My phone rang, way back in the dark ages before cell phones, in the early summer of 1997.

“Hello,” I said.

“Sigmund,” the voice on the other end of the call said acknowledging me by the nickname he tacked to me like a pin on a lapel.

“Coach, Was, how are you?” I asked, knowing Jeff was becoming a head football coach for the first time. We had teamed up as assistant coaches at Lakeland in 1993 under Ray Caucci and Tony Rusnak. We both applied for the vacant job at Lakeland in the early winter of 1997, and while he was a far stronger candidate than me, neither of us were hired and we were about to embark on different career paths it seemed.

Then came that call.

Jeff was hoping to become a physical education teacher and a head coach, following in his father Jerry’s Hall of Fame career. His dad was the face of Lakeland football, building a Suburban Conference and Eastern Conference Class B Super Power before proving the naysayers all wrong during a three-year bum rush on the Big 11 where the Chiefs won three straight conference titles.

Jobs in both fields opened up at Lackawanna Trail, a small school which had developed into a rival for Jerry Wasilchak’s Chiefs of the 1970s. A proud program, Lackawanna Trail, started to feel the crunching effects of plunging roster sizes in the late 1990s that would eventually lead to the dissolution of the Big 11 and Suburban Conferences.

1997

He seemed like the perfect guy for the mission. A low-key, disciplinarian, with a commitment to fundamentals first, a tireless work ethic and a blueprint for success his father had scripted on his way to 143 career wins at Lakeland.

My journey had just landed me a job at The Times-Tribune print plant on the overnight shift.

When Jeff followed his greeting, asking if I would be interested in getting back into coaching as a member of his staff, eagerly I said yes and away we were. We were a young staff back then, Jeff being the most ready for the rigors of what a head coach must deal with off the field in addition for the challenges on it. Scot Wasilchak, Jeff’s equally qualified brother, had a feel for designing plays, creating matchup problems with formations and motion. Nick Homick provided the energy, and I had a voice and just enough quirks to be entertaining.

In those coaches’ meetings is where we all learned about the game. After a tough start to his career where losses were brutally painful, Jeff never strayed from his protocol. He never buckled beneath the outside pressures from coaches in the bleachers or grumbling athletes dealing with playing time issues.

Jeff’s goal was as simple as creating a respectful football culture. The wins, well, he knew the way to those was always being true to the lessons his father taught him.

It took only one season, a 3-7 campaign where strong efforts against solid teams in the final month gave him plenty to be optimistic about, before Jeff showed just how cagey a coach he could be and would be in a career he may never have believed would reach 22 years.

Lackawanna Trail finished the regular season in 1998 with an 8-2 record. The Lions won the Lackawanna Fooball Conference Division IV championship and reached the District 2 Class 1A title game where they threw a scare into Riverside, which had reached the PIAA final the year prior.

Jeff Wasilchak earned The Times-Tribune Coach of the Year and I put my coaching whistle into hibernation. Our venture as coaches was rewarding, and I knew I would miss our time together. I also knew that Jeff was about to achieve great things.

His warm and engaging personality often masked his competitive spirit. His belief in his players was as strong as his belief in his system and his approach. He demanded a great deal in season and in the offseason, but he always maintained the perspective that it was just a game.

 

1998

 

 

 

From 1999 to 2007, Lackawanna Trail had become the power program in Class 1A in District 2. Season-after-season, championship-after-championship, Jeff’s Lions would fill the trophy case seven times with District 2 Class 1A plaques, nine times with division championship trophies. On two occasions, the Lions were arguably the second-best Class 1A team in the state, and if it weren’t for the Southern Columbia express, might have a couple of state titles to his credit.

2003

Through the seasons, Jeff had teams win at least 10 games in five straight seasons from 1999 to 2003. He had all-state players, record-setters, and all-time greats playing and learning under his guidance. Yogi Roth went on to be a quality control assistant at USC when Pete Carroll’s teams were steamrolling to national championships. John Glenn is an assistant coach with the Seattle Seahawks. And Ryan McAndrew and Colin Golden joined Jeff’s staff at Lakeland.

After his father died in 2003, it only seemed natural that someday, should the opportunity present itself, Jeff would move from Lackawanna Trail onto the sideline his father had graced and whose name grace’s the athletic complex at the school.

 

The Lackawanna Trail Years

W

L

Championships

1997

3

7

1998

9

3

LFC Division IV

1999

11

2

LFC Division IV; D2 Class 1A

2000

12

2

NEPFC Division IV; D2 Class 1A

2001

10

2

NEPFC Division IV

2002

10

3

LFC Division III; D2 Class 1A

2003

11

3

LFC Division III; D2 Class 1A

2004

8

4

D2 Class 1A

2005

9

3

LFC Division III; D2 Class 1A

2006

6

5

LFC Division III

2007

9

4

LFC Division III; D2 Class 1A

98

38

 

 

 

2003

 

 

 

In 2008, when Dan Case, another man of outstanding character, resigned, Jeff made the transition. In 11 seasons at Lackawanna Trail, his teams won 98 games, but more importantly, the program had become one of the most respected in the district.

