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Looking Back at the OHSAA’s Wrestling Championships

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Looking Back at the OHSAA's Wrestling Championships - No. 1
A centennial moment

By Timothy L. Hudak
Sports Heritage Specialty Publications
4814 Broadview Rd.
Cleveland, Ohio 44109
www.SportsHeritagePublications.net
 

The State Wrestling Tournament has a very interesting history, especially during its earliest days.  The tournament was started in 1938, the only state tournament to be established during the 45 year period that stretched from 1928 to1973.  That first tournament was held at John Hay High School in Cleveland.  Things were a bit “basic” back then, as Mark Osgood relates in his book “Ohio’s Best in Amateur Wrestling”: “…when wrestlers had to compete on mohair mats, which were pieced together much like a puzzle, a canvas cover then stretched over them to distinguish boundary lines and hopefully minimize the mats sliding apart.”

John Hay High School was not the permanent home of the event, just its birthplace.  The next three tournaments were held “at Columbus,” that being the location name given in the OHSAA All-Sports Record Book of 1957.  In 1942 the tournament was held at Kent State University, and from 1943 until 1958 it returned to Cleveland and was held at various locations around the city, primarily John Hay, West Tech and Lakewood high schools.  In 1959 the tournament was relocated to Columbus, the site being the campus of Ohio State University, where it has been held annually ever since with the exception of the years 1970 (Cleveland Arena), 1990 (Cincinnati Gardens), and 1991-1998 (Nutter Center, Wright State University).

In its first years, in fact, through the 1954 tournament, the state wrestling tournament was an event of the “invitational” variety.   Twenty schools were invited to take part in the first tournament in 1938, all but five coming from either the Greater Cleveland or Akron areas, with the city of Columbus represented by three schools.  No team champion was named for that first tournament, but John Hay High School would win the next three, and four of the first five team championships.  Following John Hay’s run of success, Cleveland West Tech, under the direction of coach Lloyd Griffith, would take three consecutive titles, and four of five covering the years 1944-1948 (in 1948 Tech tied for the state title with Lakewood High School, located just a few miles west of West Tech).  This dominance of the state wrestling tournament by teams from the Greater Cleveland area would continue almost unbroken to this day, especially in the big school Class AAA-Division I category.

Through 1942, the number of invited teams stayed fairly steady at around 20, and the names of the participating schools also saw very little change.  Due to travel restrictions imposed because of World War II, only 10 schools entered the tournament in 1943, with just 18 making the tournament roster in both 1944 and 1945.  When the war ended in the fall of 1945, there was not a sudden increase in the number of participating schools in the state wrestling tournament.  By 1954, the last year of the invitational format, just 22 teams were participating in the state tournament, a tournament that was still almost exclusively populated by schools from the Cleveland-Akron area and dominated by the wrestling powers of the time: Cleveland’s West Tech and West high schools.  Beginning with the 1955 tournament, the number of competing schools started to climb dramatically, from 29 in ’55 to 131 in 1967.  Today, more than 300 schools annually participate in the state wrestling tournament. 

Before continuing with our brief history of the state wrestling tournament, it would be most appropriate to recall one of the first truly great Ohio high school wrestling teams, a team whose accomplishments have seldom been equaled. 

That school is West High School of Cleveland, and it all started for the Cowboys at the 1945 tournament when they finished in third place, but with two individual champions.  The next year coach Harold Kester’s matmen finished second, just three points behind West Tech, which had won its third consecutive state title that year.  This time, however, West High had four individual champions.

In 1947 the Cowboys finally took home their first state title.  Winning individual championships for the second consecutive year were Bill Buckingham (104 lbs.) and John Matteucci (121 lbs.), while Joe DiBello also took home a title at 113 lbs.  In 1948 West High slipped to fourth place.  John Matteucci was the Cowboy’s lone state champion that year, but he had accomplished something no other wrestler up to that time had done – his championship was the third consecutive individual title of his outstanding career, the first wrestler in state history to accomplish that feat.

In 1949 the Cowboys missed a state championship by a single point to Euclid Shore High School, but again took home three individual titles. 

In 1950 the Cowboys were the heavy favorites going into the tournament among the 19 participating schools, having gone undefeated as members of the Cleveland Senate league.  This time the Cowboys did not disappoint, winning the state championship with three individual titlists and tying the record for most team points with a total of 39. 

