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Coal Cracker Tourney gets bigger, better

Tim Robb understands the significance of this weekend.

It’s impact. It’s reach.

And it’s potential.

Wrestling is woven into the fabric of who Tim Robb is and what he’s all about, which makes the Coal Cracker Tournament – and it’s continued growth – a perfect event to serve as a showcase for the sport while also embodying the spirit of its roots.

“It takes a lot of good people to run this, and I have a lot of good people around me,” said Robb, who is the tournament director. “To be honest with you, next week is a lot better than this week. But when we do it and it’s successful, I’ll be really excited.”

The excitement, or nervous energy, comes from a buzz the event has created in recent years.

And this season will be no different, with a loaded varsity boys tournament for the 12th annual edition of the event, an expanded girls event and a JV competition.

“It’s a lot of pride,” said Robb, a former coach at Panther Valley who is now on Jim Thorpe’s staff and was also a member of the 1985 Northern Lehigh 2A State Championship wrestling team that was recently inducted into the school’s Ring of Honor.

“The Faith Christian coach (Ben Clymer, a Northwestern Lehigh graduate) said ‘this is going to be tougher than the state tournament. This is one of the best tournaments in the state.’ So hearing him say that - as a coach of one of the best teams in the state - that was good to hear.”

Lots of teams

Not only will all eight area programs – and many more from around District 11 – be represented, but there will also be a pair of schools from out of state making the trip to the event, with William Penn High School (Delaware) and Western Reserve Academy (Ohio) set to attend.

The varsity tournament will be held Friday and Saturday at Lehighton Area High School and Elementary School. Currently, there are 60 teams scheduled for the varsity boys tournament, which will be run as a double elimination event with 64-person brackets. Results will be updated on Trackwrestling.com, a task Tim Swiezak and Mike Kelley execute at many area events.

The second day of the varsity tournament will be held exclusively at the elementary center. Awards will be given to the top eight wrestlers in each weight class. Trophies will also be awarded to the first and second place teams, and the tournament’s outstanding wrestler as chosen by the officials and tournament directors.

“It’s exciting, it definitely is,” said Lehighton Director of Student Services and Facilities Planning Kyle Spotts. “I always enjoy hosting events here, and utilizing our facilities and venues and things like that. But there is always a nervous energy when you host something this big, just because it is a large event. People are coming because of the success of the event in the past, so I think that speaks to it as it continues to grow.”

After hosting its first standalone girls tournament last year at Lehighton, that event will return and take place at Jim Thorpe Area High School beginning at 9 a.m. on Saturday.

More girls

The number of programs with girls teams continues to grow and interest has continued to rise, something that is reflected in the popularity of this year’s tournament. There are 36 teams that have at least one girl entered into the tournament, with about 250 girls expected to compete.

“I was hoping to do them both together, because I really want to see some of the girls wrestling. I’m excited about it,” said Robb. “But it grew so fast, there was just no way we could put them both together. I’m really excited, though. I think girls wrestling right now, I won’t say it saved boys wrestling, but I think it’s put a good boost into it, because I’m seeing numbers up everywhere when I get rosters.

“The (Jim Thorpe) Christmas Tournament we felt that way. A lot of teams that were coming in with eight, nine kids are coming in with 15 now, and I personally think it (girls wrestling) has a lot to do with it, and I’m excited about it.”

A trophy will be a awarded to the champion, and medals will be presented to the second-through-sixth place wrestlers in each bracket, and a trophy will be given to the team champion.

“It’s going to have the best of the best in Pennsylvania,” said Robb. “It’s really going to be good.”

Currently, the PIAA does not officially sanction girls wrestling as a high school sport in the state. The PIAA has stated that 100 schools need to sponsor a girls wrestling team before they will sanction it and create a PIAA Girls Wrestling State Championship.

There are currently 92 schools in Pennsylvania that have started a girls wrestling program, including Tamaqua and Lehighton.

