At 53, Jim Clark could probably coach Chestnut Ridge another 10 years, guide the Lions to well over 100 more wins and, with 342 career wins now, he could finish in the top five in the state in career wins.
On Saturday afternoon at the Giant Center, he was coaching Gary Pfahler to a stunning 4-3 upset of Burrell’s returning state champion, Jordan Shields, in the 140-pound finals of the PIAA Class AA Championships.
While it was the first state title for any Chestnut Ridge athlete or team in any sport since it became a school in 1954-55 and the first for Bedford County since 1983, there could be more state titles if he continued to coach.
But he’s decided to retire after 31 years as Ridge’s coach. If there’s anybody who deserved to go out coaching a state champion, it’s Clark, the former Penn State wrestler who has instilled his knowledge, energy, time and countless hours into the program. Clark will have lengthy discussions about wrestling with anybody.
Clark will be inducted into the Pennsylvania Wrestling Coaches Association Hall of Fame May 3 in State College. He wrestled for his father, Ed, who coached at Bedford for 24 years and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1980.
Coaching a state champion and becoming a hall of famer has made this past season one to remember. But why hang it up now?
“I really don’t have any free time,” Clark said. “I have a couple graduate courses I need to take, and [assistant coaches] Greg [Lazor] and Eric [Zezanski] have been helping. Our school district wouldn’t create another position for varsity. Those two guys are young and I think they’re great coaches. They’ve been helping for free for the last two years.
“I always told my kids I’m not going to be one of these old guys who hang on. I said if I can’t do it 110 percent I’m getting out. People don’t realize that before the [first] Bedford match [this season], Greg and I stayed up until 12:30 in the morning trying to figure out lineups.”
Ridge went 15-4 this season, becoming the 24th team under Clark to earn 10 or more wins. Two seasons ago, the Lions went 20-1, setting the school record for wins. That year, Clark reached the 300-win plateau and was named the Mirror’s Coach of the Year for the first time.
He was crediting the wrestlers and their families then, and he was doing it again amid the glee of Pfahler’s title.
“Over the years that I’ve been involved, I have to give the credit to the student athletes who have come in and worked extremely hard for me to become a better wrestler,” Clark said.
“Another thing that was excellent for us is our boosters. Every time we go somewhere, they’re providing money. We took everybody to the Lock Haven camp this summer, and it helped out.”
It probably won’t be too far into the 2008-2009 season that Clark will feel the pull of the wrestling room on his mind and body. He says, though, he won’t be quitting cold turkey.
“I love the sport and I’ll still be around to help out,” he said. “Greg said ‘The first two weeks of the season next year, these kids are going to look around like something’s wrong here.’ I plan on continuing to be supportive.
“I hate to see a coach retire and a program hit the bottom of the barrel, and it does happen. It’s not going to happen at Ridge. We have an excellent junior high.”
When he got into coaching, first as an assistant at Everett and then as the head coach at Ridge, his dad predicted he’d coach 10 years.
Could Clark, who was hugging assistant coach Scott McGill as soon as Pfahler’s bout ended, have envisioned a better way to go out?
“No, this is the ultimate,” he said.
Todd Irwin can be reached at 946-7464 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.