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Always a smile

January 16, 1999|By KRIS GILLASPY / Staff Correspondent

Always a smile

Williamsport coach Larry Wadel retiring after 30 years

WILLIAMSPORT - It's the day after a big game, and Williamsport High School baseball coach Larry Wadel is walking the halls of the school, going about his business as a math teacher.

He's smiling.

Must have been a big victory for the Wildcats.

Not necessarily.

Could have been a crushing defeat.

If you want to know how the Wildcats did, check the newspaper, not Larry Wadel's face.

He smiled, win or lose.

Regardless of the outcome of a game or race, Wadel's attitude in 30 years of coaching baseball and cross country has never been one of life or death, but one of life or life.

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"He cared about people, not just winning," said Bryan Matonak, a Williamsport cross country runner.

Matonak credits his qualifying for the state meet, despite an early season shin injury, to Wadel's concern for his well-being.

"He didn't make me run through the injury. He let me take some time off so I could recover," Matonak said.

Can such a tender-hearted approach to athletes bring success?

Yes.

Wadel, who played baseball at Shippensburg University, has produced many a winner at Williamsport. His baseball teams have won eight regional championships, one MVAL championship and one state championship in three trips to the state final.

As a cross country coach for 18 years at Williamsport, Wadel, 52, produced seven league championships, five district championships and two state championships in 12 trips to the state meet.

Wadel credits his kids, not himself.

"I've just been blessed with great athletes and a great school,'' he said. "Williamsport has always had a fine tradition of athletes."

Wadel has had quite a few athletes start out under his wing and then blossom into national- and world-class caliber - Terry Baker, a steeplechaser who once ranked 15th in the world; Mike Draper, who pitched for the New York Mets; and Denny Wallech, who once made 18 plate appearances without making an out.

"I can't make a Terry Baker. I can't make a Mike Draper. I can't make a Denny Wallech,'' Wadel said. "When this talent comes along, I just try mold them into the team."

But what about the not-so-great athletes, the losses and the off years?

"Those are just games. If a kid does his best, who cares?" said Wadel.

Performances aren't Wadel's obsession. Kids are.

"No matter how you felt, he would always make you feel better. He made sure you knew you were important," said Williamsport athletic director, Curtis Graff.

Coaches and colleagues decided it was time to let Wadel know how important he was. They recently put together a surprise ceremony at the Richard E. Doub Classic girls basketball tournament to honor his retirement from coaching.

"When I first started coaching, I told my wife that I would know when it was time to stop. Last year, I knew, and now it's time to move on to the next something," Wadel said.

One of the speakers at the ceremony was assistant girls basketball coach and Wadel's math teaching colleague, Tom Dzur.

"Larry always played by the rules and never tried to get ahead by bending the rules," he said.

During halftime of the championship game, Wadel, sporting jeans and a flannel shirt, received a commemorative plaque. As the words of appreciation were spoken, Wadel's eyes glanced down shyly and a peaceful smile spread across his face.

Despite his retirement, his face will still be a familiar one to Williamsport's athletes. Wadel said he is looking forward to continuing to support the athletes at the baseball games and cross country meets, as well as other sporting events that he didn't have time to attend while coaching.

His face will continue to appear in the classroom as it first did in 1968.

"Teaching math is my first love," said Wadel.

This is obvious to students like Shannon Smiles.

"This is the third class I've had him for, and I like math a lot more than I used to,'' said Smiles, a senior. "He knows how to make class interesting ... he knows how to relate to us on our level."

Maybe that's why former students gather back in his room to visit when they return for a break.

"You constantly see kids come back to him to talk, and it's not just to say hello. They stay and talk for a half hour to 45 minutes," said Dzur.

Though Wadel is retiring from coaching, records may continue to be set under his wing. Problems will always need to be solved. Students will always need an ear to listen to them. And Wadel will be there, under the fluorescent lights instead of the spotlight, in his flannel shirt instead of a coaching outfit, but always with a smile on his face.

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