“I think too that probably puts more of a spotlight on wrestling in general, just having so much coverage with the girls because how fast that seems to be growing, I think in general that probably helps promote wrestling as a whole,” said Jim Thorpe Athletic Director Dustin McAndrew. “Not just from the girls side, but from the boys side, too.”

Jim Thorpe also hosted a successful – and expanding – two-day tournament in December, which featured 25 teams.

“It shows how good of a job Tim does running this tournament that so many people are interested,” McAndrew said of the Coal Cracker. “And it’s kind of an honor, too, I think because of the fact we’ve had tournaments here and they’ve gone well, it shows that trust in the tournament being held here also.”

JV tournament

There will also be a full JV tournament, which should have close to 300 wrestlers, held at Lehighton’s high school gymnasium at 8 a.m. on Saturday. Wrestlers eliminated on Friday night that go 0-2 or 1-2 can be added to the tournament.

“I haven’t seen the seeds, but I know there will be multiple state place winners, probably some state champs, and I’m sure there’s going to be some nationally ranked kids here as well,” said Spotts. “If you place in this tournament, you’re a heck of a wrestler.

“I think the coaches like it a lot because it has that elite tournament feel to it, but then it also has the JV portion that a lot of your wrestlers, if they’re not at that level, you can still get them matches on Saturday throughout the day. So I think it solves a lot of needs for your wrestling program, where you’re trying to get some of your kids matches to get them experience, which you can do in this tournament. But then you also have that challenging aspect as well. So I think that’s why a lot of people like it, because it’s a good balance for your program depending on where it’s at.”

Booster clubs benefit

The Jim Thorpe, Lehighton and Tamaqua booster clubs will help run the tournament, and Robb hopes each will be able to benefit substantially.

“I’m hoping I can give them each several thousand dollars (that maybe they can even use) for scholarships at the end of the year,” said Robb. “Which I think is a really, really cool thing.

“But that’s totally up to them. It’s going to be for them to do what they want with. It’s not going to be anything specific that we as the Coal Cracker tell them how to use. It’s just for those programs for helping out and doing their thing.”

Thousands attending

The event also figures to bring in plenty of activity for local hotels and businesses.

“I know we’re going to have over 1,000 wrestlers, and with 1,000 wrestlers comes 100, 200 coaches, and you’re also going to have families,” said Robb, “so we’re bringing probably four or five thousand people to the area.”

It’s a weekend that requires planning well in advance – and plenty of preparation and collaboration with school staff and administration to keep things running smoothly.

“It starts kind of as soon as a date is secure for the following year. We try to keep that same third weekend in January,” said Spotts. “So it starts with adjusting some of our other schedules. We moved our boys basketball game with Jim Thorpe that was scheduled for Friday to Thursday to accommodate this event. And they’ll jump on it Thursday night. It begins with the mats. We have some here, but we don’t have enough ... so we get mats in through the National Guard, and other local schools bring mats and we’ll get that setup Thursday night as soon as the basketball game ends.

“Friday, the school works with them. The phys ed classes can take place while the mats are set up in the gym already. The tournament directors keep everything on track, and they come in and set everything up throughout the day Friday. Once Friday is here, it’s go time. We would expect teams to get here a little bit after 1 p.m., and the goal is to start wrestling by 3 so that way we can get to where we need to be Friday night. There’s not a lot of downtime. There’s 10 mats running at the same time throughout Friday and we try and get as far as we can Friday night to meet the schedule for Saturday. It’s definitely busy, but it’s exciting at the same time.”

There will be four mats running at Lehighton’s high school gymnasium on Friday, which will include weights 107-133 pounds. The 139-285 pound weight classes will compete on six mats at the elementary center. All competition in the varsity tournament will take place on six mats at the elementary center on Saturday.



Round 1

10 mats – 64 Man (3-6 p.m.)

Round 2

10 mats – 32 Man (6-8:30 p.m.)

10 mats – First Round Consolations (6-8:30 p.m.)

Round 3

10 mats – 16 Man (8:30-10:30 p.m.)