2008

Living up to Lakeland’s championship history would be, however, a giant shadow to build out from. In 11 seasons with the Chiefs, Jeff’s teams won a pair of LFC Division III championships with the latest coming in this season’s finale against Dunmore. He also landed the Chiefs in the District 2 Class 2A title game five times and this year in the District 2 Class 3A final. Although, he failed to win in six tries with Lakeland, every athletic director and fan base in the LFC would be honored to have Jeff leading their program to extended seasons year-in and year-out.

His teams have been recognized for their level of good sportsmanship by the PIAA Scranton Chapter of Officials. And for a coach whose level of animated behavior or charge toward questionable calls often included a snappy one-liner, his dignified coaching style always shone through.

 

2008

 

 

It came as no surprise, as I took in the annual Lafayette-Lehigh football game in Easton on Saturday, when I received a message that Jeff was stepping away from the sidelines. His family was always his priority, as well it should be. I had chatted with him a little more at the end of this season, because I could sense after the Western Wayne game the embers in his coaching fire were dimming. Friends sometimes just know.

Then, when it seemed the season was crashing down upon him after a physically taxing loss to Scranton Prep, his parting words to me were. … “We are going to give it one last shot.”

Lakeland left that battle with Scranton Prep wounded. Several key players were injured and their availability looked to be limited against rival Dunmore. Whatever Jeff said to these Chiefs that night, he flashed that magic for one more ride. The Chiefs won. They beat the Bucks for the first time since 2010 and they had their first division title since that season.

As was always the case, a coach who could have basked in the spotlight, turned it to his players. He wanted them to enjoy this moment and in that celebration, it’s likely that any doubt he may have had about his ultimate career decision had been whisked away as the Chiefs rang the winner’s bell in the end zone deep into the night.

In the District 2 playoffs, Lakeland showed grit and determination. They were almost powered by the whispers that their coach had been contemplating retiring. Against Lake-Lehman, trailing 3-0, and facing a third down in overtime, Giovanni Spataro never stopped his legs from churning through a quagmire and his score gave the Chiefs a 6-3 win.

A week later, Lakeland traveled to unbeaten Wyoming Area. In checking in with my mentor, I remembered the words he said to us back in 1998 when that young Lackawanna Trail team went to Riverside. It’s a saying his father brought to the forefront when Lakeland made the move to the Big 11 in 1980. “You gotta believe.”

When Jeff called a flea-flicker on the first play of the game, the normally buttoned up coach who turned a vanilla game plan into championship glory, the wheels had officially come off. He had let loose and the Chiefs took a 7-0 lead early. They struck the first blow. His kids responded. Then in a tie game, 14-14, and the ball at midfield, the coach, who way too often was called conservative by those who don’t always understand the intricacies of play calling, dialed up the flea-flicker again. It worked again. With only 6 seconds left, and only needing a field goal to win, Jeff called a make-or break quarterback sneak. CJ Dippre scored and punched the Chiefs’ ticket to the district final.

Yes, Scranton Prep again proved to be the state power it has developed into five years ago. But, in true Jeff Wasilchak style, Lakeland gave an all-out effort. They took a 7-0 lead. They were locked in a 13-13 tie and for the first time since Week 4, the Cavaliers were in a dogfight.

Eventually, the Cavaliers overpowered Lakeland’s band of overachievers. Jeff announced his resignation. He exits the game as humbly as he entered it in 1997.

 

 

“I told them right now, thanks for being part of my story,” an emotional Wasilchak said. “Thanks for being part of my story.”

 

The Lakeland Years

W

L

Championships

2008

8

4

2009

8

4

2010

10

2

LFC Division III

2011

5

6

2012

8

4

2013

7

5

2014

4

6

2015

7

4

2016

10

2

2017

5

6

2018

9

4

LFC Division III

81

47

 

 

 

 

His story will continue to be written as his sons begin playing the sport his family has dedicated their lives to.

His story will include, but not solely be defined by the wins, the losses and the championships.

His story should someday have a chapter written where he lands in the area coaching Hall of Fame.

His story will be memorable because of the character of the man who is a great father, a true family man, a quality educator and an inspiring coach.

His story will also be about the loyal friend he always was.

Next season will kickoff in late August. Lakeland will go on.

Jeff Wasilchak, and his gracious laugh, will be missed. Good luck, my friend. You earned this time with your wife and sons.

 

LIAA Coaches
1. Jack Henzes, WA, Dunmore

444

2. Frank Pazzaglia, VV, MV

344

3. John Henzes, Blakely

251

4. Allen ‘Butch’ Keller, Hon, WW, BOH, HC

220

5. Elio Ghigiarelli, Old Forge

202

6. Jeff Wasilchak, LT, Lakeland

179

7. Nick Donato, NP, SP

174

8. Dick Bagnall, Susquehanna

169

9t. Sam Donato, West Scranton

151

9t. Michael Schuback, OF

151

11t. Gerry Wasilchak, Lakeland

143

11t. Joe DeAntona, West Scranton

143

12. Keith Olsommer, DV

142

13. John Lasavage, Carbondale Area

141

15. C.J. Robson, Scranton Central

140

16. Marty Reap, Jessup

132

17t. Emil DeCantis, Scranton Central

123*

17t. Stan Kucharski, SP, MV, Wallenpaupack

123

19. Dan Case, BOH, Lakeland

117

20. Steve Armillay, Riv, PA

114

21. Tom Lucenti, Montrose

110

22. Joe Repshis, Abington Heights

102