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NL memories: State title ... Hluschak wrestling

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Rod Heckman has been a member of the Times News Sports Department since September 1988. In the next few weeks, he will be sharing some of his most memorable moments for each of our 10 area schools. Today’s edition features Northern Lehigh).

By Rod Heckman


Northern Lehigh’s athletic programs have had plenty of ups and downs over the past 30-plus years.

When I started here, the football team was in the midst of a down spell. Soon after, however, Jim Tkach took over and helped turn the Bulldogs into a perennial power. Joe Tout has kept that winning tradition alive. And despite suffering a recent winless season, the program is back on the upswing.

Before I arrived, the boys basketball team played in a state title game. Since then, they’ve been on the roller coaster ride of success and failure that many schools experience. The girls team, meanwhile, has also featured its share of highlights and lowlights over the years.

Wrestling, among the best in the state a while back, has seen a numbers problem recently, while the softball program was also a power back in the day. These two sports are both featured among my favorite Northern Lehigh memories.

June 13, 1996

NL softball team wins state title

This was a no-brainer. I’ve only covered two area teams winning a state title, and this was one of them.

And while one of our teams achieving the ultimate is hard to forget, it’s not the only reason it’s memorable for me.

Northern Lehigh finished 26-4 that season. The program had been dominant for years, having also won a state crown in 1988 (three months before I started working for the Times News).

Vanessa Strohl was the team’s top player, excelling in the circle as well as in the batter’s box and on the basepaths. The entire squad, coached by Dennis Hock, was deep - boasting talent like Tiff Oertner, Mandy Hoffman and Jacquie Andreas to name a few.

Strohl allowed an unearned run in the first inning, but settled in and gave up just two hits and struck out 10 in the Bulldogs’ 6-2 Class 2A victory over Riverside at Shippensburg.

The team’s No. 9 hitter, Laurie Rentschler, delivered the game’s biggest hit with a two-run double in the home fourth that snapped a 1-1 tie.

Throughout the game, I remember my colleague Emmett McCall having to update our “Voicelink” with score updates. During a time before everyone had a cellphone, he used the company’s portable car phone to leave messages every half inning. People could call in to our “Voicelink” number and enter a code to receive the updates.

Also memorable was the fact that Northampton’s softball team played right after for the 3A championship and won. One of the assistant coaches for that Konkrete Kids team, which actually lost to Nolehi in the first game of the 1996 season, was someone I had played with on a fastpitch softball team.

March 2, 2002

Hluschak third at Regionals,

advances to states

Eight different Times News area wrestlers qualified for states at the Class 2A Southeast Regionals at Kutztown University.

So why am I picking just one of them - Ryan Hluschak - as one of my top Northern Lehigh moments?

First of all, this event stands out because I wasn’t even supposed to be there. Joe Plasko, who was our wrestling “guru” at the time, was scheduled to cover regionals. He was at districts the week before, but ended up being hospitalized with cellulitis. That forced obvious changes.

Hluschak got caught in the first round, and was in serious jeopardy of missing states. But the 140-pound junior battled all the way back in the consolations to finish in third place and secure a trip to the PIAA championships. Along the way, he pinned the wrestler who handed him his earlier loss. He finished his regional tourney with eight third-period points to gain a 12-5 decision over Jim Thorpe’s Ryan Bennick.

Todd Herzog, his head coach at the time, said “That was a lot of class there. It takes a big kid to get whacked like that early and put it back together and come all the way back for third place. We’re proud of him.”

Hluschak was one of four wrestlers I interviewed that day, but the conversation with him stood out. To this day, it’s one of the interviews I remember the most.

After introducing myself, he questioned me, “Where’s Mr. Plasko?” When I told him the news, he was genuinely shaken. His accomplishments that day became secondary, and he wanted to make sure I passed word to Joe how sorry he was about his illness. He told me how much he respected Joe and the great job he did in his wrestling stories.

We eventually talked about his day of wrestling, but afterward he asked about me and if I liked my job and covering wrestling.

The conversation went on for a while, and I remember we shared an interest in collecting football cards. I told him about my Walter Payton and Joe Montana rookie cards, and he told me about his Dan Marino rookie card.

Hluschak finished third at states that year and won a state title as a senior. As a writer, I’m not supposed to be bias, but I became a fan of his that day.