Wrestling, a Pennsylvania passion

Shikellamy's Zac Cooper goes for the leg of Central Mountain's Tyler Buckwalter. Pa.'s high school wrestling is the best, Penn State's coach says.
Shikellamy's Zac Cooper goes for the leg of Central Mountain's Tyler Buckwalter. Pa.'s high school wrestling is the best, Penn State's coach says.
Posted: January 30, 2011

First in an occasional series

 LOCK HAVEN, Pa. - Its light-aircraft plant and nearby paper mill shuttered, its Victorian downtown festooned with silk-screened photos of Clinton County's war veterans, its tallest structures a Civil War monument and a twin-spired courthouse built in 1869, Lock Haven survives more on memory than hope.

The jobs in this community 23 miles southwest of Williamsport have disappeared the way timber once vanished from surrounding forests. More of the city's 9,000-plus residents - down from 11,748 in 1960 - now work in social services, health care, and education than in factories. The self-proclaimed "Home of the Friendly People" is not really home to much else.

But a shortage of occupations here doesn't mean there isn't at least one vibrant preoccupation. In Lock Haven, as in so many played-out small- and medium-size Pennsylvania towns, wrestling maintains a surprisingly powerful grip.

The state's coal, railroad, and steel industries faded decades ago, but the production of top-notch wrestlers and coaches has continued unabated in Pennsylvania towns and cities. And it's in remote locales like Lock Haven, where a good high school or college match can occasionally generate NFL-like electricity, that the ancient sport is more culture than cult.

A rich vein of wrestling tradition and passion meanders across the state, from the Lehigh Valley to the anthracite coal regions, through mountainous Central Pennsylvania and into Pittsburgh's steel-town suburbs, right up to Lake Erie's windswept shores.

This March, when the 2011 NCAA Wrestling Championships come to Philadelphia's Wells Fargo Center, Pennsylvania almost certainly will again have more homegrown athletes competing than any other state, and many of them will have grown up in places like Clearfield, Dubois, Canonsburg, Waynesburg, Edinboro, Tamaqua, Orwigsburg, Saltsburg, Hollidaysburg, and Lock Haven.

At the 2002 NCAA event, for example, 64 of the 330 competitors were Pennsylvanians. A year later, 14 all-Americans hailed from the state. If the NCAAs were held this week, 43 from Pennsylvania would qualify. And, in an era when Title IX requirements have decimated four-year college wrestling programs everywhere, 33 remain in Pennsylvania, nearly twice as many as in second-place Iowa, which has 19.

While Penn State, Lehigh, Pitt, Penn, and Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference schools such as Lock Haven stock their well-regarded Division I teams with Keystone State wrestlers, so do traditional national powerhouses like Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, Iowa, and Iowa State.

In fact, Penn State coach Cael Sanderson - a native Utahan who went 159-0 to become an Iowa State legend - has said repeatedly that Pennsylvania high school wrestling is "the best in the country" and that his program would be unbeatable if he could keep the state's top wrestlers at home.

It was, Sanderson said, the success the state's best schoolboys traditionally have had at the Dapper Dan Classic in Pittsburgh, which pits them against wrestling stars from the rest of the nation, that lured him from Iowa State to State College in 2009.

Pennsylvania also was home to the first collegiate national championships (at Penn in 1895) and the first wrestling clinic (started at Saylors Lake in the Poconos by Lehigh coach Billy Sheridan).

The state's wrestling past is teeming with some of the sport's most familiar athletes and coaches - Sheridan, Kurt Angle, Bruce Baumgartner, Jim Nance, Jimmy Carr, Gray Simons, Wade Scahlles.

Like its football players, Pennsylvania's wrestlers have tended to be tough as the hard-bitten, hard-times towns that produced them.

"They're usually very good on their feet and very aggressive," said Tom Elling, an ex-coach and guidance counselor at now-defunct Lock Haven High and a wrestling fanatic.

"When wrestling was getting started here in the '30s, a lot of these places were mining and factory towns," he said. "They tended to produce some rough-and-tumble kids. I just think wrestling was a natural way for these kids and these towns to let off some steam."

(Curiously, while the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Okla., is teeming with Pennsylvanians, Penn State remains the only Pennsylvania school - the only Eastern school, in fact - to win an NCAA team championship.)