When the 1951 state tournament rolled around the Cowboys were again the heavy favorites, and when they qualified seven boys for the finals, it appeared to be a done deal.  (An eighth title hopeful had to withdraw due to an injury.)  Coach Harold Kester’s boys came through with flying colors as they totally dominated the field in winning their second straight championship.  The Cowboys’ “Italian Connection” of Fred Darienzo (134 lbs.), Richard Bonacci (166 lbs. – his third straight individual title), Vince Matteucci (128 lbs.), Emil Palmieri (139 lbs.) and Pete Rossi (155 lbs.) all took home firsts, as did Robert Pogue (121 lbs.).  That is six individual champions in one tournament, a feat that has never since been equaled.  The team’s 50 points not only swamped the field (second place Euclid scored only 16), but it shattered the old record of 39 total points.  Adding not a little icing to their cake, coach Kester’s team was also named the national high school wrestling champion that year, the first Ohio team so honored, and one of just three Ohio schools to ever reach that lofty plateau. 

After the 1951 season West High never again finished higher than third place in the state tournament, and the school was actually closed in 1961.  However, the Cowboys’ proud legacy of success remains, as they are still ranked seventh all-time in Ohio with 28 individual state champions.  West High’s mark of 22 individual champions over a seven year span (1945-1951) has seldom been equaled.

The state wrestling championship trophy continued to remain in the Cleveland area after the West High era of success.  In 1956, Maple Heights High School, coached by Mike Milkovich since 1950 (himself a former state champion in 1941 at 145 lbs.), won its first state championship, and Ohio had its initial look at what would become its first truly legendary wrestling program.   The Mustangs repeated as state champions the next season, followed by three straight runner-up finishes. The school that beat out the Mustangs for the 1959 title was Bridgeport High School, led by two-time state champion Art Hehr.  Located in the southeastern part of the state just across the border from Wheeling, West Virginia, the Bulldogs were the first team from outside of the Greater Cleveland area to win a state title. 

The Mustangs regained their championship form in both 1962 and 1963, but finished second in ’64 and ’65.  Coach Milkovich’s team then captured four straight state titles from 1966-69, the first team to ever win four in a row.  After again finishing second in 1970, the Mustangs bounced right back to take their ninth championship in 1971.  It was rumored that Mike Milkovich would leave Maple Heights High School after the 1971 season to coach at Kent State, but that did not happen.  However, the Mustangs finished out of the running each of the next two seasons, but came back to win their 10th, and final, state championship for coach Milkovich in 1974.

In 1971 a change was made to the state wrestling format, with the schools divided into Class A-AA-AAA based on enrollment, Class A for the smallest schools, then AA, and finally AAA for the biggest schools.  From 1971-1975 Classes A-AA wrestled for a combined state championship, while the big school Class AAA had its own championship.  Beginning in 1976 each classification wrestled for its own state title.  In 1988 the classifications were renamed “divisions,” with Division I being for the biggest schools, and Divisions II and III for the smaller ones.

With the schools divided into the various classifications/divisions, many more were now able to claim state titles.  However, the domination of the sport by the northern part of the state, and especially the northeastern part, has remained almost unbroken, especially in the big school category.  For instance, strange as it may seem, while it has produced many state champions in virtually every other sport, no school from the Cincinnati-Dayton area, in any division, has yet to win a state wrestling championship.

Until the last six or seven years, no team has really dominated in the two smaller school categories, although a few have had some years of consistent success.  Columbus St. Francis DeSales won three championships, and finished second twice, from 1971-1978 in the combined Class A-AA, and then AA.  This success was in part due to the individual talents of Mark Zimmer, who became the state’s first four-time individual champion when he won titles in 1976-77-78-79.  Akron’s Coventry High School was another Class AA-Division II school that achieved quite a bit of success, winning consecutive team titles in 1978-79-80, and again capturing the championship in 1993 and 1996.  Those later championships were aided by another of the state’s four-time winners, John McGhee (1993-1996). 

Bedford’s St. Peter Chanel High School is a third team to be reckoned with when it comes to Division II wrestling.  The Firebirds’ greatest success came from 1983 to 1988, when they won four championships and finished as the runner-up one other time.  However, although they have yet to win another state title, the Firebirds have been near the top of the Division II title chase over the last dozen years, finishing second six times since 1994.  One wrestler who had a major impact on this resurgence of the Firebirds was Jeff Jaggers, who won four state titles from 2001 to 2004.

Like the two bigger school divisions, Class A-Division III has had its stars as well.  One of the earliest was Richmond Heights High School, a suburb of Cleveland.  Under the direction of coach Mike Papouras the Spartans were in the thick of the Class A championships from 1976 to 1984.  During those nine years they took home four state titles (1979-80-83-84) and finished as the runner-up four other times.  Although the Spartans’ last championship came in 1984, that was just the beginning for one of their greatest wrestlers, Dan Hanson, who won individual state championships in 1984-85-86-87. 

