UPPER PROVIDENCE >> Tom Hontz hasn’t been known to back away from a challenge.
To the contrary, the longtime wrestling/football coach relishes the opportunity to take over moribund high-school sports programs and get them to reach higher levels of success. He’s done that at Upper Perkiomen through the 1990s and into the new millennium; and now he’s looking to do that again at Pope John Paul II.
Hontz was recently affirmed as the school’s latest wrestling head coach. He will replace Jared Every, who compiled a 11-32 mark the past two seasons, in becoming the program’s third head coach in its six-year history.
“It happened literally a month ago,” Hontz recalled Wednesday evening, prior to a first-week team practice. “Somebody told me to do an e-mail check of the District 1 message board. I checked it out and saw PJP was looking for a new head coach.
“The next 48 hours were a whirlwind.”
It was in March of 2014, Hontz closed the book on a storied 23-year tenure at UP — one chock-full of highlights, among them nine Pioneer Athletic Conference championships (1998-2006) and three individual state titlists among 19 qualifiers for the highest level of Pennsylvania mat excellence. He spent one year coaching at the middle-school level, then joined Tim Seislove’s staff at Spring-Ford last winter.
But he admitted the lure of again heading a high-school program was too much to bypass.
“I looked at its (PJP’s) roots four to five years ago, and I thought this could be something,” Hontz said. “I really liked working with Tim, but I decided after 23 years, I liked having a program that was my own.
“I know how excited they (administration) are here. We want to make this ‘Wrestling Central.’ They all have passion for the sport.”
He inherits a program that has been at, or on the bottom of, the PAC standings through its entire existence. The Golden Panthers have not won a league dual since their first season — they had two that year — and have a 34-91 overall mark.
That inaugural 2010-11 campaign still ranks as PJP’s best, with an 11-11 overall record.
“The administration is pretty excited,” Hontz said. “They have a sense we want to get PJP on the map.”
“We have a very specific criteria we consider when hiring coaches – rounded out by consistency, involvement, and expertise” PJP Athletic Director, Nicole McMullen said in a release Wednesday. “Coach Hontz and Coach Sheetz will be a great fit for PJP II.”
Hontz’s success in wrestling dates back to his high-school years at Quakertown, from where he graduated in 1985. He was a PIAA silver medalist at 138 his senior season, and went on to wrestle at Duke University, where his athletic career was halted by injury to his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) his senior season.
The tenacity and skill-set he displayed on the mats carried over to the UP wrestling room, where he molded a legion of high-school grapplers into champions at the highest levels.
Of the 24 Indian wrestlers who won 100 or more matches under his tutelage, the list is headed by Pennsylvania champions Zack Kemmerer (2006, 2007), Brent Fiorito (2008) and Chris Sheetz (2005). Sheetz, who was on Hontz’s coaching staff at UP, has followed him to PJP as his lone assistant.
His credits include five wrestlers who achieved NCAA All-American status: Derek Zinck (2003, 2006), Sean Howard (2003), Sheetz (2008, 2009), Brandon Clemmer (2009) and Kemmerer (2011). He went on to be enshrined in Pennsylvania’s Southeast Region Hall of Fame.
“It’s a whole new challenge,” Hontz said. “All we can do is what I did … show how much we care about the sport.”
It’s apparent Hontz’s presence at the helm of the program has created an infusion of energy.
Approximately two dozen athletes were at Wednesday’s practice, along with a smattering of parents watching them go through conditioning drills with music playing from the speakers. His expectation is for more to join the team.
“The PJP kids are great. They’re enthusiastic and excited,” Hontz said. “We’ll ease them into things.
“We want to see steady improvement. We want to turn that 5-15 kid into a .500 wrestler. We told them if they want to be a varsity wrestler, we’ll train them like that. If they want to be a state tournament qualifier, we’ll train them like that.”
Down the line, Hontz and Sheetz are looking to build a feeder program for the high school through the formation of a youth wrestling club not restricted to certain geographic boundaries. It’s a step toward the goal of being “completely open year-round.”
“We want to reach out and try to get young kids,” he said. “With a club, we can show the passion.”
One point Hontz is quick to stress is the transformation of PJP into a powerhouse program will not be an overnight endeavor. It comes from his experience taking over at UP more than 25 years ago.
“There are a lot of raw kids out there,” he said. “This is an opportunity to show the most improvement. We’ll take the average kid and improve him.
“We have no tradition here … no Wall of Fame. Every milestone is going to be fun.”
Though taking on this new assignment, Hontz was quick to note he will continue in his role heading Upper Perk’s football program. He recently completed his third year at the helm, developing the Indians into a unit that qualified for District One’s inaugural Class 4A playoffs this fall.