting from the bottom up, from the ground floor," he noted. "For this year, we are focusing on being dominant on our feet.
"It's my philosophy to train them to beat guys who they are not supposed to beat, then winning will take care of itself."
Three Olympians have been doing their share of winning this season, reaching the 20-win circle. Seniors Jon Fritz (29-5 at 160) and Justin Mazzella (22-7 at 145) and sophomore Brian Ohl (23-9 at 112) appear to be the Thorpe grapplers best equipped to advance in the postseason.
"It's been a nice turnaround for those three kids this season," stated Albert. "They have definitely bought into what we're trying to do."
Other major contributors this season include seniors Adam Rex (14 wins) and James Denny (12 wins), while sophomore Christian Gavornik is 18-14, despite often wrestling up a class at 171. Senior 215 pounder Tyler Mangold was 11-6 before breaking his nose at the Schuylkill League Tournament, which has kept him out of the line-up. Junior Phil Schron is 9-8 at 189, and senior Josh Dean is 7-5 at 145-152.
"With James Denny and Adam Rex, their records really don't show their importance to our team," remarked Albert. "James Denny has done a lot with getting kids to come out for the team and stay out."
Thorpe has Schuylkill meets remaining at home with Pottsville on Wednesday and at Blue Mountain on Thursday, then its attention turns to the District tournament.
"I believe you need to get wrestlers mentally ready for Districts," said Albert. "Their bodies are ready, so you want to prepare their minds for it and be extremely positive.
"I'm very proud of these kids. We are setting a good foundation for what we want to do in the future."
STATE DUALS - District 11's powers represented themselves well at the PIAA State Team Championships last week.
In Class AA, D-11 champion Bethlehem Catholic claimed the crown by defeating defending champion Fort LeBoeuf 38-21, while Pen Argyl, the D-11 runner-up, went 3-2, with both losses to third place Burrell.
In Class AAA, D-11 champion Easton advanced to the final but Central Dauphin claimed its fourth straight State Duals title with a 36-18 victory over the Red Rovers. D-11 runner-up Nazareth placed third, with its only loss by a point, 26-25, to Canon McMillan in the quarterfinals before avenging that loss in the consolations.
Incidentally, Easton is scheduled to visit Bethlehem Catholic Wednesday in a Lehigh Valley Conference match.
PANTHERS WIN SCHUYLKILL II - Panther Valley has wrapped up the Schuylkill League Division II title.
The Panthers are 4-0 in division competition after beating Schuylkill Haven last Wednesday. Meanwhile, Mahanoy Area upset Upper Dauphin, giving every other team besides the Panthers at least two losses.
The Panthers (11-11 overall) have won four straight matches and will wrap up their D-II slate at home with Williams Valley Wednesday.
In Schuylkill Division I, Blue Mountain is in the driver's seat for its seventh straight championship. The Eagles (4-0 league) have a one-game lead over Tri-Valley (3-1) but have already beaten the Bulldogs.
Riding a streak of 45 straight D-1 wins, Blue Mountain visits Tamaqua (3-2 league) on Wednesday and travels to Jim Thorpe (0-4) on Thursday. Tri-Valley hosts Pine Grove on Wednesday and is at home vs. North Schuylkill Thursday.
In the Colonial League, Pen Argyl (11-0 league) has wrapped up the team title, which is the third year in a row the Green Knights have won or shared the honor (Pen Argyl tied Wilson for the title in 2008-09).
In the Mountain Valley Conference, Stroudsburg (5-0 MVC) has clinched its third championships in a row after beating Pleasant Valley 41-29 last week. The Mountaineers finish with a meet at home against East Stroudsburg North tonight.