Delta High School, located just west of Toledo, is another school that has risen to the top of the Division III wrestling world.  The Panthers won their first state championship in 1989, but did not repeat until 1996.  They just missed winning four titles in a row when they won championships again in 1998 and 1999, but finished second to Streetsboro High School in 1997 by just four points.

The most successful Division III school to date is living proof that, like the other D-III champions before it, you do not have to be a big school to be successful at your sport.  Sandusky St. Mary Central Catholic High School usually has an enrollment of about 150 students, just about evenly split between boys and girls.  Even though that means only about 75 boys to choose from, that has not stopped wrestling coach Jude Roth from organizing one of the most successful programs in the state. 

Roth came to St. Mary’s in 1987 and coached his first state championship team in 1994, after the Panthers had finished as the runner-up the year before.  The Panthers again finished second in the Division III state tournament in 1996, 1998 and 1999.  Then it all really fell into place.  St. Mary’s took the Division III state title in 2000, finished fourth in 2001, and have won every D-III state title since then, currently having won five in a row, 2002-2006.  Along the way the Panthers have set the all-time state record for dual wins in a season (39), are second with the most consecutive dual wins (87), and coach Roth is currently the winningest active coach in the state, and second all-time, with 389 victories against just 51 defeats and two ties.  The Panthers have also produced one of the state’s four-time individual champions in Jared Opfer, who won his titles in 1996-97-98-99.

Looking Back at the OHSAA's Wrestling Championships - No. 2
A centennial moment

By Timothy L. Hudak
Sports Heritage Specialty Publications
4814 Broadview Rd.
Cleveland, Ohio 44109
www.SportsHeritagePublications.net
 

Three schools currently represent the pinnacle of high school wrestling in Ohio, and at times, in the nation.  Those schools are St. Edward High School of Lakewood, Cuyahoga Falls’ Walsh Jesuit, and Graham Local High School of St. Paris, more commonly referred to as St. Paris Graham.

St. Edward’s wrestling program is easily the most successful in the state, and consistently one of the top programs in the nation.  With 22 state wrestling championships (second for championships in a single sport to Cincinnati St. Xavier’s 28 swimming titles), the Eagles have won 32% of all state Division I tournaments, and have the fifth most state wrestling championships in the country.

When Howard Ferguson took over as the Eagles’ wrestling coach in 1976, he predicted that the school would celebrate a state championship within five years.  It only took him until his third season in 1978 to come through on that promise – and since then the Eagles have never looked back, continuing to add championship hardware to the school’s trophy case on almost a yearly basis.    

Following that first championship the Eagles won again in 1979, and in 1980, and in 1981, and kept right on winning straight through to 1988 for a state wrestling record 10 championships in a row.  In addition, the Eagles then started to win championships at the national level.  They won six consecutive national high school titles from 1982-1987, the first school from Ohio to win a national high school wrestling championship since Cleveland’s West High did it back in 1951.  In 1982 the Eagles set a national record for most takedowns in a season, 1,905, which still stands.

The Eagles stumbled a bit in 1988 and finished what for them was a “distant” fourth.  St. Ed’s rebounded the next season, and in 1989 reclaimed both the state and national high school championships.  Leading the Eagles on the mats from 1987 to 1989 was three-time state champion Alan Fried, recognized by many as the greatest high school wrestler ever.

However, 1989 had to be a most bittersweet year for the whole St. Edward community, for in the fall of that year head coach Howard Ferguson suddenly and unexpectedly died.

The Eagles were down, but certainly not out.  Assistant coach Greg Urbas took over as the new head coach.  In his first two seasons the Eagles finished third (1990) and then second (1991) in the Division I championships.  Like his predecessor, Urbas in 1992 brought home a state championship in his third season as the St. Edward wrestling coach.  That season the Eagles also returned to the top of the national rankings by winning their eighth national title.

The Eagles were shut out of the Division I championship from 1993-1996, finishing third in ’93 and second the other three years.  It would prove to be the school’s longest spell over the last 29 years without a state championship, as well as the last time that they would go without winning the first place trophy.  The Eagles finally grabbed another Division I title in 1997, and have won everyone ever since, tying Howard Ferguson’s mark of 10 consecutive titles.  They also added a ninth national title in 2000.   

The Eagles’ outstanding record of success has been made possible by a combination of fine coaching and some outstanding student-athletes who responded to that coaching.  Alan Fried has already been mentioned.  Others who have been big contributors to the Eagles’ success are a pair of four-time champions, Ryan Lang (2000-01-02-03) and Lance Palmer (2003-04-05-06).  Besides Alan Fried, three-time champs at St. Ed’s include Eddie Jayne (1992-93-94), Mark Jayne (1998-99-00), Mason Lenhard (1998-99-00) and Matt Koz (2001-02-03).