'Mat Town'

Perhaps nowhere is this small-town popularity more apparent than here in Lock Haven, which unofficially has adopted the name a national wrestling magazine hung on it many years ago, "Mat Town."

Wrestling is the sport at both Central Mountain High - which merged Lock Haven, Bald Eagle, and Sugar Valley high schools a decade ago - and Lock Haven University.

The university's wrestlers and coaches - men like Simons, a two-time NCAA champion and 1964 Olympian - have gone on to coach and mentor younger coaches across the country.

Despite its remote locale and an enrollment of just 5,000-plus, the university's 2011 wrestling schedule is loaded with larger, sexier universities - Penn State, North Carolina, Michigan State, Pitt, and Illinois.

Local high school rivalries are so fierce and popular that their dual meets are broadcast on Lock Haven's WBPZ-AM (1230), the first radio station in the U.S. to carry scholastic wrestling, making local celebrities out of schoolboys.

Perhaps the best Lock Haven High wrestler - and one of the best at that level in U.S. history - was Mike "Bobcat" Johnson, who went 84-0 in the late 1950s and early 1960s, won the state title four years running, and never was taken down.

"That's incredible," said Elling. "It's like a football team that no one ever scored on." More recently, in 2010, Central Mountain, annually ranked among the nation's best, won the Pennsylvania AAA championship. Its twin stars, Andrew and Dylan Alton, now starring for Sanderson at Penn State, were a combined 90-0 on the season.

In the Mat-Town USA Wrestling Club, located in a building along the Susquehanna River that Piper Aircraft abandoned when it moved production to Florida in 1984, is a premier training academy. Founded by ex-Lock Haven University coach Neil Turner, the facility has more than 6,000 square feet of mats and a faculty of the region's top coaches.

"Wrestling is so important in our area," said Mat-Town board member Carl Poff, "and with Coach Turner coming back here and starting a club, it's been fantastic."

If you want to know more about Lock Haven wrestling, just ask Elling, who lives on a quiet residential street near the western edge of the city's downtown.

He is a color analyst on WBPZ's wrestling broadcasts, operates a Pennsylvania high school wrestling website - www.pawrsl.com - and annually publishes the Pennsylvania Wrestling Handbook.

He writes for several national publications and his house is filled with yellowed newspaper clippings, memorabilia, and photos of him posing with such legendary figures as Davis and Dan Gable.

Elling is so passionate about the sport that, at his own expense, he created an extensive set of trading cards, "Legends of Pennsylvania Wrestling," with black-and-white photos of historic grapplers on one side, their schools and accomplishments on the other.

"I just wanted to put it on an equal footing with sports like baseball and football," he said about his card idea. "It's just a great sport. You have to anticipate your opponent's next move. It's a chess match. That's a good way to describe it.

"When you see a great like Gray Simons wrestle, you realize that for his opponents, it's like trying to catch fog."

Wrestling history

Wrestling is an ancient sport, and Pennsylvanians have been wrestling in some form or another since pre-colonial times. In establishing the state's first college, Benjamin Franklin urged that wrestling be an integral part of what became the University of Pennsylvania.

"To keep them in health and to strengthen and render active their bodies they [should] be frequently exercised in running, leaping, wrestling, and swimming," Franklin wrote.

Before there was an NCAA, the Amateur Athletic Union conducted national tournaments, though the participants tended to be only elite Eastern schools. In 1895, a Penn wrestler, Winchester Osgood, took the heavyweight (158 pounds and up) crown at the first AAU tourney, hosted by the Quakers in Weightman Hall.

Sheridan, who would coach Lehigh's wrestlers for 41 years, nurtured a generation of future coaches at his clinic in the Poconos. His reputation was such that tiny Lehigh hosted four NCAA tournaments, finishing second in 1938.

It wasn't until the late 1920s and early 1930s that high school and college wrestling boomed, especially in Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, and Iowa.

Oklahoma A&M (later Oklahoma State) won the initial NCAA event in 1928 and 33 more since. Iowa is next with 23 national titles. Only five schools from beyond Oklahoma and Iowa have ever won the NCAA team title. Penn State was the winner in 1953.

"Penn State, Lehigh, and the other [Pennsylvania] schools have had lots of individual champions, but for whatever reason they don't seem to be as deep as the Iowa and Oklahoma schools," Elling said.

"But overall, it's hard to top Pennsylvania wrestling."


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or at ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.

 

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