Mar. 3, 2016
Very few local high schools offered the sport of wrestling when a young teacher named John Kriner arrived in Port Allegany in 1970.
Kriner helped to change that, serving as the Gators’ first head coach from 1973-79, then taking the mantle again from 1986-94. When he retired from the school in 2004 following a three-year stint with the junior high squad, he’d compiled a 145-85-1 career varsity record and coached nine district champions, two Northwest Regional champions, eight state qualifiers and one PIAA state champion.
His efforts to teach and promote the sport were officially recognized last weekend, when Kriner was part of the District IX Wrestling Hall of Fame Class of 2016 inducted during the championship meet at Clearfield.
For Kriner, the honor was “very humbling. It’s not like winning a district title or taking a kid and watching him become a state champion. It’s a humbling thing, because there are so many others that have been a part of that family or fraternity or whatever you might want to call it that have come before you, and there are so many others that are going to come after you. The unique thing is they’ve all worked to benefit the sport, and in the process, to benefit kids. I’m humbled to be a part of that.”
So how did someone who never wrestled in high school or college get involved with the sport, anyway?
“I went to Lock Haven University after graduating from Emporium in 1966 — boy, that seems like a long time ago,” he joked. “When I was at Lock Haven, they were a powerhouse wrestling school, and I just became enthralled with the sport as a spectator. It was one of those combinations of watching those young men participating, and perhaps the fantasy in my own mind: ‘Boy, I wish I’d have had a chance. I wish that this would’ve been available for me.’
“When I was hired at Port Allegany in 1970, I worked with Frank Robinson for a year or maybe two in Junior Olympics. He had a background in wrestling, and he wanted to be able to create something for not only his kids, but other kids in the sport. Frank was more or less the motivating force in getting the Junior Olympic program started, and certainly was very instrumental in helping to push for the beginning of a varsity program in Port Allegany.”
The school decided to try the sport on a trial basis in 1972. Kriner applied for and got the coaching job, working with “a half-dozen or eight kids” the first year before going ahead with a full schedule in 1973.
“To tell you the truth, I was so naive at the time, one of my very first goals with wrestling was to develop a state champion within the first five years of the program.” he said. “Well, that didn’t happen, but we did have a young man who placed at districts. Mike Freeman was actually our very first placewinner at the district tournament (in 1975), so he has his place in history for Port Allegany wrestling.”
After stepping away following the 1978-79 season, Kriner returned to the helm of the program in 1985-86, just in time to see a promising sophomore win a district title.
Two years later, Dale Budd stood atop the podium at Hersheypark Arena, a PIAA gold medal draped around his neck. To this point, he remains the only Gator wrestler to win a state championship.
“That was a remarkable experience,” Kriner said. “It was following the loss of my son, and Dale and my son Rick were good friends. Most of the kids on that team were all good friends with Ricky.
“One of the things I’ll always hold very dear to my heart is Dale’s first words when he came off the mat after winning a state title and grabbing a big bear-hug back and forth. With all the emotion of the victory and everything else, his first words were, ‘Coach, that one was for Bonecrusher.’ That’s what the kids called Ricky. That was really, really important to me.”
Budd, himself a District IX Hall of Famer after a career which went on to include earning NCAA Division I All-American status at Lock Haven, made the trip from near Philadelphia to be there for the ceremony on Saturday afternoon. A similar show of respect was evident on a Facebook post Kriner wrote to thank everyone involved with the program, which garnered more than 400 ‘likes’ and dozens of congratulatory comments, including many from his former wrestlers.
Another former Gator standout echoed their sentiments when contacted earlier in the week.
“Coach Kriner was a huge influence on my life. He really started to plant the seed of not only developing a passion for the sport of wrestling, but also for helping others and being selfless. He was a great role model for me at a young age and without his guidance I would not be where I am today,” said Isaac Greeley, a four-time state qualifier who went on to become a two-time NCAA Division II All-American at Pitt-Johnstown. “I’m very proud that he is being inducted into the D-9 Hall of Fame and happy that someone who put so much into others is being recognized for all that he has done for the sport and his wrestlers.”
Greeley is one of several former Port wrestlers who decided to follow Kriner’s lead into coaching, from Steve Crowe, Denny Bloss, Mike Borro and Greg Budd (to name a few) from those early teams to current Gator varsity coaches B.J. Greenman and Chad Saltsman.
“That circle of life continues to go on,” Kriner said. “I appreciate watching B.J. and Chad and the work they do, the other local guys like John Bishel and Aaron Rendos, all of these different men and their contribution toward helping kids. Because to me, the extracurricular activities in a school are the window that the community can see what’s going on within the school system. Not just wrestling or football or basketball, but all of the activities, be it in athletics or the performing arts. The coaches, mentors, advisors … all those people who involve themselves in the lives of kids. That’s important. That helps to mold those young people in moving forward.
“That’s a legacy. That, to me, that’s a part of what you do. The most important thing in what I did was to create the program. The concept is to create a program that’s more important than any one individual, whether it’s the coach or any one star on the team. The ideal situation is to be able to take those principles that you teach, and to have them mean enough to someone else to want to take the same concept and carry it on by doing it with others. There’s no greater thanks you could ever receive.”