Track coaching tandem keeps teams at the top
Over the past few seasons, the Northwestern boys and girls track and field teams have been among the best squads in the Colonial League.
This season has been no different. The girls finished with a perfect 11-0 record in conference en route to another regular season crown, marking their third straight unbeaten campaign.
The boys went 7-4 in conference. Both had a number of medalists from last week's district meet, and plenty have the opportunity to compete in this week's PIAA Track and Field Championships at Shippensburg University.
But behind the scenes there is a slight difference between the Tigers and most other track and field teams.
Northwestern utilizes the talents of two head coaches, second-year coach Tim Cunningham on the boys' side and first-year coach Chuck Groller with the girls, as opposed to most schools that use one coach for the entire team. That dual-approach has been around since Jason Zimmerman, Director of Athletics and Student Activities, has taken over.
"Coach Tim Carey, who was instrumental in starting our program way back when, and coach Gary Williams, came up with the idea and it has absolutely worked," Zimmerman said. "When you average 150 ninth through twelfth graders coming out in the spring each year, the amount of accountability, management and paperwork can become overwhelming."
Cunningham, who has been a head coach for 25 years on the track circuit, including 17 seasons at Nazareth before Northwestern, understands what that is like. He spent his entire time as a Blue Eagle as the lone head coach.
"We had similar numbers at Nazareth, but the problem is when you're a single head coach it often times can become overwhelming," Cunningham said. "It's a tidal wave of paperwork, especially when you get to the postseason. You have to get the seeding cards together, and this and that."
Now with Groller by his side, there is plenty of help to tackle the various tasks track and field teams are dealt with. Both are skilled in various aspects.
"Right now, Chuck [Groller] has some more flexibility in his schedule and his organizational skills are unbelievable," Zimmerman said. "We rely heavily on him to be our point man for those team administrative duties such as attendance, working with the boosters, [and] collecting input from the whole staff. Tim [Cunningham] is a seasoned veteran, and we rely on him for training ideas, meet management advice [and] strategies."
Cunningham and Groller's relationship even goes beyond their time at Northwestern.
"Tim and I go back years ago," Groller said. "We used to coach NYAA together, so we're pretty familiar with each other's styles.
"We run things through each other. We say, 'What are your thoughts,' and then we go from there and make those decisions and go forward. We never have an issues or anything else."
While Cunningham and Groller get much of the credit, there are plenty of assistant coaches and position coaches that have helped the Tigers carve out their superiority in the Colonial League.
Assistant coaches Tim Churetta and Lissa Opolsky have been instrumental in guiding the middistance and long-distance runners this season. Samantha Ward works with the pole vault athletes. Mike Kissler lends a hand to the throwers, and Groller oversees the athletes in the jumps.
"What it boils down to is the position coaches," Cunningham said. "I'm the sprinters and hurdlers coach, so I really don't look at the gender of the kids. I'm worried about my sprinters and hurdlers, while I let Tim Churetta worry about the distance people. If you have good assistants, you can do that."
There may not be a formula that proves two head coaches works better than one. But one thing that Cunningham stands by is that the more coaches involved, the better. It sure has worked for the Tigers in recent years.
"I don't know that one versus two head coaches is beneficial or detrimental," Cunningham said. "I simply think that when you look at the raw numbers of coaches to athletes, that's what matters."
COMING UP SHORT ... Northwestern's baseball and Tamaqua's softball teams both made impressive runs to reach their respective league finals. However, both teams came up short in their championship games.
The Tigers, coached by Len Smith, won three of their final four league games to reach the Colonial League tournament. The third-seeded Northwestern squad knocked off Bangor, 9-3, in the quarterfinals before edging Salisbury, 5-4, in 10 innings in the semifinals. In the championship contest, the Tigers had a one-run lead heading to the bottom of the seventh but Saucon Valley rallied for a pair of runs to claim the title.
The Lady Raiders, coached by Jill Barron, won their final five league games of the regular season to clinch a playoff spot in the Schuylkill League. After dropping a Division 1 tiebreaker game to Pottsville, Tamaqua entered the postseason as the league's wild card team. The Raiders went 11 innings against Tri-Valley in the semifinals before knocking off the Division 2 champs, 6-5. In a rematch against the Tide in the championship game, Tamaqua held a lead after four innings but watched its lead slip away in dropping a 5-3 decision.
TOUCHING HOME ... Five area teams have not been shut out this season.
In baseball, both Marian and Pleasant Valley have not been blanked. The Colts, who had a 13-game win streak earlier this year, lead the area with 191 runs scored (an average of 9.55 per contest). The Bears, who won their final three games just to reach districts, have been held to one run on four occasions but have never been blanked.
In softball, three teams have produced at least one run in every contest. They are Northern Lehigh, Northwestern and Pleasant Valley.
ALL-TIME AREA BEST ... Jim Thorpe's Rayan Green not only earned a gold medal and a trip to states in last week's triple jump event, but he also set a Times News all-time area best.
Green won the Class AAA event with a distance of 47-9. That mark not only surpassed this season's best of 44-10 set by Pleasant Valley's Michael Mitchell, but it bettered every triple jump ever in the TN area.
The previous mark was 47-5 [1/2] by Tamaqua's Dave Keich back in 1983.