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Coal Cracker is coming to Lehighton

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    Former Panther Valley wrestling coach Tim Robb (right) talks to his assistant coaches a match a few years ago. Despite stepping down as the Panthers’ coach after the 2017-18 season, Robb still plays a huge role in staging the Coal Cracker Tournament. This year, because of its size, the tournament will be held at Lehighton instead of Panther Valley. BOB FORD/TIMES NEWS FILE PHOTO

Published January 23. 2020 12:26PM

Over the years, the Coal Cracker Tournament has grown into one of the premier wrestling events in the area.

Now, it has the facilities to match.

For the first time since its inception in 2011, the tournament will move away from Panther Valley. Instead, it will be split on Friday and Saturday between Lehighton’s high school and elementary center gymnasiums.

The change comes out of necessity. With over 40 teams coming together for two days of wrestling, organizer Tim Robb needed to find a location that could accommodate such a busy schedule.

“We like the venue,” said Robb. “We were looking for somewhere where we could get two more mats in, and we think that the elementary center they have will work well. We’re up to 43 or 44 teams.”

What started as an eight-team, round robin event has exploded into something that pulls in some of the best competition around. The constantly increasing number of teams forced a change to a two-day format a few years ago.

Panther Valley’s high school and intermediate school gymnasiums were the launching pad for the tournament’s development. Lehighton’s facilities will serve as another step forward.

“I’m excited. I’m real excited for it,” saif Robb. “I’m a nervous wreck, because it’s a new venue for me. At Panther Valley, I knew where everything was and what was going on and how to move it.

“It’s a little bit nerve-wracking, but I think we’re ready for it.”

Neither Robb nor Lehighton are strangers to putting on first-class events.

The school district’s $6.3 million multipurpose stadium has seen no shortage of playoff games spanning a wide range of competitions since its introduction in 2016. And a $33 million elementary center, which opened a year ago, houses a sparkling gymnasium that offers a unique fan experience with its modern amenities.

“It was last year about this time, Tim reached out to me after he was here for a basketball game and saw the elementary center gymnasium and thought that, with the size of that gym, that it would be a good spot to possibly host the tournament, being that he felt they could fit an extra two mats in the elementary center gym,” said Lehighton Director of Student Services and Facilities Planning Kyle Spotts. “Previously, they did two gyms with four mats, whereas this weekend we’ll have the high school with four mats and the elementary with six.

“So that kind of got the ball rolling. We met and were able to show him everything and the setup. We told him we would be willing to host it if we could.”

Once Robb ironed out the final details and made sure the six mats could fit in the gymnasium at the elementary center, the wheels were set in motion to make the change.

“Myself, Floyd (Brown), our wrestling coach, and some others got together and met with him once he wanted to make the commitment for sure, and started the process,” said Spotts. “It’s not necessarily just a sporting event; there are a lot of moving pieces that take place Friday that impact the school day, such as setting up in the gymnasiums, traffic, dismissal time and arrival time conflicts. So we got together with our administrators, and thought that it was an opportunity to host an event that we really wanted to try and do, because we felt we could do it, and do it well.

“We’re excited about it. With the events and facilities that we have, it’s another opportunity for the district to host a premier sporting event, whether it’s PIAA state playoffs, district championships and other events, this is just another opportunity to showcase the facilities, and we’re fortunate to be able to do something like that.”

Lehighton already hosts a one-day team tournament – the Indian Duals – in early January. Though much smaller in scale, the event allowed Robb to find out what might – or might not – work in advance of the double elimination, 64-man bracket Coal Cracker.

“From doing it, and building it, and we didn’t do it in one year, just trying to put a 44-team tournament on,” said Robb. “This is 12 or 13 years, and we just grew.”

The partnership between the Coal Cracker and Lehighton is one that will be mutually beneficial, with the influx of people expected to boost many of the surrounding businesses – and the schools.

“As long as it works well this year, I’m hoping that we just keep it here and keep doing it,” said Robb. “Because the venue being so close to the Turnpike is nice; we’ll fill the hotels up. For the local economy, I really think it’s a much bigger deal than people know. We’re going to bring 3,000-4,000 people in through the weekend. Even if you figure 12 kids per team, that’s close to 500 kids wrestling in the varsity tournament and another 200 in the JV. Then you have parents, and grandparents, friends and managers and coaches, so we’re going to bring a couple thousand people for sure, and I think it goes beyond that.