Bill Barger helped to start the wrestling program at Walsh Jesuit High School in 1976.  As the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is a championship wrestling team.  The Warriors persevered, and in 1990 finished second in the Division I tournament.  In 1991 the Warriors finally won their first Division I state championship, but slipped to second again in 1992. 

If the period from 1990 to the present day is labeled as the “golden era” of Walsh Jesuit wrestling, then the years 1993 to 1996 must be platinum.  Led by three-time individual state champions Clint Muser (1991-92, 94), Joe Heskett (1995-96-97) and Jeff Knupp (1995-96-97), the Warriors captured four consecutive Division I championships, edging out Lorain Southview in 1993and St. Edward the other three years.  Coach Barger’s team also won the national championship each of those four seasons. 

In a truly remarkable feat, two Ohio schools, St. Edward and Walsh Jesuit, captured 14 of the 19 national championships awarded from 1982-2000.  If there had been any doubt before, there was none now: Ohio was, make that is, the center of the nation’s high school wrestling world.

Walsh was reclassified into Division II in 1997.  While the competition was just as fierce, the Warriors’ success followed them as they won the Division II championship in 1997 in their first season in that division.  In 1998 the Warriors slipped to 12th in the Division II tournament, but rebounded to win back-to-back championships in 1999 and 2000.  Since then the Walsh Jesuit wrestlers have finished as the runner-up on three different occasions.

For the Falcons of St. Paris Graham Local High School it is a case of all or nothing.  They either win the Division II state wrestling championship, or they finish back in the pack.  No runner-up trophies for these guys, but then, of late they have not had to worry about taking home anything less than the championship hardware. 

The Falcons won their first state championship, in Class AA, in 1982.  Leading that team were a couple of brothers, Jim and Jeff Jordan, who also happen to be one of only two sets of brothers who each captured four state wrestling championships.  Jim won his in 1979-80-81-82, while brother Jeff did it in 1980-81-82-83. 

Following its 1982 title St. Paris Graham did not win its next state championship until 1998, but fell to 13th place in 1999, and 15th in 2000.  Since then, however, the Falcons have won every Division II state championship, currently on a six year streak – and counting.  The Falcons’ current success has been aided by two more four-time state champions: C.P. Schlatter, who won his titles in 2000-01-02-03 (the first two at Columbus St. Francis DeSales High School), and Dustin Schlatter, with his titles coming in 2002-03-04-05 (the latter two while at Massillon Perry High School).  The Schlatters are the second set of four-time champion brothers. (In case you missed it, St. Paris Graham has and/or shares both sets of brothers who are four-time state wrestling champions – must be something in the water.)

While it is nice to see teams being successful, if they are too successful this can be somewhat frustrating for those who are trying to catch them.  In Division I the unprecedented success of St. Edward High School is certainly to be commended, but it must also be just a bit frustrating for the rest of the schools in that division.  But this “problem’ is not limited to this one division.  A quick review of the record book shows that this same situation has existed in the other two divisions of Ohio high school wrestling since the turn of the last century.  St. Paris Graham has been the Division II champion every year since 2001, and going back to 1997 there have been only two schools at the top of Division II wrestling, St. Paris Graham and Walsh Jesuit.  In Division III a similar situation exists, where Sandusky St. Mary Central Catholic has ruled as that division’s champion since 2000.

In Division I the situation is compounded by the fact that Massillon Perry High School has finished as the runner-up each year since 2003. 

High school wrestling in Ohio is among the best and most competitive in the country, and also perhaps the most frustrating at times for those trying to crack the winner’s circle in the state tournament.  But, perseverance pays off, and eventually somebody will come along and knock the current “kings” off of their mountains.

To be a state champion is the goal of every wrestler who has ever taken to the mat.  The most outstanding accomplishment in this regard is to achieve that goal four straight years. Some of the outstanding student-athletes to achieve that goal have already been mentioned, but this report would be remiss if it did not also pay tribute to the rest of the members of that most exclusive of clubs, Ohio’s four-time  wrestling champions: Mark Zimmer, Columbus St. Francis DeSales, 1976-77-78-79; Eric Burnett, Oberlin High School, 1984-85-86-87; Ken Ramsey, Lancaster Fisher Catholic (1984, 85), Columbus Bishop Ready (1986, 87); Willie Wineberg, Fairfield High School, 1991-92-93-94; Harry Lester, Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy, 1998-99-00-01.

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