Former Norristown coach Steve Harner, now at Conestoga, eyes 300-victory milestone

WEST NORRITON — The man about to oversee his 300th dual-meet victory remembers having to convince his first team that they’d actually earned their first win.

“It all started with a win at Springfield (Montco),’ said Steve Harner. “It was a tri-meet, and when our kids got on the bus after it was over, they got on like they always did because they thought they had lost.

“I had to convince them they’d won.’

That match took place in Harner’s early days as the Eagles head coach (he started coaching in 1985), when Norristown had small numbers, no middle school program and wins were what other schools compiled.

From that day spent attempting to convince his team it had done what other Eagles wrestling teams had failed to do in three years, Harner took his alma mater to the top of District One.

Between 1996 and 2004, the Eagles won a Suburban One League championship every year. They would earn seven sectional team titles, three District One North team titles and three Southeast Regional team championships.

Now the head coach at Conestoga, Harner needs one Pioneers dual-meet victory to attain 300 in his career.

For those doing the math, there were 191 wins at Norristown, 32 at Williamson Free Trade School and 76 in his stay at Conestoga.

But for those who follow the sport locally, Harner will always be known as the coach who took a Norristown wrestling program that was on the verge of folding and turned it into one of the best in the state of Pennsylvania.

The Pioneers’ match against Haverford was postponed Wednesday, denying Harner and his team the opportunity to corral the historic win.

“It’s a matter of time,’ Harner said. “But we have four matches left, and we’re not the favorites in any of them.’

Don’t count on Harner to keep tabs on the countdown. He’s not one to track milestones.

“We got No. 100 out of the blue,’ he said. “We were on the bus coming back from the District Duals and (then assistant coach) Jim McCarthy asked me how close I was 100,’ Harner said. “We had just beaten Pennsbury and we added them up on the bus and found out I had exactly 100.’

In fact, Harner’s fondest memories of his days coaching Norristown have little to do with wins and milestones.

“Some of the things I remember were those first couple of years,’ Harner said. “The kids who stuck it out, those were great kids who we called the roots to the tree.

“It’s easy to be part of a winning team, but it’s hard to be part of a program that’s struggling.

“And those kids ended up saving the program.

“It’s exciting to see where the program is now, but you have to have a dream and you have to live that dream.’

Pre-Harner, the Eagles were an SOL laughingstock, at one point losing 55 straight matches over a three-year span.

But somehow, against the odds, the Norristown program not only survived, it became the district’s model program, often boasting as many Academic All-Americans as state qualifiers.

“Every door has a key, and we found the key,’ Harner said. “So many things fell into place.

“We used to say there was no place better to start than Norristown for a fairy tale because things couldn’t get any worse.

“But the community, the administration, the school district, the middle school and the youth club – so many things came together.’

Harner also benefited from some fortunate events and some wrestlers who developed much faster than expected.

“We got lucky with kids like Will Gant, who didn’t start until high school, Jason Ellis and Ryan Jablonski, who didn’t start wrestling until eighth grade.

“We wouldn’t have won without Timmy (Harner) and Jim Hartey, but somebody like Pat Wilfong didn’t start until junior high.’

The run, Harner said, was a once-in-a-lifetime thrill ride.

“It was a tremendous experience to be there when it happened. It’s a great thing when the parent trusts you with their son and has faith in you. And it’s rewarding when the school district gives you the opportunity to coach.’

But after taking Norristown to the pinnacle of the district, Harner upped and left the program.

“Eventually, there comes a time when you need to start over again,’ he said. “Things had become stale and we weren’t progressing.

“It was time for a leadership change. It was time for the program to go in another direction and I needed to go in a different direction.’

Harner spent the next three seasons at Williamson Trade, where he guided 23 wrestlers to nationals in three seasons.

But soon, scholastic wrestling was calling again.

Harner moved to Conestoga, where he’s found a completely different experience than his incredible run at Norristown.

“Conestoga’s athletic programs are tremendous,’ the coach said. “Conestoga is a very competitive sports school, so I’m constantly losing kids to the football and basketball teams.

“But the school’s baseball team was undefeated, they were state champs in soccer and I’ve lost kids to the crew and rugby teams. My 170-pounder is one of the best golfers in the area. And here, academics is more important than athletics. When the kids are taking finals, our practices can only run about an hour.’

While Conestoga has not repeated the success Norristown enjoyed in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Harner is content in his post.

“We’re 10-2 right now,’ he said, “and we don’t have a 106-pounder or a heavyweight.

“I couldn’t be more proud of any teams I’ve coached through the years. They’ve overcome obstacles, and that’s important.

“We’ve had to do a lot more coaching over the last two years, but the kids have been stupendous.’

As for the impending milestone, Harner said it’s likely to surprise a few folks.

“Nobody knows about it,’ Harner said. “No one is talking about it. My coaches and my wife know, but that’s about it.’

Finally, Harner said he has no timetable for hanging up his whistle.

“I have two more years in my regular job (at Norristown High),’ he said. “I might stay two years or I could stay five.

“I’m not having sleepless nights like I used to have at Norristown. I’m enjoying myself.’

After a long, successful ride, the coach who turned a program completely around is having a wonderful time doing what he likes to do.

“Now that I’m 60 years old, I’ve become more of a philosopher,’ Harner said. “When Ricky Springman (Norristown’s lone state champion) won at states, he said he didn’t see a medal, he saw every practice that got him there.

“That’s what means the most to me, the journey it took to get there.’

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