Rick Mahonski inducted into Wilkes Hall of Fame
Rick Mahonski’s brothers both wrestled, but other than having them kick his butt in the backyard of their Newberry home, he didn’t have much exposure to the sport by the time he had reached middle school.
Then one day in gym class, legendary coach Hank Green was having the boys climb a rope which hung from the roof of the Roosevelt Middle School gymnasium. When it was his turn, Mahonski made his way up the rope, reaching the top and touching the ceiling. Once Mahonski got back to the floor, Green told Mahonski he was allowed to use his legs.
Mahonski climbed the length of the rope using just his upper body. By the time he reached the floor, Green had decided Mahonski was going to be a wrestler. That was his big test. Any middle school boy who could reach the top of the rope would join the wrestling team.
Mahonski had no idea what kind of path that day would lead him to. He ended up being Williamsport High School’s first state champion in 1972 and went on to a career at Wilkes which saw him finish as the NCAA Division III runner-up in 1974 and qualify for the NCAA Division I championships in 1976. Mahonski helped the Colonels win the NCAA Division III championship in 1974. That team was inducted into the Wilkes University Hall of Fame in 1995. But now Mahonski will be honored individually as he’s part of the Wilkes University Athletics Hall of Fame Class of 2020.
“I was really surprised, kind of stunned,” Mahonski said. “I mean, it’s a great surprise. I was very honored.”
Mahonski taught art at Hughesville High School for 35 years and is a goldsmith in his South Williamsport shop he’s had since 1980. In his shop hang pictures of wrestling, a look into his past and an homage to a sport he grew to love after Green made him join the team in middle school.
Mahonski’s career at Wilkes nearly didn’t happen. After winning a state title as a junior at Williamsport, Mahonski eventually decided to wrestle at the University of Pittsburgh in college. About a week after signing his letter of intent to wrestle with the Panthers, he received a phone call from legendary Wilkes coach John Reese who explained the Colonels were going to have one of the best teams in the country the next season and they needed a 118-pounder.
Mahonski told Reese he had already signed his letter of intent, and Reese said it didn’t matter because on the back of the contract there were a list of schools Mahonski wouldn’t be allowed to attend if he left Pitt, and Wilkes wasn’t one of them. At the time, the Colonels were giant slayers in the world of college wrestling. The Wilkes Open was one of the premier college wrestling tournaments in the country and the Colonels were competing against the likes of Lehigh, Navy, Syracuse and North Carolina State, among others.
Reese showed up in Williamsport to talk with Mahonski’s parents and to entice the senior to take a visit to campus. Mahonski saw it as a way to get out of a couple days of school, so he figured there was no harm in at least going to visit. When Mahonski got to Wilkes-Barre, he got the red-carpet treatment. He met with the team and saw the schedule the Colonels were going to wrestle. He also got to meet with the president of the school. Mahonski knew he had an interest in both pottery and jewelry and asked to be able to take a class in each for every semester he was at Wilkes. The president told him that was something they could do and the course of Mahonski’s career and future changed that day.
Mahonski arrived on campus in the midst of the golden age of Wilkes wrestling. The Colonels had lost more than two dual meets in a season in the eight years leading up to his freshman season. And he made the most of his opportunity to step right into the lineup at 118 pounds for Reese. He finished at the Middle Atlantic Conference and NCAA Division III runner-up, losing both finals to Elizabethtown’s Rick Mast, who has since been inducted to the Division III Wrestling Hall of Fame.
That season, eventual Division I champion Oklahoma called Reese and said they would be swinging through Northeast Pennsylvania as it wrestled both Clarion and Bloomsburg and wanted to wrestle the Colonels. Oklahoma won the dual, 31-9.
Mahonski wrestled eventual NCAA champion Shawn Garel that day, and even though he lost, the experience wasn’t lost on him. “We gave them a good match,” Mahonski said. “I don’t know if it’ll ever be like that again. I mean, the No. 1 team in the country calls us and says they want to wrestle us?”
Mahonski helped the Colonels win the team title at the NCAA Division III tournament that year, and because of the success they had, Wilkes became the first team from Division III ever invited to compete at the Division I level. The move by the Colonels probably took away the opportunity for Mahonski to make another run at a national championship. Wilkes joined the EIWA where Mahonski was a conference runner-up in 1976 to Lehigh’s Bob Sloand, who went on to finish fourth in the country. Mahonski qualified for the NCAA tournament that year but lost his first match.
“As a team we probably would have won the national title a couple more times, but we were so honored they asked us to come up,” Mahonski said. “I got to be the first wrestler from Wilkes to make the EIWA finals, and it was all such a thrill. I was so blessed. I was just this skinny little kid from Newberry.”
Mahonski knows the lessons he learned from wrestling have carried with him into his life as a teacher and a goldsmith. It’s why pictures of the sport hang in his South Williamsport shop. It’s a reminder of how he got to this point. “It gave me everything,” he said. “It gave me confidence. It gave me personality. It helped me be a great teacher. “Not to sound melodramatic, but everything I own and everything I am, I attribute it to the sport of wrestling.”