By BILL CROOKS
Standard-Speaker Sports Editor
...Neither Gary Klinger nor the Hazleton Area High School wrestling team like losing, thus the resemblance in their respective turn-arounds. It took a couple of consecutive losses in the 1997 District 2 Class AAA Tournament to propel Klinger to the next level; it took nine consecutive losses by the Cougars to open this season before they turned it around and won eight straight. It so happens that Klinger is the backbone of the team which, like him, had to taste defeat before reaching their potential. Klinger, who has wrestled at 145 and 140 pounds all season, hehas taken over the role of team leader from Dave Shafer and Jay Kotsko, from whom he learned a lot. ''They (Shafer and Kotsko) were a big help,'' Klinger said. ''Not having them here this year hurts a little bit, but (Dan) Cassarella and (Sam) Beishline work hard, (Logan) Duffy, (Jonathan) Hasker before he was hurt. We're still working hard in the wrestling room.'' ''Shafer and Kotsko were his motivation when he was a sophomore and a junior,'' said Hazleton Area head coach Keith Maurer. ''They were his leaders and probably a big reason why he got to the state tournament. ''They're gone and now he comes back in here as the leader and pretty much has proven that all year long on a day-in and day-out basis. Hopefully he does for the other kids what Shafer and Kotsko did for him. ''They (Shafer and Kotsko) helped me an awful lot when I came in as a sophomore,'' Maurer said. ''I thought I improved drastically going into 11th grade. Klinger improved so much that he won the District 2 Class AAA 130-pound championship last season and plans to move up a weight to 135 this year. ''I don't think I'll have any trouble getting down to it,'' he said. ''At this point in time he thinks that's (135 pounds) his best shot of getting back to the state tournament,'' Maurer said. Klinger and Joe Kavitski, a freshman, have weighed in at 140 pounds every match this season to give the team a little maneuverability at 140 and 145 and also try to help give the Cougars the best dual meet team they could put on the mat. ''Almost all of our kids are going to drop a weight class once districts roll around,'' Maurer said. ''This line-up that we have is out of necessity to try to keep a dual meet team that was competitive and try to teach these kids some wrestling and not worry so much about conditioning and weight.'' Maurer's tactic has worked. Despite forfeiting at least two matches and giving away 12 points in every match, the Cougars have clawed their way back to near the .500 level and are primed for the District 2 Tournament, which will be held at Hazleton Area later this month. Klinger is 25-2 this season, with the losses coming back-to-back in the Bethlehem Liberty Tournament, and is 76-21 for his career. ''His aggressiveness is better this year than it was last year, his confidence has improved and he's improved tremendously on his feet and that's due to wrestling all summer long,'' Maurer said. ''He's got a good single-leg that I think he feels he can take anybody down with so he's back into the mode where Shafer, Kotsko and (Brian) Olenek were, not afraid to let people up, take them down and go after them on their feet. ''When you start doing that and separating yourself from an opponent, a lot of other things open up. ''He doesn't feel he's out of position anywhere. He's just improved himself all-around where he doesn't get himself in trouble too often.'' Maurer said the turning point in Klinger's career came two years ago when he was in the District 2 semifinals at 130 pounds and ended up placing fifth and missed qualifying for the sub-regionals. ''He was very upset with himself for losing a couple matches that he knew he shouldn't have lost and he's been working hard ever since then.'' Klinger said, although others may, he never thought of himself as the team leader. ''I guess I am (the team leader) in a way,'' he said. ''I just try to motivate the other guys.'' Klinger agreed with Maurer that his career turned during the District 2 Class AAA Tournament in his sophomore year. ''That was a big wake-up call for me,'' he said. Klinger has contined to imrove since that time, compiling a 31-10 record last season to set the stage for this season. ''I got stronger all-around from last year. I'm a lot better in my upper body wrestling and I'm a lot more offensive up top. Klinger still feels the most comfortable on his feet, where he has become known for his single-leg takedown. Every sport is more mental than physical and that fact hasn't escaped Klinger. ''I'm a lot tougher mentally,'' he said, citing his summer of AAU wrestling as one of the main factors. ''When I lost those two matches at Bethlehem Liberty, I just lost my head after I lost the first match in the semis.'' Even though he finished second in the Northeast Class AAA Regional, the toughtest in the state, Klinger admitted he was a little surprised he advanced to states last season. ''I wasn't nervous or anything, but it was little weird. ''I really didn't expect anything (last season),'' he said, referring to his second-place finish at regionals and his 1-2 record in Hershey. ''I got a little taste of what it (states) was, so I think I can go back there and set my goals higher Being smarter and tougher should make his goal easier.