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Snyder’s coaching career measured in moments

HERSHEY — Taking the long, cold walk up the runway away from six wrestling mats spread out across a hockey rink, Lewisburg coach Jim Snyder had the hand of his long-time assistant Mike Brown pressed against his back. Assistant Justin Michaels draped his left arm over Snyder’s shoulders.

They all knew this day was coming. The finality of a quarter-century coaching career was inevitable when he announced prior to the season he and Brown would be retiring as coaches. They knew there was a very strong chance it could end just like this, having watched his son, Dakotah, lose in heart-breaking fashion one win away from a state medal.

In the moment, the emotions overcame both Snyders. They embraced and shared tears as across the mat Bishop McDevitt’s (Wyncote) Tyrone Fowler posed for photos as just the second state placewinner in school history.

The hallway leading away from the Giant Center floor is a wind tunnel of blustery air with the cement floor chilled considerably. Dakotah laid down without hesitation to gather himself. The coaches scattered, each finding a position on the handrail to sit as their eyes watered staring down.

It was pure agony for all involved and those who watched. So much of the success of the season had been tied to Dakotah qualifying for this weekend’s PIAA wrestling Championships and walking out with a medal. After a handful of minutes to collect himself and gather his thoughts, Snyder emerged from the tunnel and smiled.

“If we could figure out all the results beforehand, it’d be no fun,” Snyder said. “It is what makes it interesting. You enjoy the highs a lot more when you have these lows. People might think that’s crazy, but it’s the way it is.”

Snyder has always been full of perspective. He has an innate ability to both live in the moment and ride the emotional wave, but also take a step back in the postscript and understand the bigger picture.

Friday’s final result hurt. It hurt to Snyder’s core. But not because it meant his career as a high school wrestling coach was over. It hurt because he knew the amount of work Dakotah had put in to make it possible to wrestle in a match with as much significance as his blood-round bout with Fowler.

In the grand photo of what he wanted this final season at Lewisburg to be, walking off the Giant Center floor together was all Jim ever wanted. When that became a reality as Dakotah won a blood-round match at last weekend’s regional tournament, the joy so overwhelmed Snyder that he grabbed assistant coach Andrew Wagner in a chokehold and nearly pulled him out of his chair.

When Dakotah dropped the 5-2 decision to Fowler on Friday, ending his season, his fellow coaches propped him up. Snyder’s most concerted effort in 24 years leading Lewisburg was to create a family atmosphere, a brotherhood which extended beyond just wrestling season.

In how Dakotah’s teammates responded, but laying with him on the cement floor without saying a word, they showed Snyder’s plan had worked. In the way his coaching staff supported him up the runway, it showed Snyder’s plan had worked.

Prior to Dakotah’s final match, Snyder said it was strange how wrestling careers would be decided by five minutes in March on a Friday morning in Hershey. Maybe it feels that way for someone who has devoted more than 50 years of his life to this sport. Maybe it felt that way as he watched his son’s reaction to the disappointment of his final match.

But to believe the career of Jim Snyder can be boiled down to minutes is fiction at its finest. It’s a career to be measured in moments. And he’s had plenty of them. State champions, 100-match winners and more PIAA medals than he can count. And none of them would matter as much without heartbreaking losses and tearful moments like Friday’s.

Sure, maybe it hurt a little more because it was his own son dealing with the disappointment. But Snyder never lost the same perspective he would use to console any other of the thousands of wrestlers he’s coached in his career.

At some point, when the time is right, he’ll talk to Dakotah about how remarkable it was he made it to Hershey to begin with. First of all, wrestling is probably third on his list of favorite sports behind football and baseball. Secondly, he was barely a .500 wrestler in junior high but still managed to finish with 117 victories and a District 4 championship.

Friday’s sadness doesn’t diminish the past’s joy. It doesn’t blur the memories. It’s all just another tale to tell from a career spent living and dying with every moment and finding a way to smile about it later.

“Damn right it was worth it,” Snyder said. “And I’d do it all over again even knowing the outcome.”

Mitch Rupert covers high school wrestling for the Sun-Gazette. He can be reached at 570-326-1551, ext. 3129, or by email at mrupert@sungazette.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Mitch_Rupert.

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