“I think it’s a cool event. I’m hoping that it goes well this year. It’s been great with Kyle and Floyd. And getting the booster clubs from Panther Valley and Tamaqua to join in with Lehighton, that has just been a huge help as far as making sure the food stands are taken care of; the ticket sales are taken care of. I just have to run a tournament.”

Positioned less than a month away from districts, the Coal Cracker also offers teams one last chance to get in a true postseason tuneup.

“Our kids are getting some really good competition out of the tournament,” said Brown. “We have teams coming from all over, some AA, some AAA, and it’s a good time of the year with three or four weeks until districts. If you’re placing in this tournament, you might be getting seven matches through the weekend. And it’s a nice time for it.”

And that experience extends beyond the varsity lineup.

There will be a full JV tournament on Saturday, with wrestlers that are eliminated Friday night eligible to compete, though it must be cut off at 200 wrestlers.

Each wrestler is guaranteed two matches in the eight-man double elimination bracket.

“We’re forfeiting a couple of weights, but we do have about 20 kids in our roster,” said Brown. “And there are some kids who have not really gotten matches yet, and they’ve been practicing for the last however many weeks and they’ll finally get a chance to wrestle this weekend. We were supposed to have a JV portion of the Schuylkill League Tournament, but with the weather that got canceled.

“So with the JV portion Saturday, we probably have four or five kids on our team that really haven’t wrestled yet, and they’re going to get the chance to get some extra matches. It’s nice for every team. They can bring their whole team up, and not just their varsity guys, and everybody’s going to get matches.”

Robb has also considered putting together a girls’ bracket. A year ago, Gettysburg’s Montana DeLawder made history. With her fourth-place finish at 113 pounds, DeLawder became the first girl to place at the event.

“I want to try to do this, but I’m not sure yet because I’m waiting on everybody else, but at the JV tournament, I’m hoping to make a girls’ bracket or two. But it depends on numbers and things like that. That would be pretty cool.”

The Coal Cracker has a way of making milestone moments no matter where it is – something that should continue this weekend.

“Everybody has been great to work with; now it’s just a matter of us going and doing it,” said Robb. “I think the wrestling is going to be outstanding, and I think with all the rest of the booster clubs helping out, everything has been really good and everybody has worked really well together.”



SCHEDULE OF EVENTS ... Action will begin at 4 p.m. on Friday with pigtails, and is scheduled to conclude around 11 with the quarterfinals and third round consolations. The round on consolation matches will get underway at 11 a.m. on Saturday, followed by semifinals at noon. The third-, fifth- and seventh-place matches will be held from 2:45 p.m.-4 on three mats. The championship finals are scheduled to take place on two mats from 4-5 p.m. During Friday’s competition, four mats will be used at the high school for weight classes 106-132; the elementary center will host weight classes 138-285 on six mats. All varsity wrestling Saturday will take place on six mats at the elementary center. The JV tournament will be held Saturday starting at 9 a.m. Medals will be given to the top-three in each bracket, which will be Madison style (wrestlers are not required to make a specific weight). Fans should be able to follow both days of the event with live updates from


SPEAKING OF SEEDS ... Tamaqua’s Bronson Strouse, who won his second Schuylkill League title a week ago, is the top seed at 285 pounds. Jim Thorpe’s Derek Hunter, a league runner-up and Coal Cracker champ at 285 last season, is seeded third this year. Tamaqua’s Nate Wickersham is the third seed at 182 pounds. Lehighton’s Brett Gasker (220) and Jim Thorpe’s Will Schwartz (113) are both seeded fourth.


KEEP IT MOVING ... Williams Valley’s 60-12 win over Panther Valley on Wednesday came without a match being wrestled. Williams Valley won 10 matches via forfeit while PV collected two. There were two double forfeits. The estimated drive time from Williams Valley to PV is roughly 48 minutes, so at least the Vikings got a jump on heading back to the school.


LAST YEAR ... Jim Thorpe’s Derek Hunter pinned Midd-West’s Owen Zechman in the 285-pound final. Hunter left little doubt in the final, building a 5-1 advantage through three periods before finishing the match with a fall at the 5:13 mark. Palmerton’s Lucas Christman also advanced to the championship finals at 138 pounds. The senior fell 10-8 in sudden victory overtime to Midd-West’s Avery Bassett in the final. In addition to Christman and Hunter, a total of 15 Times News area wrestlers placed in the top-eight. Tamaqua led the way with six medalists: Bronson Strouse (fourth, 285), Nate Wickersham (fifth, 170), Randy Steigerwalt (sixth, 126), Aaron Coccio (seventh, 132), Carson Krell (seventh, 182) and Caleb Sell (145, eighth). All return this season. Jim Thorpe’s Ethan Mordaunt placed third at 220 pounds, while teammate Austin Williams finished fifth at 182. Northwestern’s Tyler Watson placed fourth at 182 pounds, and Jake Dellicker sixth at 113. Northern Lehigh’s Preston Bauer (sixth, 120), Trevor Amorim (eighth, 132) and Joshua Schaffer (eighth, 285) also placed.


