Tom Hontz coaches championship-winning high-school wrestlers.
It’s what he does.
Hontz did that for almost a quarter-century at Upper Perkiomen, helping reverse the program’s moribund fortunes and make it a power both within and outside Pennsylvania. He’s doing that now at Pope John Paul II, where he completed a second year at the helm keyed by the history-making efforts of a handful of grapplers.
“The bottom line is, I enjoy helping kids achieve their goals,” he said Tuesday, during a break from a youth-wrestling program he’s overseeing. “The sport in general is demanding. If people want to achieve goals, we’re the right people to do it.”
Hontz did a lot of that during his time at UP, a legion of medal-winning grapplers headed by state champions like Chris Sheetz (2005), Zack Kemmerer (2006, 2007) and Brent Fiorito (2006) and runners-up like Derek Zinck (2001) and Darren Kern (2004). Similar results are starting to be seen with the PJP program, where a history-making season was fueled by the accomplishments of a trio of wrestlers.
Brothers Ryan and Matt Vulakh were at the forefront of the resurgence, winning medals at each level of the postseason. They were joined by Jack Files, a medalist at the Pioneer Athletic Conference and District 1-AAA Central tournaments who made an extended run in the South East AAA Regional tourney.
“There are similarities, in a sense,” Hontz said of the two programs he coached. “Upper Perkiomen was looking to build a program, and the people at Pope John Paul II are looking to do the same.”
He also noted the challenge of reversing the fortunes of underachieving teams “was certainly a part of it.” But at the same time …
“I was at a different stage with Upper Perk, 22 years old at the time,” Hontz said. “I learned a lot about coaching there.”
In terms of team-level success, the Golden Panthers’ progress has been minimal. They’ve had one-victory runs in the PAC the past two seasons, after going winless in league matches the previous five years, but have been a combined 8-20 on Hontz’s watch.
That’s translated into numbers of grapplers between 12 and 15 those two seasons.
“We’ve had our ups and downs,” he admitted. “As for numbers, I wish we could draw more kids and be a competitive team.”
In lieu of that, PJP made considerable noise this winter with individual achievement.
Ryan Vulakh, joined by younger sibling Matt, became the program’s first wrestlers to win league and district championships as a Class AAA entry. Ryan (31-5) also won AAA regional gold and placed third in the PIAA’s 145-pound division — both personal bests for the junior, who was back wrestling for the first time since his freshman year at North Penn.
“They (North Penn) challenged his transfer,” Hontz explained, “and the PIAA ruled him ineligible. It’s a shame the kid was denied the chance to wrestle.”
His achievements this year exceeded an otherwise stellar freshman campaign, which saw Ryan win sectional gold, claim silver at districts and regionals and place eighth at states.
“That was obviously a huge part,” Ryan said of sitting out the previous season. “Especially this year, I felt I had to make a statement.”
“With Ryan, we definitely had high hopes for him to achieve what he did,” Hontz added. “It was a great spot for him to be.”
Matt Vulakh, two years younger than Ryan and wrestling out of the 106-pound spot, became PJP’s first PAC and 1-AAA Central champions by virtue of his position in the lineup. He was a silver medalist at regionals before scoring eighth place at states to cap a 30-8 campaign.
“I didn’t know if this was possible,” Matt said of getting on the Giant Center medal podium. “I just worked hard to get here, and did the best I could to place.”
“Matt overachieved,” Hontz added. “His one goal was to be able to get to regionals. What he’s done is a testament to his work ethic.”
Files came to PJP by way of Spring-Ford, where he was a combined 38-26 over two years and a regional qualifier his sophomore season.
He went 25-9 this winter and was a PAC and district runner-up at 195, both times running into Boyertown standout Elijah Jones. His bid to join the Vulakhs at states ended with a 2-2 showing at regionals through three rounds of consolations.
“Jack had a great run, following Elijah Jones,” Hontz said. “In the regional quarterfinal he hit the wall, but he’ll learn from the experience.”
Hontz also lauded the efforts of Nick Boyce, one of five seniors on the Golden Panther roster. Against a 12-12 record, Boyce medalled at PACs and qualified for AAA districts a first time.
“He didn’t think he’d be over .500 this year,” Hontz noted.
Hontz had overseen PJP’s resurgence this season with help from assistant coaches who also wrestled for him at Upper Perk.
Sheetz has been with him at UP and since he took over the Golden Panther program. Sam Walters, a 2007 graduate, was a Hontz assistant with the Indians and reconnected with his former coach/boss this year.
“That’s the most appealing thing,” Hontz said of his assistants. “Sam is the technician, and Chris pushes the kids on the mats.”
It all makes the hopes for a stronger team still within reach. One change for PJP next year will be the program being reclassified from Class AAA to AA due to what Hontz termed a “slight decline” in enrollment figures.
“Hopefully, that will make things more appealing,” he said. “The road through AA is not as bad as AAA.”
There’s no discounting, however, the individuals’ effect on boosting the program’s future fortunes.
“There’s a little buzz going on,” Hontz said. “We’re hoping it will make people want to be part of the program.
“There’s a group of athletes from football, who we were trying to get to come out. They said ‘next year’. If they do, we can see things take off.”
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