“District XI – Wrestling Country, USA”
Over the years, I’ve heard District XI referred to as “Wrestling Country, USA” and often wondered when exactly this term was coined. During the 1979 season in which District XI teams won both the AAA and AA state team titles and collectively crowned 5 state champions. According to a February 1980 Morning Call article, first bumper stickers appeared and then T-Shirts proclaiming “District 11 – Wrestling Country” were sold at both AAA & AA District tournaments.
District XI had achieved great success during the mid-late 1970’s at the state tournament. In addition, District XI wrestlers had won 6 NCAA Division I titles from 1970-75. In fact, Liberty’s Coach Frank Gutierrez completed the incredible feat of having Liberty wrestlers crowned as PIAA state champion and NCAA Division I champion on the same date, March 15th, twice! In 1975, Brian Statum was a state champ, and John Fritz won an NCAA title for Penn State. In 1980, Jim Bresnak would win a state title, and Matt Reiss won an NCAA title for North Carolina State. During those times and years since, certainly other areas of the state have taken the lead during various periods, but District XI has always produced more than its share of great wrestlers. Collectively, the State of Pennsylvania continues to turn out some of the best wrestlers in the country!
The 1979-80 season was no exception to the incredible competition that had developed within the Lehigh Valley and beyond. Dual meets continued to dominate the landscape with almost all teams wrestling 15+ matches and some now approaching 20. A balance of the old guard and teams trying to break through into the upper tier of the Valley’s three leagues was part of this season. No local teams were able to emerge unbeaten for the season.
With 1979 state champs, Rich Santoro and Tom Bold, graduating to the south side of Bethlehem and Lehigh University, Bethlehem Catholic had some big shoes to fill. Regional Champ, Bernie Brown was back, and the Hawks were bolstered by two-time junior national freestyle champ, Duane Peoples, and two-time state runner-up, Vince Stravino. As a result Bethlehem Catholic was considered to battle Phillipsburg, who was returning seven starters and rated a close favorite, for the EPC title. Easton and Freedom were also expected to contend.
With Nazareth losing four regional champs to graduation, Saucon Valley was a heavy favorite to repeat in the Colonial League. Notre Dame was expected to again win the Centennial League title with eight returning starters with Northwestern and Stroudsburg expected to offer competition.
On opening night, Becahi defeated Governor Mifflin 38-18. Freedom upended Saucon Valley 32-15 in what was expected to be a toss-up match.
As league competition began on December 6th, Notre Dame won a big Centennial League match up 29-18 over Stroudsburg as the Crusaders won 8 of 12 bouts.
Northampton had achieved a winning record in the prior season, but the Kids were looking to knock off Easton in their EPC opener. Dave Kistler scored a fall over Andy Causa at 126 and then Gordon White won by default at 132. The Kids still trailed 27-14 with four bouts to go which they swept to win 29-27. Freedom scored a 36-12 win over a solid Allen team to signal that they were a serious title contender.
Two days later, that Allen team upset Saucon Valley 29-27 as Craig DiPasquale (167) and Fred Williams (185) scored falls to clinch the win. Bethlehem Catholic jumped out to a 20-0 lead over Notre Dame before Doug Collina’s 8-2 win over Vince Stravino sparked the Crusaders to win five of the next six bouts to cut the lead to 23-15. Bernie Brown’s fall clinched the win, final score 29-21, for the Hawks. Northwestern nipped Parkland 31-30 in another great non-league match up.
The top-notch early duals continued the following week. In the EPC, Easton was trying to rebound from its loss to Northampton and was facing Freedom. The Rovers jumped out to a 16-2 lead before Charlie Brita pinned tough Pete Stoelzl at 132. Barry Bartek (155) and Jeff Reeser (167) added falls to give the Patriots a 25-20 lead with two bouts to go. Rick Fulmer and Scott Mertz both scored falls, and the Rovers won 32-25. Meanwhile, Bethlehem Catholic topped Parkland 33-12.