COMING UP NEXT ... The District 11 Team Tournament will be held Thursday, Jan. 30 and Saturday, Feb. 1. The top-12 Class 3A and 2A teams based on the district’s power rating system will qualify. Only competition with PIAA teams up to and including Saturday, Jan. 25 will count in seeding. Preliminaries and quarterfinals will take place on Jan. 30 at sites to be determined, while consolation quarterfinals, semifinals, consolation semis, the championship and consolation final and a true second place match (if necessary) all take place on Saturday at Freedom.



NOTHING FREE ... Panther Valley rolled to a 64-28 victory over Lehighton last Thursday. In the contest, the Panthers failed to score at the free throw line.

That marked the first time this season that an area boys teams didn’t make a foul shot in a game.

The last time a boys team from the TN area didn’t hit a free throw in a game was Dec. 28, 2016 when Lehighton defeated Northern Lehigh.

The Panthers, meanwhile, had gone 124 straight games scoring at least one point at the charity stripe. The last time they failed to do that was Dec. 15, 2014 — against Lehighton.


RAINING THREES ... The Jim Thorpe and Pottsville boys met in a Schuylkill Division 1 contest last Thursday. In the game, both teams connected for 11 three-pointers.

That marked the only time this season (in games involving area teams) that both clubs reached double figures in three-pointers.

The feat occurred four times last year. Panther Valley had two such games, one against North Schuylkill and another versus Blue Mountain. It also happened with Palmerton against Notre Dame-ES, and Weatherly versus Pen Argyl.


FORTY-SOMETHING ... Marian’s Tyler Fritz dropped in 41 points last Friday in a non-league contest against Notre Dame-East Stroudsburg.

That marked the third time in his career that Fritz has scored 40-or-more points in a game.

Over the last 30 years, only three other players have accomplished that feat. They include Lehighton’s Joe Gower, who did it six times, and Panther Valley’s Rene Figueroa and Jim Thorpe’s Jeff Hydro, who both did it three times.


PALMERTON’S FAVORITE LETTER ... The Blue Bombers currently own a 12-5 record, and over half of their wins have come against schools which beging with the letter N.

Ken Termini’s team is 7-0 against such teams, and 5-5 versus anyone else. The Bombers have defeated both Northern Lehigh and Northwestern twice, and Nazareth, Notre Dame-Green Pond and Notre Dame-East Stroudsburg once.

Ironically, Palmerton was only 3-6 against “N” schools a year ago.


SIX PACK … The Tamaqua girls and the Palmerton boys became the latest area teams to clinch district playoff berths, upping the total to six.

The Blue Raiders join Jim Thorpe and Northwestern in the girls brackets, while the Blue Bombers are assured a postseason spot along with Tamaqua and Marian.

Other teams who are knocking on the door for a playoff spot include the Palmerton and Pleasant Valley girls and the Panther Valley boys. Those three schools all need one more victory to guarantee a D-11 berth.


CAREER MILESTONE … This past Friday night, Erika Dubosky wrote herself into the Panther Valley record books. Only a junior, Dubosky became the ninth Panther Valley girls player to reach 1,000 career points. She became the first Panther girl to accomplish the feat since Trish O’Gurek in 2001.

Dubosky is the third area player to reach 1,000 this season. Palmerton’s Justin Hosier and Tamaqua’s Brayden Knoblauch also reached the career milestone earlier in the year.

Good luck to all the participants.
This promises to be a great event.

The gymnasium is massive, and to some extent, the school they built around it. What idea came first?

Word has it, we'd have to ask Wayne Wentz, Steve Holland and the President at the time, for that answer.
Too bad this monstrosity burdened the community with a legacy of debt, and massive tax increases. Money going to interest payments and not necessarily the students. The budget meeting is around the corner. Scary.


Citizen David F. Bradley Sr.
Packed house on a rainy day.

Great job Coach Robb and your army of volunteers. Impressive.


Citizen David F. Bradley Sr.

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