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Remembering the Greatest Eastern Stars
By Kyle Klingman
Midwest wrestling schools get the most national attention, but this year the East is making headlines. This year’s NCAA tournament location and the hope of an eastern school winning the NCAA tournament have elevated this tradition-rich area into the spotlight. The last eastern school to win an NCAA team title was Penn State in 1953, but that does not mean there aren’t great wrestlers from this region.
So who is the greatest college wrestler from an eastern school anyway? Creating a top ten list (as expected) was difficult. The list of wrestlers who did not make the list was as impressive as those who are on it.
Establishing states for inclusion was most important. The East, for this ranking, includes these states: Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Washington, DC.
Although only a few states factored into the ranking, all the above states were considered. Only those who wrestled at eastern colleges are eligible.
Criteria for inclusion should also be addressed. This list focuses on a wrestler’s time in college, not post-college or high school. NCAA titles are significant. Winning three NCAA titles is the gold standard in college wrestling; thus, all seven three-time NCAA champions from eastern schools are on the list.
Overall college records were considered, but losses were not fatal. Domination and the level of competition a wrestler faced played a large role.
1. Gray Simons (Lock Haven)
Anyone who watched Gray Simons wrestle will tell you this: he was as good as they get. A masterful wrestler on his feet, he won three NCAA titles (1960-1962), four NAIA titles (1959-1962), and six Outstanding Wrestler trophies (four NAIA, two NCAA).
In 1959, as a freshman, Simons lost his only match to a collegiate wrestler. He moved up from 115 pounds to 123 pounds to wrestle defending NCAA champion Paul Powell of Pittsburgh. He lost by a point. His other loss was to a post-collegian at the Wilkes tournament, also his freshman year. Simons won them all from his sophomore season on, finishing his career with 84 consecutive wins.
2. Wade Schalles (Clarion)
Wade Schalles elevated college wrestling through domination and creativity. His 153-5-1 career college record says a lot. His 106 pins say even more. Even though Schalles did not place at the 1971 NCAA tournament as a freshman, he won NCAA titles (Division I and Division II) in 1972 and 1973 at 158 pounds.
In 1974 Schalles was on his way to winning his third NCAA Division I title, but an eligibility rule kept him from competing. Schalles famously moved up two weight classes to wrestle Floyd Hitchcock (Bloomsburg) at 177 pounds for the last dual of the year. Schalles pinned Hitchcock in the dual, and Hitchcock went on to win the NCAA Division I tourney several weeks later.
3. Mike Caruso (Lehigh)
Mike Caruso won three NCAA titles (1965, 1966, and 1967) and three EIWA titles (the only eastern wrestler to win both tournaments three times) when freshman were ineligible to compete. He was 57-1 for his career and never lost at his weight class (123).
His only loss was to Army’s Bob Steenlage (Iowa’s first four-time state champion) at 130 pounds in 1965 as a sophomore. Caruso avenged his loss to Steenlage at the 1966 NCAA tournament held in Ames, Iowa.
He also beat Bob Fehrs from Michigan in the NCAA finals all three years, which means Fehrs likely would have been a three-time champion had Caruso not been in the weight class.
4. Gene Mills (Syracuse)
Here is what Gene Mills did in his 10 matches at the NCAA tournament his junior and senior seasons: seven pins, a 28-4 win, a 17-2 win, and a 16-13 win in the 1979 finals over Joe Gonzales of Cal-State Bakersfield. Gonzales, next year’s NCAA champion when Mills was redshirting, lost only one match (to Mills) his last two seasons of competition.
Mills, with a college career record of 144-5-1, placed third as a freshman and fourth as a sophomore. He won NCAA titles in 1979 and 1981 at 118 pounds. Mills made the 1980 Olympic Team while he was on redshirt. He won the famed Tbilisi tournament and the World Super Championships that year too.
5. Carlton Haselrig (Pittsburgh-Johnstown)
Carlton Haselrig’s lone blemish during his 122-match unbeaten streak was a draw against Northern Iowa’s Joel Greenlee at the 1988 All-Star meet. That record would stand until Iowa State’s Cael Sanderson went 159-0 for his career.
Haselrig posted a 143-3-1 career record, winning three NCAA titles in Division I and three NCAA titles in Division II (1987-1989).
6. Daryl Burley (Lehigh)
Daryl Burley was 94-5-1 during his career at Lehigh, and his only losses were to NCAA champions: Randy Lewis (three), Mike Land (one), and Jim Gibbons (one). Burley, the only eastern wrestler to reach the NCAA finals four times, placed first as a freshman, second as a sophomore and a junior, and first as a senior.
As a true freshman, Burley defeated Iowa State’s defending NCAA champion Mike Land in the 134-pound NCAA finals. Burley placed second to Lewis in 1980 and second to Gibbons in 1981, both at 134 pounds. He won his second NCAA title in 1983 with an undefeated season and a win over Nebraska’s Al Freeman in the 142-pound finals.
7. Ed and Hugh Peery (Pittsburgh)
The Peery brothers, Hugh and Ed, get one ranking because of their similar careers. Each wrestled for their father at Pittsburgh and each won three NCAA titles (their father, Rex, won three NCAA titles for Oklahoma State).
Rex Peery: NCAA titles in 1952, 1953, and 1954 at 115 pounds with a career record of 56-1.
Hugh Peery: NCAA titles in 1955, 1956, and 1957 at 123 pounds with a career record of 51-1.
8. Cary Kolat (Penn State and Lock Haven)
Cary Kolat placed second as a true freshman in 1993 and third as a sophomore in 1994 at 134 for Penn State. In the 1993 tourney he defeated defending NCAA champ Troy Steiner from Iowa in the semis to reach the finals.
Kolat redshirted and transferred to Lock Haven in 1995. He won NCAA titles in 1996 and 1997 at 142 pounds; winning all but one match his last two years. His career college record was 111-7.
9. Ricky Bonomo (Bloomsburg)
Ricky Bonomo never had an undefeated season in college, but he wrestled great competition. Jim Martin of Penn State and Jack Cuvo of East Stroudsburg (Martin was a four-time All-American and one-time NCAA champion, Cuvo was a two-time NCAA champion) were in his weight class during Bonomo’s title run.
Bonomo won NCAA titles in 1986, 1987, and 1989 at 118 pounds, but did not place at the 1985 NCAA tournament. His career college record stands at 116-12-3.
10. Greg Jones (West Virginia)
Greg Jones was a three-time NCAA champion for West Virginia in 2002, 2004, and 2005. He was 126-4 for his college career; going undefeated his final two seasons.
His 2003 NCAA tournament prevents him from ranking higher on the list. He entered the tournament undefeated and seeded first. He lost his opening-round match, won his next two consolation matches, and lost before the Round of 12.
Others considered: Jim Nance (Syracuse), George Dole (Yale), Dick DiBattista (Penn), Mark Lieberman (Lehigh), Dave Auble (Cornell), Kerry McCoy (Penn State), Andy Matter (Penn State), Jeff Prescott (Penn State), Travis Lee (Cornell), Mike Frick (Lehigh), Kirk Pendleton (Lehigh), Jesse Jantzen (Harvard), Andy Fitch (Yale), Brad Glass (Princeton), Tony Gizoni (Waynesburg), Josh Koschek (Edinboro), Jack Cuvo (East Stroudsburg), Jim Martin (Penn State), Pat Santoro (Lehigh), Matt Valenti (Penn), Kurt Angle (Clarion), Mike Natvig (Army), Pete Blair (Navy).