Saucon Valley’s middleweights keyed a 29-22 win over Wilson in the Colonial League. Pocono Mountain scored three falls in the first eight bouts, and Bill Rader tied Kurt Wentz 6-6 at 112 to give the Cardinals a 23-19 lead. The Tigers came back, but Bill Beehler scored a first period fall, and Pocono Mountain had the upset 33-25.
Nazareth visited the 25th Street Gym and left after absorbing a 51-3 defeat to Easton; the Rovers started the match with five straight falls. Pocono Mountain’s Bill Beehler scored another match-winning fall as the Cardinals beat Wilson 27-22. Bethlehem Catholic, Notre Dame, Wilkes-Barre Meyers and Wyoming Valley West participated in a quadrangular meet.
On December 19th in the topsy-turvy EPC, Liberty started fast to lead Bethlehem Catholic 14-0 after three bouts, but the Hawks roared back to win the next three bouts to lead 15-14. Dave Torres (138) & Bryan Callhan (155) scored falls and Mike Willner (167) had the clinching decision as the Hurricanes upset Becahi 29-28. “Is Easton really that good?” was the question asked by The Morning Call’s Ted Meixell after the Rovers pounded Parkland 41-12.
After an extremely exciting three weeks of December dual meets, the league standings could be summarized as follows:
East Penn – Liberty, Northampton & Phillipsburg undefeated and Allen, Bethlehem Catholic, Easton & Freedom with one loss.
Colonial – Bangor, Nazareth, Saucon Valley & Southern Lehigh undefeated.
Centennial – Notre Dame & Pocono Mountain undefeated and Lehighton, Northwestern & Stroudsburg with one loss.
In the Christmas City Tournament, Freedom nipped Bethlehem Catholic by one point to win the team title. The Patriots had one champ (Bill Kibler at 98) and 4 runner-ups. Bethlehem Catholic had one champion (Bernie Brown at 185), 2 runner-ups and 3 place winners. Northampton’s Dave Kistler was named the OW after he defeated Freedom’s Charlie Brita in an action-packed 15-13 bout. Easton placed 10 or 12 wrestlers as they dominated the action in their own Pat Reilly Holiday Tourney. The Rovers and Northwestern each had three champs. John Cuvo (105), Pete Stoelzl (132) and Barry Rutt (138) for Easton, and Greg Stewart (119), Wally Frisch (155) and Phil Smith for Northwestern. Pocono Mountain finished 2nd in the Wallenpaupack Tourney and 1st in the Jim Thorpe Tourney. Catasauqua was 2nd in their own tourney.
Freedom Nipped Bethlehem Catholic to Win the 1979 Christmas City Title (Photo Courtesy of Chris Saraceno from Globe Times)
Notre Dame got falls from Doug Collina (119), Paul Burke (138), Dan Hendricks (145) and Marty Hlay (Hwt) as they defeated Northwestern 39-16 in the Centennial League. Nazareth downed Wilson 30-17 in the Colonial League. Phillipsburg had falls from John Barna (98), Frank Stillo (119), Rick Amy (138) and Bill Koch (145) as they topped Parkland 33-23 in East Penn action.
Freedom won three bouts by a 2-1 score and by a 7-6 score to defeat Nazareth 35-15. Bethlehem Catholic traveled to New York and outpaced Port Jervis to win the Tri-State Tourney. As the Hawks returned home, Phillipsburg was waiting for them in a match-up of pre-season EPC favorites. Coach Tony Iasiello’s team had key wins from Tom Vresics (112), Tony Wittic (126) and Duane Peoples (145) as they upended the Stateliners 25-23. Easton continued to flex its muscles by routing Liberty 46-7.
On January 10th, the annual Saucon Valley-Nazareth Colonial league showdown was on tap. The Blue Eagles led briefly, but the Panthers strung together 4 decisions and a draw to lead 22-11 after nine bouts. Nazareth narrowed the lead to 22-20, but Randy Israel’s fall gave Saucon Valley a 28-20 victory. A few days later Bethlehem Catholic scored another big win as they defeated Northampton 26-19. Vince Stravino topped Dave Kistler 12-9 at 126, and Bernie Brown had a fall to clinch the victory.
