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March of 1993 article on Coach Ray Nunamaker

Ray Nunamaker: Starting Right Off The Penn State Campus 17 Years Ago, He Has Led Nazareth Wrestlers To Nothing But Success
March 01, 1993 by TED MEIXELL, The Morning Call

On Jan. 10, 1980, Saucon Valley High School's wrestling team, then under the direction of Charlie Bartolet, defeated Nazareth 28-20 en route to its third Colonial League championship in the five-year history of the league.

The date is an historic one, at least to local wrestling aficionados. Amazing as it may seem, no Ray Nunamaker-coached Nazareth team has lost to a Colonial League team since then.

At that time, incidentally, Nunamaker was already in his 17th year as Nazareth's head coach and had already led the Blue Eagles to 173 wins in 230 matches.

Don Rohn, who would become Nunamaker's chief threat to supremacy in the sport in the Lehigh Valley, hadn't even arrived in Northampton yet. He was still head coach at Hazleton.

In fact, when Rohn was winning back-to-back individual state championships for Bartolet in 1970 and 1971, Nunamaker was already in his eighth and ninth years at Nazareth.

Nunamaker's Blue Eagles have now won 107 consecutive Colonial League matches (including three later in 1980) and 13 straight league titles. Overall, beginning with the 1980-81 season and ending with a 53-9 win over Catasauqua that capped their 1992-93 season at 22-2, the Eagles have compiled a 212-29-3 record -- an astonishing .879 winning percentage.

His now 30-year career record stands at 384-85-7, or .818.

"That year (1979-80)," Nunamaker recalled the other day, "we went 9-6-1 overall. That was the most losses ever in a single season for us. As I recall, that was the year we began to beef up our schedules, the year we began looking to wrestle the best teams we could find."

And, it would seem, it signaled the start of Nazareth's era of domination. It certainly was the time Nunamaker's program, already an excellent one, ascended to another level entirely.

But, while the Eagles began beating its league rivals like a drum in 1980-81, they were still having their troubles in matches with other area powerhouses like Easton and Liberty. That, Nunamaker recalled, began turning around about three years later.

It was about the time Rohn, whom Nunamaker describes as "a great rival and a very good friend," arrived in Northampton. Nazareth's true era of dominance may have been born at a little incident neither Rohn nor Nunamaker has ever forgotten.

"Ray brought his team over here," Rohn remembers, "and we had a little weightlifting competition together. Ray and I got together and we sort of made a pact. We said, `Let's try to make the two cement towns the two wrestling powers around here.'"

History says that's a fait accompli. Said Nunamaker, "Yes, I remember that day vividly. Rocky Chunko was my assistant then. Don had a weight program going after school, and we took our kids over to compete with them. Don said, `Let's take it away from Easton and P'burg.'

"And I think, gradually, that has happened."

Indeed it has, as the accompanying chart of Nunamaker's coaching career, and Rohn's accomplishments illustrate graphically.

"I definitely consider Donny a friend," Nunamaker said. "We get along really well. I'm older than him, but I believe if we'd grown up together we'd have been very close friends. I think we have the same mentality. I think he's a gentleman; I've never heard him whine.

"He's an outstanding coach, and he's very humble. I've never seen him gloat in victory. Our rivalry has become very intense, but I believe it's been good for both of us. Neither of us wants the other to get the upper hand."

In extended discussions with the two coaches, it was amazing to discover how similar they are.

Their philosophies are strikingly similar. So are the factors they consider of paramount importance in building a powerfulprogram. So, too, is their unflagging confidence that, if they were so inclined (which neither is) to leave their present positions, they could move to another school with a struggling wrestling program and turn it into a power within a few years.

So, perhaps, it's best to dwell on their differences.

For one thing, Rohn's coaching career was preceded by a great career as a wrestler; Nunamaker's was not.

Nunamaker, 52, graduated from West View High School in 1958 (it became North Hills in 1960), where he wrestled for three years with no great distinction.

"I was nothing special," he said, "although maybe a little better than average. I was a sectional runner-up as a senior; that was as far as I got. I went to Penn State but I wasn't recruited as a wrestler."

Nunamaker didn't even try out for the Nittany Lions' wrestling team as a freshman, opting instead to concentrate on his engineering curriculum.

"I went out for wrestling as a sophomore," he said, "and I wound up wrestling four years. That was because I changed my major to physical education -- primarily because of my coach, Charlie Speidel. The way things were back then, there was a need for teachers and coaches. Mr. Speidel saw something in me that made him think I'd be a good teacher and coach.

"Although I wasn't a star in college -- mostly a second stringer -- I did letter as a senior (1962-63)."

