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West of Frackville. PA., route 61 winds through the Appalachians toward the old coal towns of Gordon and Ashland. Spindly pine trees line hillsides gray with coal slag, the detritus of a century of mining. About a mile before the Ashland-Gordon fork, there is a red-white-and-blue sign. In keeping with the surroundings, the lettering is faded, the illustration crude. But the message is clear: "Welcome to Spartan Territory, the home of North Schuylkill Area, the state's winningest wrestling team."
Farther down 61, on Center Street in Ashland, is Cesari's Italian-American Restaurant. The paper place mats bear no advertisements for local merchants or real estate agents, only columns of won-lost records and lists of state champions and medal winners. That is because Cesari's is run by Ashland's first family of wrestling.
Like most of the citizens of Ashland (pop. 4,235), 47-year-old Joe Cesari works hard to make ends meet. In his restaurant he is known for his chicken parmigiana with spaghetti. As assistant superintendent of the North Schuylkill school district, the 5'6" Cesari is known as the Big Guy for his rigid adherence to discipline. Around Pennsylvania, Cesari, the only wrestling coach North Schuylkill has ever had, is known for his team's 339 victories, against only 30 losses and two ties, over the past 22 years.
Cesari looks a bit like another local icon, Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, and some folks like to call him Joe Pa Jr. Both are named Joe; both are Italian; both have dark, curly hair and wear thick glasses; and both win. Like Paterno, Cesari is not one to brag about his team. So when he says, "If things go our way, we should have a pretty nice team," residents of Ashland figure that this season the North Schuylkill wrestling team might be the best in the state.
Regardless of how the Spartans fare, this will be a special year in Ashland. In March, Cesari will retire from coaching. This is also the final year of high school for Mark, the youngest of Cesari's three sons, all of whom have wrestled for North Schuylkill. Even Cesari admits, "It's the end of an era."
Cesari will miss the day-to-day involvement with wrestling, not so much for the transitory joys of winning, but for what the sport represents to him. "Wrestling is not glamorous—all anybody needs are some shorts," he says. "But it's the toughest thing you'll ever do. The only fun part is winning. There is no professional wrestling, so it's an end unto itself. The discipline is your ticket for anything you do in life, and if you dedicate yourself to it, you become the sort of person who wants to put something back into society. Around here I think people love wrestling so much because in it they see themselves."
Wrestling does seem suited to the hard, bleak coal towns of Pennsylvania, where, for the most part, the coal either ran out long ago or has been left alone because it makes no economic sense to mine it. A century ago in towns like Ashland, boys as young as eight spent nine hours a day learning to separate slate from coal. Today the sons of coal country are no less tough for getting their education in classrooms, and all across the state, boys as young as four are learning to wrestle.
Pennsylvania produces so many first-rate wrestlers that, in addition to such big-name collegiate powers as Penn State, Pitt and Lehigh, colleges like Lock Haven, Bloomsburg, East Stroudsburg, Clarion, Wilkes and Edinboro are also among the top NCAA Division I wrestling teams. Out-of-state schools also recruit there. At last year's NCAA tournament six of the 10 individual champions were products of Pennsylvania high schools.
"In Pennsylvania if you're any good at wrestling, people will know who you are," says former North Schuylkill heavyweight Frank Towey, who now competes for Bloomsburg. And from State College to Shamokin everyone knows about Joe Cesari's Spartans. They know that since Cesari began coaching at North Schuylkill in 1966, his teams have failed to win the league championship only four times and have never suffered a losing season.
In 1983 the Spartans won the class AA state tournament—they finished second last year—and since 1975 have had seven individual state champions. Five times the winner has been named Cesari.