First practice, final season: Wilkes-Barre schools begin last campaign before merger

By John Erzar - [email protected]
Coughlin head coach Ciro Cinti directs his players during the first day of football practice at Solomon/Plains Memorial Junior High School on Monday morning. Coughlin started football in 1892 and will play its final season before merging with fellow Wilkes-Barre Area programs GAR and Meyers for the 2019 season. - Bill Tarutis | For Times Leader
Coughlin football players work on punt returns during the first day of practice at Solomon/Plains Memorial Junior High School on Monday morning. - Bill Tarutis | For Times Leader
Coughlin football players run through drills during the first day of practice at Solomon/Plains Memorial Junior High School on Monday morning. - Bill Tarutis | For Times Leader

PLAINS TWP. — Perhaps Monday’s weather was a foreboding sign.

Overcast, dreary, rainy.

Almost signaling the end will be coming for three Wilkes-Barre Area football programs in a few months.

Coughlin, GAR and Meyers began preparation for their Aug. 24 season openers on Monday — the final time any of them will do so. The school board voted to merge the three programs — along with all other sports — starting in the 2019-20 school year.

Coughlin will end its run as one of the oldest football programs in the state, having played its first game in 1892. GAR started football in 1925, followed by Meyers in 1930.

A study by the school district cited participation as part of the reason to combine athletic teams. Coughlin has 31 players on its roster. GAR and Meyers have 32 each, but that includes four freshmen on each squad. Students from all three schools will eventually attend a new high school to be built in Plains Township.

“It’s definitely going to be difficult,” Coughlin junior quarterback Garrett Wardle said, “but you have to do it. The numbers are small on the teams. I know a lot of kids don’t like each other from different schools, but it’s something that has to happen.”

Wardle also has a chance to be part of history as the final starting quarterback for a program that started 126 years ago and the first for the new team in 2019.

“I haven’t even thought about it,” Wardle said. ” But I know (GAR and Meyers) definitely have quarterbacks, so it will be a nice competition in the room. I just got to work hard.”

That’s what linebacker/running back Xayvion Proctor, one of four seniors on the final Coughlin team, plans on doing.

“It’s crazy. You never thought it would happen because we’ve been around a long while,” Proctor said. “But it’s an honor to be on the last team. It’s sad to see it go, too.”

Even sadder for 13-year coach Ciro Cinti, who also played at Coughlin.

“For me, it’s tough because I’ve been involved with it for 45 years, to be honest with you, between being a manager and then being a player and coaching here,” Cinti said. “You become melancholy about it when you look over your whole life. Two-thirds of your life you’ve been involved in something and it’s gone. It affects you. It affects you more than the kids.

“All we’re trying to do is, hey, let’s do the best for us this season.”

GAR and Meyers have adopted the same credo. Although Monday marked the first official day for fall sports practices, including football, many teams held voluntary offseason workouts. Football started Aug. 6 with a week of heat acclimation.

“We’ve spoken about it, about the last time they are going to suit up as a GAR Grenadier,” said GAR coach Paul Wiedlich Jr., who will be in his ninth season running the program. “I don’t think it’s fully set in. For the kids, they’re going about it as any other ordinary season. But I think they are going to be aware of it the last week when we play Meyers.”

Although Holy Redeemer and Holy Cross were formed by mergers in 2007, two consolidations in the 1990s more resemble the one coming for Wilkes-Barre Area.

Scranton joined together two rivals — Scranton Central and Scranton Tech — in 1990. Two years later, Hazleton Area was formed when Hazleton, West Hazleton and Freeland combined.

The Scranton and Hazleton Area football programs struggled initially until becoming formidable teams on a near annual basis. Those schools, though, didn’t have the benefit of the internet, where barriers between rival schools have been broken down somewhat.

“Whether it’s Snapchat or whatever, they almost all know each other,” Meyers fourth-year coach Jeff Labatch said. “Not necessarily hang out with each other, which is a little bit different, but I don’t think it’s going to be as bad. It’s different than it was years ago.”

Coughlin head coach Ciro Cinti directs his players during the first day of football practice at Solomon/Plains Memorial Junior High School on Monday morning. Coughlin started football in 1892 and will play its final season before merging with fellow Wilkes-Barre Area programs GAR and Meyers for the 2019 season.
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/web1_TTL081418FootballPractice_4.jpgCoughlin head coach Ciro Cinti directs his players during the first day of football practice at Solomon/Plains Memorial Junior High School on Monday morning. Coughlin started football in 1892 and will play its final season before merging with fellow Wilkes-Barre Area programs GAR and Meyers for the 2019 season. Bill Tarutis | For Times Leader

Coughlin football players work on punt returns during the first day of practice at Solomon/Plains Memorial Junior High School on Monday morning.
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/web1_TTL081418FootballPractice_3.jpgCoughlin football players work on punt returns during the first day of practice at Solomon/Plains Memorial Junior High School on Monday morning. Bill Tarutis | For Times Leader

Coughlin football players run through drills during the first day of practice at Solomon/Plains Memorial Junior High School on Monday morning.
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/web1_TTL081418FootballPractice_2.jpgCoughlin football players run through drills during the first day of practice at Solomon/Plains Memorial Junior High School on Monday morning. Bill Tarutis | For Times Leader

By John Erzar

[email protected]

Reach John Erzar at 570-991-6394 or on Twitter @TLJohnErzar

Reach John Erzar at 570-991-6394 or on Twitter @TLJohnErzar