Speidel called numerous coaching openings to Nunamaker's attention -- among them one in an Eastern Pennsylvania town he'd never heard of: Nazareth.

"I was interested in a head coaching job," Nunamaker recalled. "I remember coming to Nazareth for my interview with a (Penn State) football player; Andy Leh needed another phys ed teacher and an assistant football coach. On the way back to (Penn State), I asked the football player what he thought of the place. He said he didn't like the place very much.

"I did. And I was hired."

If the cement community wasn't glad he did then, it certainly is today.

When he arrived in Nazareth, Nunamaker had no assistant coach; it was a one-man show until Joe Drust was hired for the 1964-65 season. As was to be expected, the Blue Eagles weren't an instant power. Still, his first two clubs went 6-4 and 9-3, respectively, and one amazing fact is that Nunamaker has never to this day -- never! -- experienced a losing season.

During that second season, though, Nunamaker experienced one of the best days of his life: he met a young lady named Scherrie Mucha, then a freshman at Hartwick College in New York.

On June 14, 1969, they were married. Two years later, their first son, Ross, was born. Ross, who'll soon graduate from the University of Arizona, wrestled for his dad; his best finish was fourth place in the Northeast Regional.

Three years after that, Ryan Nunamaker was born. And one year ago, in March of 1992, with one proud papa looking on from his corner and Mom from the Hersheypark Arena grandstands, Ryan became Pennsylvania's Class 3A 130-pound state champion -- his father's fourth overall.

Ryan was also a state runner-up as a junior and finished sixth as a sophomore. His loss in the 1991 finals was one of the most exciting state finals in recent years, an overtime thriller to Milton's Bob Crawford, who, in a few weeks, will try to become a four-time state champ.

This year, freshman Ryan Nunamaker starts at 126 pounds for Bob Guzzo's North Carolina State Wolfpack.

"Considering what some of Nazareth's teams have accomplished, and how long I've been here," Nunamaker said, "there have been many thrills. Obviously, the thrill of watching my own son win a state championship must top that list."

If Nunamaker doesn't retire at the end of this season (he's mentioned the possibility in the past, citing the desire to be able to follow Ryan's exploits at N.C. State), he's a cinch to pass yet another amazing milestone next year: 400 career victories.

He needs only 16, and getting them should be a mere formality. This year's 22-2 club, whose only losses were to Northampton, is extremely young; it will graduate only four starters.

While the K-Kids are ranked No. 1 in the area, the state and, by USA Today, the nation, the Blue Eagles are No. 2 locally and in the state -- and No. 6 in the country.

Nunamaker lists five major factors behind his team's consistent success:

* Tradition. "There's a strong sense of loyalty to the program. We now have kids whose fathers wrestled here."

* A sense of community. "Like Northampton, ours is a close-knit community. At this point, ours may be a little more so."

* The junior high school wrestling program. "Steve Kulicki was our first junior high coach. The program began somewhere around 1978 or 1979. That was a real key. I honestly think it's what turned our program around. We just weren't getting enough kids right out of the midgets, especially bigger kids.

* The midget programs. "It gets lots of kids interested at an early age, and the ones who become really serious about it funnel into the junior high program."

* His own coaching staff. "To be successful today, you must have a strong commitment from assistants who'll be with you a while. And the commitment has to transcend the season. They have to encourage the kids to go to camps, clinics and open tournaments. I've been very fortunate."

Currently, Nunamaker has two paid varsity assistants -- former Blue Eagle Rusty Amato and former Easton star Greg Shoemaker. Jody Werner and Kevin Brown, two more former Nazareth wrestlers, are the junior high coaches, and Chuck Madson, father of 189-pounder Mark Madson and another N.C. State star, Dan Madson, is a junior high volunteer.

Pressed to identify his own most important direct contributions, Nunamaker said, "First, and foremost, my sense of commitment. I constantly strive to be the best.

"Beyond that, I believe I've gained a wealth of experience in coaching technique and, perhaps most important, mental preparation. For the past seven or eight years, I've paid much more attention to the mental side of the sport. And I think that's been a big factor."

Could he, even at his age, go to another high school and do it again, create another wrestling power.

"I would have to say yes," he said, thoughtfully. "But, I'd have to add, under certain conditions. Today, especially, I think it would be a lot more difficult at some schools than others. At some, it could take six or seven years. Gone are the days when you can turn it around in two or three.

"Saucon Valley's a good example. Jerry Rodriguez will eventually turn Saucon around. But, and I told him this when he took over there, it's going to take six or seven years.

"Yes, I believe I could do it again."

He paused, then laughed and added, "But I'm not going anywhere."

And that's good.

Ray Nunamaker just wouldn't be himself in anything but blue and white.