On January 17th, more huge duals were on tap. In the Centennial League, Notre Dame all but clinched the league title as they defeated Pocono Mountain 30-16. The Cardinals had raced out to a 16-6 lead, but then saw the Crusaders won all but one of the remaining matches. Saucon Valley won a tougher than expected 33-20 win over Bangor to stay in the Colonial Division league, but Southern Lehigh’s title hopes took a hit as they were tied by Wilson 21-21.
Becahi had been on a roll, but Freedom had other ideas. Bob Fiore (119), Charlie Brita (126) and Lou Benedict (138) all won close decisions as the teams were locked in a 12-12 after eight bouts. Barry Bartek (155), Jeff Reaser (167) and John Triantafelow (Hwt) scored falls, and the Patriots got back in the EPC title hunt with a 30-18 win. Phillipsburg started quickly and led Northampton 21-8 after seven bouts. The Kids rallied but could not score enough bonus points to close the gap, and the Stateliners held on to win 26-23.
While not having the fanfare of years to follow, Northampton visited Nazareth for one heckuva dual. In a match with five lead changes, Ed Wagner’s 4-2 win a heavyweight gave the Kids a 26-25 victory.
On January 23rd after many exciting duals, six teams still were in title contention in the East Penn Conference, and four of them would face off against each other. Neither match would be as close as expected. Before a crowd of 1,400 fans in ‘The Pit’, Phillipsburg won nine bouts to beat Freedom 35-15. Bethlehem Catholic had broken Easton’s overall and EPC unbeaten streaks a year ago, but the host Rovers won eight and tied one match as they won 33-12.
In the Colonial League, Saucon Valley knocked off Southern Lehigh 41-9 to pretty much wrap up the league title. Lehighton only won five bouts, but four were by fall as they upset Pocono Mountain 27-24.
As January came to an end, Nazareth and Liberty battled to a 22-22 tie. Liberty led Northampton 20-17 with three bouts to go. The Kids strong together a decision by Ken Dixon and two falls by Tom Chamberlain and Ed Wagner to win 32-20 and knock the Hurricanes from a first place tie in the EPC. Parkland surprised Freedom and upset them 26-22.
Liberty scored four falls including Mike Willner’s clincher as they beat Saucon Valley 30-28, and Parkland kept the ball rolling with a 30-17 win over Nazareth.
As the dual season began to wind down, Freedom’s strong middleweights scored four falls to topple Northampton 33-18, and Notre Dame wrapped up the Centennial League title by defeating Lehighton 36-13.
On February 6th, before 1,300 fans, Hazleton ended North Schuylkill’s 127-match unbeaten streak in league competition 34-20.
Phillipsburg got falls from John Barna (98), Frank Stillo (119), Kelly Happel (126), John Rutledge (132) and Dave Zeigman (Hwt) as they defeated Liberty 38-23 to stay in the EPC title hunt with a showdown with Easton remaining. League champs Notre Dame and Saucon Valley battled to a 26-26 tie. In a prelude to future “national level” matches, Bethlehem Catholic faced off against St. Edwards Ohio (featuring future 4-time NCAA All-Americans Jim Heffernan and Greg Elinsky) and lost 37-17.
Easton won the first three bouts in its showdown with Phillipsburg to lead 11-0. Frank Stillo got the ‘Liners on the board as he edged Randy Ascani 13-12. Andy Causa scored a huge fall over Kelly Happel at 126 and Pete Stoelzl battled John Rutledge to a draw at 132. The Rovers still led 20-5. The teams split the final six bouts, and Easton won the EPC title with a 31-17 victory. Freedom’s middleweights again were the key as the Patriots defeated Liberty 31-18, and Parkland with three pins knocked off Northampton 29-25.
After an incredible dual season overall, and in the EPC in particular, the league champions were:
East Penn League Champs – Easton 10-1 (16-1 Overall)
Colonial League Champs – Saucon Valley 8-0 (12-7-1 Overall)
Centennial League Champs – Notre Dame 8-0 (16-2-1 Overall)
Teams finishing with strong records were Phillipsburg 15-2, Pius X 11-2, Freedom 15-3, Pocono Mountain 13-3, Northampton 12-4 and Bethlehem Catholic 16-5.