10 mats – Second Round Consolations (8:30-10:30 p.m.)

Round 4

10 mats – Third Round Consolations (10:30–11 p.m.)


Round 5

6 mats – Fourth Round Consolations (9-10:30 a.m.)

Round 6

6 mats – Quarterfinals (10:30 a.m.-12 p.m).

6 mats – Fifth Round Consolations (10:30 a.m.-12 p.m.)

Round 7

6 mats – Sixth Round Consolations (12-12:45 p.m.)

Round 8

4 mats – Semifinals (12:45-2 p.m.)

4 mats – Consolation Quarterfinals (12:45-2 p.m.)

Round 9

3 mats – Consolation Semifinals (2-2:30 p.m.)

Round 10

3 mats – 3rd-, 5th-, 7th-place Matches (3-4 p.m.)

Round 11

2 Mats – Finals (4-5 p.m.)


JOIN THE CLUB ... Palmerton’s Matt Machalik had a huge game last Thursday when he scored 37 points during a win against Moravian Academy.

Since 2000, Machalik is one of just 15 area boys players to score that many points in a game.

Weatherly has had four players (Zach Moon, Jeff Furmanchin, Ryan Nenstiel, Bob Nenstiel) accomplish the feat over that time span, while Marian has had three (Brendan Lonergan, Tyler Fritz, Chris Decker).

Jim Thorpe (Kysheem Lynch, Walter Johnson) and Lehighton (Jordan Knappenberger, Kyle Koch) have both had two, with Panther Valley (Rene Figueroa), Northwestern (Steve Showers) and Tamaqua (Brayden Knoblauch) each having one.


PERFECT AT THE LINE ... In last Thursday’s game against Blue Mountain, Tamaqua went a perfect 12-of-12 at the free throw line.

The last time the Blue Raiders made that many foul shots in a game without missing any was Feb. 27, 2018 when they made all 14 in a subregional playoff game against Lower Moreland. Brayden Knoblauch led the way for Tamaqua with a 6-of-6 effort that night, while Thad Zuber and Casey Rother both made all three of their attempts. Gabe Gregoire chipped in with a pair.


FILLIES ON A ROLL ... The Marian girls basketball team has an 11-1 record, with its only loss coming to Allentown Central Catholic. The Fillies have the area’s longest current basketball win streak (boys or girls) that has now reached eight games. Marian added three impressive wins to that total in the past week, rolling to wins over Nativity (86-24), Minersville (50-32) and Lourdes (59-38). Among the offensive highlights for Marian in the last week are a 28-point game from Carly Minchhoff, and a 26-point game from Frankie Martinelli.


BEARS GETTING BETTER ... Pleasant Valley boys basketball coach Bobby Hahn has seen improvement in his team over the last few seasons. Zach Prator and Austin Ratti have been the offensive leaders for the Bears, and their scoring led the way in an Eastern Pennsylvania Conference victory over Stroudsburg on Friday - Pleasant Valley’s sixth win of the season. The six wins matches their total victories in the last two seasons combined, as PV went 4-17 a year ago and 2-10 during the COVID-impacted 2020-21 season.


MORE PV IMPROVEMENT ... The Pleasant Valley boys aren’t the only team showing significant improvement this season, as the Panther Valley girls have taken a big step up as well. After winning just three games a year ago, the Panthers are currently 9-5 this season and riding a four-game win streak. A big reason for the Panthers success has been the play of Maddison Maynard, who leads the area in scoring at 22.0 points a game. Freshman Morgan Orsulak (11.07 ppg.) and senior Sera Robin (10.5 ppg. and an area-leading 33 three-pointers) have also played well.


CHAMPIONS ... Lehighton’s Aidan Gruber and Reese Balk, along with Tamaqua’s Aiden Schlier, all took home individual wins in Saturday’s Schuylkill League wrestling tournament.

Spectators look on at Lehighton's Elementary Center during last year's Coal Cracker Tournament. This year's event is scheduled to bring in 60 teams for two days of competition. RICH SMITH/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS