“He was there for the birth of the Bentworth High School wrestling program. He was there when no one else was. He was there when no one else cared. He was there to agonize over all the losses, all the frustration, all the pain. For 15 years, Tom Teagarden was there for – as he would say – the “boys” of Bentworth. And Wednesday night at Chartiers Valley High School, Teagarden was rewarded for all his effort, for all his time. Largely because of Teagarden’s coaching – moving wrestlers up, down, and all around the Chartiers-Houston Bucs – Bentworth earned its first wrestling and WPIAL championship with a convincing, 34-30, victory,”
– John Sacco,
Observer-Reporter, February 20, 1991
Fifteen years after being asked by the principal of Bentworth High School if he wanted to be the Bearcats’ first wrestling coach, Tom Teagarden worked, thought and taught his way from first-time coach to champion.
This was not an easy climb. In fact, it was fraught with obstacles, pain-staking defeats and challenges most men would not have wanted to face, let alone overcome.
But there he was that magical February night 30 years ago, holding a WPIAL Class AA championship trophy over his head, surrounded by those Bentworth Bearcats that were just ornery, crazy, talented and committed enough to make history.
Bentworth’s 34-30 win over Chartiers-Houston, which at the time was still considered among the elite in Class AA wrestling, was a work of art by Teagarden and his wrestlers.
Chartiers-Houston defeated Bentworth in the second match of the season in December of 1990, 33-32. The Bearcats never lost again, winning 17 in a row to finish 18-1.
Teagarden and Bearcats’ wrestling had conquered it all.
“We had planned all year for it,” Teagarden said. “I knew we could win. We put Bentworth wrestling on the map. I had set standards for myself. That night is such a memorable moment.
“Those boys worked hard and were disciplined when they had to be. That was a rowdy bunch.
“I had never coached a day in my life when I was hired. I was fresh out of college. I wasn’t sure what I could do. We didn’t get a year to wrestle just junior varsity. We jumped right in. We started from scratch. I ordered the uniforms, scheduled the officials. We practiced in the lobby, at the elementary school, in the cafeteria.”
Bentworth didn’t have any mats. Teagarden did not have an assistant. He was coach, trainer equipment manager and the scorekeeper.
Teagarden was not used to such hurdles and adversity.
As a standout at McGuffey, he was a PIAA champion in 1969 and runnerup in 1970. Both of those seasons, he was a WPIAL Class AAA champion. He was a section runnerup in 1971, losing to his rival George Bryant, who went on to WPIAL and PIAA titles, in the Section 3 championship.
Teagarden enjoyed a strong wrestling career at Penn State.
After losing its first ever dual meet, 63-4, to Jefferson-Morgan, Dec. 7, 1976, Bentworth did manage one dual meet victory that first season. The lone winner in that first dual was Andy Pordash, who became the Bearcats’ first WPIAL champion in 1979. Bentworth actually produced a winning season by year three. It was an aberration.
A few years before the 1990-1991 season, Teagarden almost gave in and gave up.
“I was ready to try and find a coaching job elsewhere,” he admitted.
The lopsided losses piled up along with a bunch of frustration.
“To have a successful program, you need support from the community and the school. At that time, I didn’t feel we were getting as much as we needed,” he said.
Instead of walking away, Teagarden made a way for Bentworth wrestling.
He decided to insert three freshmen on the varsity. He gave Albert Thomas, Tim Woods and Chad Zrimsek a chance to start as ninth graders in 1987-88. Those three became cornerstones for a championship team.
The turning point came during the 1989-90 season. The Bearcats advanced to the WPIAL semifinals for the first time. They went 10-2, losing only to Jefferson-Morgan, the eventual WPIAL champion and the then king of Class AA.
Bentworth started the 1990-91 season as top contenders. Jefferson-Morgan was still king. Chartiers-Houston was considered serious title contenders. And then there were the Bearcats.
The season didn’t quite start the way it was planned. Bentworth needed a comeback to defeat Fort Cherry in the season opener. Their lone loss came next, that one-point decision to the Bucs.
“At the beginning, we knew we had a good team,” said Thomas, who is the current Bearcats’ assistant coach. “It was a close loss. We knew we had a good team. We didn’t let it impact us. We knew at some point we would be a real good team. I don’t think there was any point we talked about winning a WPIAL championship. I don’t remember even thinking about it.”
A regular-season win over Jefferson-Morgan made it clear the Bearcats had arrived and were title contenders. The loss was the Rockets first after winning 32 straight over a two-year period against WPIAL Class AA opposition.