Saucon Valley had four champs to win the Colonial League tourney title, and Notre Dame won the Centennial League tourney title for the 3rd year in a row with four champs and three runner-ups.
In the AAA District tourney, Bethlehem Catholic led Easton by 2.5 points after the first weekend. The Rovers had the most semi-finalists with seven with the Hawks, Freedom and Parkland each had six. It was a three-team horse race for the team title as Easton, Bethlehem Catholic and Freedom slugged it out and advanced four wrestlers each to the finals. Easton and Becahi each crowned three champs to Freedom’s two, but the Rovers had a bit stronger consolation performance and outpaced their rivals 125.5-120.5-117.5, respectively. Two of Bethlehem Catholic’s winners were involved in wild bouts with a total of 52 points scored! Tony Wittic defeated Whitehall’s Joe Thibault 13-11 at 132, and Duane Peoples and Hazleton’s Carmen DeLese engaged in an upper body slugfest resulting in Peoples winning 16-12. John Cuvo, Randy Ascani and Pete Stoelzl won titles for the Rovers, and Freedom’s Al Snellman was named Coach of the Year.
The AA Districts went to one combined tourney compared to the prior East-West sectional format. Notre Dame and Northwestern emerged as title contenders by each advancing six wresters. Both teams crowned three champions – Doug Collina, Dan Hendricks & Bill Seibold for the Crusaders and Kurt Wentz, Greg Stewart & Bill Smith for the Tigers. Notre Dame had two runner-ups and a 3rd place finisher which proved to be the difference in the team race.
Liberty’s Jim Bresnak had the best AAA Northeast Regional of all by knocking off highly touted Vince Macri, Mike Levanduski and defending state champ, Doug Billig, to win the 105 pound title. District XI crowned 6 champs – Bresnak, Easton’s John Cuvo & Pete Stoelzl, Bethlehem Catholic’s Tom Mascavege & Bernie Brown and Saucon Valley’s Randy Israel (who turned the tables on Dieruff’s Dennis Atiyeh). In total, 23 District XI wrestlers advanced to states.
Notre Dame dominated the AA Southeast Regionals by crowning 5 champions – Doug Collina, Dave Spirk, Dan Hendicks, Bill Seibold and Mark Correll. Northwestern’s Kurt Wentz & Greg Stewart, East Stroudsburg’s Greg Davis and Minersville’s Tom Balcavage rounded out the regional champs from District XI.
In AAA, five District XI wrestlers advanced to the state finals. Easton’s John Cuvo won the state title by an 11-7 tally at 98. In two all District XI match-ups, Liberty’s Jim Bresnak again nipped Parkland’s defending state champ, Doug Billig, 4-3, and Bethlehem Catholic’s Bernie Brown downed Allentown Central Catholic’s John Connelly 6-2. Whitehall’s Mike Levanduski took 3rd to give the district grapplers a 1-2-3 finish at 105.
In AA, Notre Dame advanced three wrestlers to the semi-finals while Northwestern advanced two. Northwestern finished 2nd in the team standings as Kurt Wentz and Greg Stewart both won titles. Notre Dame finished 3rd as Mark Correll won the 167 pound title, Dave Spirk was 3rd and Dan Hendricks was 4th.
John Cuvo and Jim Bresnak both triumphed in the Pittsburgh Press Classic but the PA team lost to the US team 26-21. The US team included future college stars Kevin Darkus, Barry Davis (who lost 9-8 to Wilkes-Barre Meyers’ Jay Patterson) and Kenny Monday.
Phillipsburg won another District 16 title as John Barna (98), Kelly Happel (126), John Rutledge (132), Rick Amy (138), Bob Moyer (145) and Mike Margeson (167) won titles. Barna, Rutledge, Amy and Moyer also won Regional titles. In the NJ states, John Barna went on to win a state titile; Bob Moyer was a runner-up and John Rutledge placed 3rd.