Middleburg grad leading Panthers
Shirk making strides at Saucon Valley
HELLERTOWN — When Chad Shirk applied for the wrestling coaching job at Saucon Valley in the Lehigh Valley, he knew if he didn’t produce he’d be looking for another position.
The Middleburg High School graduate figured he’d need a couple of years to turn around a good but not great program.
As Yoda would say, “Turn it around he did.” Four years later the Panthers were District 11 Class 2A champions for the first time in 30 years.
Shirk’s teams have maintained that excellence for a long while.
They’ve won multiple Colonial League championships, seven straight District 11 team titles and have a 336-60 dual meet record in Shirk’s 16 seasons. His teams average 21 wins per year.
This season, the Panthers saw their streak of 73-straight dual meet victories in league play come to a close. The Panthers had won 75-straight duals in total.
The culprit was Notre Dame-Green Pond, a private school that has ramped up the program with some imports, including a New Jersey state champion. The two teams split four dual meets, with Saucon getting the final win in the state dual championships, a one-point win the consolation semifinal. The Panthers finished fourth in the state, losing in the consolation final to Chestnut Ridge of Bedford County.
Saucon schedules few dual meets outside its league and concentrates on tournament wrestling. Shirk thinks the difficulty of the schedule helps his wrestlers get ready for the postseason.
Shirk blames a “soft” schedule at Middleburg for his failure to place in states. He qualified three times but never got to the podium.
The pressure in the Lehigh Valley is great to maintain a strong program.
“I think there is an immense amount of pressure in the Lehigh Valley,” Shirk said. “Within a small radius, you have incredible wrestling schools like Bethlehem Catholic, Nazareth, Parkland, Easton, Northampton, Wilson and several more. The amount of talent in this area is incredible, something that makes you work endlessly to try and keep up with.”
Shirk, who was 24 when he took the job, said the program is a solid one and benefits from its feeder program at the elementary level.
“The one thing that is great about our program is that we all work together from elementary through high school,” Shirk said. “Once the high school season ends, I spend the off season working with our elementary program running open rooms starting in late March.
“Coach (Don) Rohn and his son Tommy (volunteer coach), run the middle school and high school open rooms during the same time. This allows me to work with younger kids and I get to know their families and build lifelong relationships.”
With first-rate programs in the Saucon district, support for wrestling in the area is great.
Shirk says the community support is strong as well.
“The past week (week of state dual tournament) we had a police and fire truck escort to the highway as we left. The entire student body lined the streets of the school to cheer us on while we left campus,” he said. “The community and local businesses stood out on the street with signs and posters cheering us on while we made our way to the highway.”
Shirk realizes it’s not everyone who has a NCAA wrestling champion as an assistant.
Rohn, a champion for Clarion as a freshman in 1973, has developed strong programs at Hazleton and Northampton, is amazing, Shirk said.
“He has had so much success as a wrestler and coach. He has encountered so many different situations and has an incredible relationship of what is best for each scenario. Coach Rohn and I have an incredible relationship and respect for one another,” Shirk said. “We do not care about accolades, we just care about what is best for our team and this program.”
Shirk and his wife, Emily, are the parents of two children, Cole, 5, and daughter, Mia, 3. He teaches grades 9-12 at the high school.
Shirk, 40, a graduate of Bloomsburg University, said.
“I knew about the rich tradition of Saucon Valley wrestling when I applied for the teaching position. It was something that attracted me to the school. Everyone knows about the ’70s when Saucon Valley had incredible wrestlers such as Donald Rohn, current assistant coach, and all of the state champions they had. There were some down years but that was the challenge that I was looking for when coming down here.
“I wanted to prove that I could be part of a coaching staff that could bring Saucon Valley back to where the program once was,” he said.
John Huckaby, of Lewisburg, has covered amateur wrestling for more than 45 years. He has covered numerous NCAA and PIAA tournaments and attended three Olympic Games. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.