John Klein: Perry's tradition in wrestling is unmatched
BY JOHN KLEIN Senior Sports Columnist
Saturday, June 30, 2012
6/30/12 at 4:31 AM
Go to John Klein's Blog Original Print Headline: Perry wrestling is a tradition like no other
PERRY - Folks in this Noble County town do two things better than anyone else on Earth.
The Perry Maroons, who have amassed the greatest high school wrestling records in the country, will celebrate a historic 90 years on Saturday night in Perry.
- They build the world's best trenchers at Ditch Witch, an international company founded by lifelong Perryan Ed Malzahn.
- They raise the best high school wrestlers, a tradition that dates back to 1932 Olympic gold medalist Jack VanBebber.
State champion wrestlers and teams from eight different decades are expected for the Perry Wrestling Reunion.
"It is simply amazing to me that the little town of Perry has been so good at wrestling all of these years," said Danny Hodge, a lifelong Perryan and considered by many the greatest collegiate wrestler ever. "There's a lot of history at that little gym of ours."
It is the central point of pride for anyone with a diploma from Perry High School.
That would include me.
In a town where wrestling is literally life, every young Perry boy eventually ends up in a wrestling room where the names of more than 150 state champions are painted on the wall.
No high school athletic program in the state, regardless of size, can match Perry's longevity of excellence in wrestling.
The Maroons have won 55 state championships. In the past 61 years, Perry has finished first or second 50 times. In the past 70 years, the Maroons have finished in the top seven 67 times.
Perry has won 38 state tournament titles since 1952 and 13 dual state championships since 1991.
Since 1961, Perry has never gone longer than two years without a state wrestling championship. That means every graduating senior from Perry over the past 51 years has gone to at least one pep rally celebrating a state wrestling championship.
"You can't turn around in this town without seeing someone that has been highly involved and highly successful in wrestling," said Perry Superintendent Scott Chenoweth, a former state champ for the Maroons who coached Perry to 23 state titles (12 tournaments, 11 duals) in 16 years. "That can be good and bad.
"Sometimes it can be difficult because it is a very knowledgeable fan base, and if you aren't doing well they know it. It can also be great. They understand the work and dedication it takes to be successful. So, they help push the kids to be the best they can be."
There have been 159 individual state champions, including three four-time champs - Cecil Beisel (1975-78), Ladd Rupp (2006-2009 and now wrestling for Oklahoma State) and Ian Fisher (2007-2010 and now wrestling for Oklahoma).
There have been nine others who were three-time champs.
John St. Clair won Perry's first individual state title in 1942, and Tulsa bank executive Wade Edmundson won the 50th state title for the Maroons in 1969. Chenoweth, who went on to became the school's most successful coach, was Perry's 100th state champ.
In 1973, the Maroons had one of the greatest teams of any sport in Oklahoma high school history when they crowned seven state champions (out of 12 weights). A few years earlier, Perry had nine reach the state finals (out of 12 weights).
VanBebber was the first of a long line of Perry wrestlers who have shined on the international and national stage.
Hodge, another Olympic medalist, compiled arguably the greatest collegiate wrestling record in history. Hodge, a state champ for the Maroons in 1951, went on to wrestle at the University of Oklahoma. He pinned 36 of his 46 collegiate opponents, winning three national championships by fall.
Hodge, a two-time Olympian, is believed to be the only American athlete to hold national championships in two sports at the same time (wrestling and boxing).
In 1957, led by Hodge, the Oklahoma Sooners had five Perryans (out of 10 starters) on a national championship team.
Hodge still attends many duals and the state championship tournaments.
"We are pretty proud of our wrestlers around here," said Hodge. "Over here in Perry, it is religion first, school second and wrestling third.
"I still go to most of the matches. I really enjoy it. But I don't do any coaching. I just go watch. If a kid wants some coaching, I bring them back to my den and show them some holds. I've taught more holds in my den here at the house than anywhere."
Coaching records have been equally impressive. Nine former Perry wrestlers have gone on to be All-State coaches.
The high school gym is named for John Divine, who coached Perry wrestling for 30 years and is considered the father of the sport in this town. Leonard Shelton won 10 state titles in 11 years as coach, including a record nine straight from 1971-81.
"It is just important to people over here, and that's the way it has been for 90 years," said Chenoweth. "Everybody has a dad, granddad or uncle or cousin or someone that wrestled and was a state champ. That's just the way it is.
"I don't know if the kids today can really wrap their minds around the history of the sport here in Perry. It is pretty hard for a kid today to really understand what our history in wrestling is all about. But they know it is important to be a part of it. They understand that it is important to a lot of folks here in Perry."
What does all of this mean?
It means people in Perry passionately care about the sport. It means they care enough to make the sacrifices and support the enormous effort it takes to excel in a sport built on strength, patience and persistence.
Everyone is proud of their hometown.
In Perry, the Maroon wrestlers and those bright orange Ditch Witches give us plenty of reasons to boast with pride.