Now in his 19th season as head coach of the Collinsville High School wrestling team, Tom Blaha has developed a wrestling program that’s a winner.
Despite coaching at a school where basketball remains the sport of choice for most, Blaha has led his Kahoks to 17 straight winning season and he has coached several state tournament qualifiers and medal winners.
For those accomplishments, Blaha is receiving the ultimate coaching recognition.
A former two-time All-American at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, Blaha, 49, was notified that he will be inducted into the Illinois Wrestling Coaches and Officials Hall of Fame.
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“Khris Whelan and Dennis Ragan are on the Hall of Fame committee and they called me and told me. I am so honored. It’s so rewarding to be recognized by your peers,’’ Blaha said. “We have been fortunate to great young men come through the program and I love it when they come back and thank us what we taught them through wrestling.
“Wrestling is a great sport. It teaches you so much about life, discipline, hard work and dedication. I feel like I’m living my dream every day.’’
Blaha is part of the IWCOA Hall of Fame Class of 2019 Class which includes former SIU-Edwardsville teammate and current Edwardsville High School coach Jon Wagner. Those two successful coaches and the other new members will be recognized during the IHSA individual state tournament, Feb. 14-16 in Champaign with the Hall of Fame banquet scheduled for early spring in suburban Chicago.
A graduate of Tinley Park High School, where he was a two-time Class 2A state tournament finalist, Blaha went to wrestle for four years at SIUE under Cougars’ coach Larry Kristoff. Blaha then spent five years as an assistant coach at Granite City and was the head coach at Cahokia High School for one season before taking over at Collinsville.
“I have been very fortunate in that I had the opportunity coach at a very successful Granite City program that had a lot of talent. When I was there we were ranked tenth in the nation and were able to bring home a state tournament trophy,’’ Blaha said. “I have also been fortunate to have a lot of great assistant coaches.
“TJ Slay was with me for 10-12 years. I was fortunate to get Mark (Whitaker) to come over and then coach (Khris) Whelan who is a five-time Greco-Roman coach. To see those two (Whelan and Whitaker) teach technique to these kids is really something.’’
Blaha, who entered the 2018-19 season with a school record 254 coaching wins, said he has enjoyed many special events as coach of the Kahoks. But on top of the list is coaching his sons.
“That is something I always wanted to do. Wrestling is very special in the Blaha family. My dad and my uncle both wrestled at Carl Sandburg High School and my cousins wrestled at Lincoln-Way Central and so I basically grew up in the sport,’’ Blahs said. “ I have had the opportunity to coach my three boys. My one son is at SIU-Edwardsville, I have one that is a senior at Colllinsville and one who is in junior high who I’m looking forward to coaching for four years.
“But what I really enjoy seeing is these kids who spend four years in the program, go on to attend college, get good jobs and become successful with wonderful families. Very few go on to wrestle at the college level and ever fewer go on to wrestle in the Olympics. For me to see these kids be successful and know that I played a part in their development as young adults, there is no better feeling in the world.’’