That win carried Bentworth through a team tournament quarterfinal thrashing of Jeannette and a narrow win over Jefferson-Morgan in the semifinals.
“We lost a couple of close ones,” said Ron Headlee, who was the Rockets’ coach then and is the current coach at Waynesburg University. “We knew it would be one of those matches. I had the utmost respect for Tom. He was humble. He had a great career himself.
“I knew Tom and the effort that he put forth. You never want to be on the losing end. But if you were going to lose, Tom was the kind of man you’d be OK losing to. Tom worked so hard.”
The championship and rematch with Chartiers-Houston had been contemplated by Teagarden most of the season. He had a plan and he stuck to it.
While that match was won in front of a crowd at Chartiers Valley, the seeds of victory were planted an hour or so before during weigh-ins. As the wrestlers weighed-in, the Bearcats did so in usual alignment. But only those paying close attention and doing diligent and accurate recording of the weights would have known what was coming once the bright lights were shining on the mats upstairs in the gymnasium.
The Bucs simply had no idea what was going to hit them. Teagarden weighed them in without any suspicion, but he had many of his guys to wrestle at a weight less than normal. One in particular, Kelly Shriner, would be able to wrestle two weights lower than the norm. Chartiers-Houston had no clue when the match commenced.
“It was a combination of the moves and that the boys wrestled a hell of a match,” Teagarden said. “We were as emotional as we had been all year, probably as emotional as any Bentworth team has been.”
Teagarden dropped Keith Lehman from 119 to 112, Woods from 140-145 to 135, Ken Holman from 152 to 145 and Shriner from 171 to 160. Of all the shuffling, Lehman was Teagarden’s trump card. A week prior, Teagarden didn’t think Lehman would be available to him as a 112-pounder. But Lehman managed to make the weight. And what followed was more stunning and crippling than the Bucs could have ever believed.
Lehman shocked C-H’s Mac Simms, scoring five points in the bout’s first 48 seconds. He then jolted the Bucs late in the period when he took Simms down and pinned him suddenly with a half nelson.
The Bearcats extended their lead to 34-15 with wins by Zrimsek (125), Rob Weinzen (130), Woods (135) and Thomas (140).
After the Bucs got six points to cut the lead to 34-21, Bentworth clinched the title when Jason Ivcic defeated Derek Blough, 7-4, at 152 and Shriner decisioned Bob Gostic, 7-1, at 160. Shriner weighed in at 171 but weighed just 160 pounds – a fact that went virtually unnoticed by everyone but Teagarden. “I don’t think they figured that,” he said after the dual meet.
The Bucs’ staff was so blind-sided, they called for a conference at the scorer’s table having no idea that Shriver had weighed just 160 and was eligible to wrestle that weight. “The big thing was they made a lot of moves,” Chartiers-Houston head coach Ed Vorhes said after the match. “Tom moved kids all over the place. And he brought a tough lineup.”
“We knew they missed it at weigh-ins,” Thomas said. “Tom knew the matchups he wanted, and he got them.”
Said Woods: “It was a great job of coaching and planning on Tom’s part. It was tough for him through the years. He handled us well. Tom had us in shape and ready to win. It was one of the best nights of my life.”
Bentworth was truly a team. The Bearcats did not have a WPIAL individual champion.
“It was an incredible feeling of accomplishment,” Zrimsek said. “Tom asked us to do our jobs that night. It wasn’t just winning and losing. He brought a lot of energy and emotion that night.”
It rubbed off. While Teagarden pulled the strings, the Bearcats’ performance was outstanding and the execution near perfect.
“We never let that early-season loss get in the way,” Zrimsek added. “When I was a freshman, we were just looking to fill all the weights. Three years later, we were champions. It was our privilege to wrestle for Tom.”
Said Weinzen: “It was Tom’s night and Tom’s win. He did everything he could in his power to help us win. We had become a great team. We came together. It definitely is very special, maybe more so now.
“Wrestling wasn’t something big in our district even when we won. It’s a football and basketball town. So that night will always be special. Wrestling was in the spotlight.”
Teagarden remembers the great support Bentworth wrestling had that night. It stands out to him, humbles him.
“I will never forget that night,” he added. “Bentworth wrestling was king.”
George Linck, who was in his first year as athletic director, summed it up.
“Our kids performed great that night,” he said. “Tom had to deal with many things in those 15 years. He never quit. He made it go. He doesn’t get enough credit for being the mastermind. He was extremely good technically and knew what he was doing.”