Lehigh Valley Wrestling / District XI Wrestling
According to Norm Palovcsik’s “The History of the PIAA State Wrestling Championships”, Bethlehem Liberty was the first known high school program in 1923-24. Coached by the legendary Bill Stark, these early grapplers often wrestled against preparatory schools and college freshman squads.
The proximity to Lehigh University certainly helped with the awareness of the sport in the Lehigh Valley. Lehigh established wrestling in 1910 and saw the legendary Billy Sheridan arrive for the 1911-12 season. Sheridan would coach Lehigh for an incredible 41 years leading the Brown & White’s initial rise to prominence on the national wrestling scene. With Lehigh consistently competing for E.I.W.A. titles and being nationally ranked, many youngsters got their first exposure watching matches on the South side of Bethlehem. Coach Sheridan was well known as a huge promoter of the sport of wrestling by conducting clinics for local high schools. His impact was unprecedented. For more information, please read Billy Sheridan: Legendary Coach & Pied Piper of Wrestling.
A look at the 1928 Bethlehem team’s schedule shows bouts against 2 college freshmen teams, 2 preparatory schools and 2 high schools. More Pennsylvania high schools added teams in the late ‘20’s and 1930’s. Pottsville became the second District XI program in 1935.
In 1938, the PIAA held the first state wrestling tournament. Pottsville’s Dick Brenneman claimed District XI’s first state championship in that inaugural year at 165.
In 1940, Bethlehem Liberty broke through to win the unofficial team championship with two champions and one runner-up. Pete Cicchini won Bethlehem’s first title by fall in the finals at 135, and William Unangst claimed the 155 title by decision. Bob Morgan was second at 185.
Over the next six years, the local teams had limited success at the state level. They were joined by several newcomers in the Lehigh Valley, as follows:
- Allentown High School in 1944-45, coached by Dick Landis;
- Northampton High School in 1945-46, coached by Harry Wall; and
- Phillipsburg NJ High School in 1946-47, coached by Harry “Jake” Houston.
The first official District XI wrestling championship was held on March 8, 1947 with Bethlehem claiming the team championship with 6 champs to Allentown’s 5 and none for Northampton. In the official team standings, Bethlehem finished with 26 points while Allentown had 21 and Northampton had 0. Charles Cope claimed Bethlehem’s first state title since 1940 at 154 while John McAuliffe became Allentown’s first state champ at 138.
During these formative years only the District champions advanced to the Regionals (once introduced in 1950) and only Regional champions earned the right to wrestle in the state tournament. There were no consolations, no second chances even if the best two wrestlers in the state were in the same weight class in District XI. One off match could end the season of a defending state champion at any point during the post season. Further, there was only one class; no break for smaller schools. This format was in place for the first 35 years of the state tournament and did not change until the early 1970’s. In 1973, district and regional runners-up were permitted to advance to the next round while in 1974, two classes were introduced based upon enrollment.
During the first decade of the PIAA state championships, Clearfield was the dominate team winning 5 of 10 mythical state titles. Canonsburg, Liberty, Waynesburg, Kingston and Farrell each claimed one unofficial team title. Coached by the legendary Art Weiss, Clearfield also led all schools by claiming nineteen individual state champions during the first ten years of competition. By the time he retired in 1959, Clearfield would go on to crown 31 individual state champions, have 14 undefeated seasons and claim 20 team district titles in 22 tries.
While the Valley teams tried to establish themselves, the building blocks of the Valley’s wrestling growth were being placed. A young Mount Carmel native and recent Penn State grad by the name of Glenn Smith established a wrestling program in Bellfonte High School in 1946. Over the next six years, his team record was 52-7-1, including a winning streak of 33 and five individual state champions (per obit). In 1952, Coach Smith would become the coach at Allentown High School. In addition, the torch was passed at Bethlehem from Bill Stark to his former grappler and protégé, James Harkins, for the 1947-48 season.
During the 1947-48 season, Easton began competing with Gus Zarnas as coach. Easton would go 14-4 in its first two years of wrestling and claim two District XI team titles with thirteen individual district champions. In the 1948 tournament, Easton nipped Bethlehem for the team title 39-37 while Northampton had 19 points. Allentown did not compete due to being on PIAA suspension. Dick Rutt became Easton’s fist district champ on March 6, 1948 and started “The Steak”. Yes, that steak. During an unprecedented display of consistency 1948 through 2015, Easton crowned at least one individual district champion every year for 68 consecutive years. By the time, “The Streak” was broken in 2016, Easton had crowned 185 individual district wrestling champions.
Dick Rutt would also win Easton’s first individual state title in 1949. In 1949, the Rovers had nine District champs on their way to winning the title with 56 points. Allentown had 22, Bethlehem 21 and Northampton 6 points to round out the scoring. During the 1949-50 season, Charles Bartolet Sr. would take over as coach at Easton, leading the Rovers to a season record of 8-1. However, Bethlehem would claim the district team title with six champions and edging Easton 36-33 in the final scoring while Allentown had 12 and Northampton had 6 points. Nazareth’s wrestling program was established the same year with Steve Skuta at the helm. In the 1950 state tourney, our District XI wrestlers could only muster two semi-finalists and no finalists. Meanwhile, Glenn Smith’s Bellafonte squad finished second with a champ and two runners-up. The state brackets included Bellafonte wrestler, Larry Fornicola, who would go on to be a national champion at Penn State and later serve as Dieruff’s first head coach.
As the 1950’s began, everything was coming together. With six teams in the Lehigh Valley – Allentown, Bethlehem, Easton, Nazareth, Northampton and Phillipsburg, the stage was set for the beginning of a new era.