Wrestling alumni invited to celebrate Akron’s 50th tourney

Posted December 6, 2018 at 1:15 am

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By Julie Ann Madden

Jan. 6, 1968 was the first Akron Invitational wrestling tournament.

There were just four teams competing that Saturday afternoon and evening.

Rock Valley Rockets won the tourney with 95 points by virtue of winning five firsts, two seconds and five third places.

In second place, with 88 points, was Kingsley-Pierson. Coming in third was George High School with 57 points.

Akron came in last with one first place, three seconds and two thirds. Dick Anderson, 154 lbs., was the Raiders’ first place winner.

“There was a fair-sized turnout for both sessions of the tournament, and fans who attended saw some very good matches,” was reported in the Akron Register-Tribune news story on Jan. 11, 1968. “Wrestling is relatively new for Akron, and is rapidly becoming more and more popular among the boys participating as well as spectators who have had an opportunity to see some of the matches…plan to turn out and enjoy this fine new sport.”

Wrestling had just been added to the sports’ choices at Akron High School the year before for the 1966-1967 school year. The first coach was teacher Fritz Murrell and Akron’s team had competed in two meets. There was no mention of wrestling in the 1967 Norka yearbook.

When teacher/coach Jim Henrich came to Akron the fall of 1967, he told The Akron Hometowner he “inherited” the wrestling program.

His first team consisted of Mike Blake, Douglas Buys, Kim Caskey, Mike Caskey, Artie Coon, Donald Greenwood, Jerome Haage, Michael Hemmelman, Dorian Horton, Steve Horton, Mark Jenson, Scott Klemme, Kevin Lewison, Paul McFarland, Jay Miller, Larry Moffatt, Don Renken, and Kenny Searls.

Henrich was assisted by teacher/coach Jim Smith.

Wrestlers could only have 15 matches in the regular season and a maximum of 30 by the end of the state tournament, said Henrich, adding tournaments had just four teams competing.

This Saturday, there will be nine teams competing: A-W, Kingsley-Pierson, Rock Valley, Westwood, Sioux Center, Sheldon, Brooklyn-Guernsey-Malcom, plus Ponca and Creighton schools from Nebraska.

Henrich noted the Akron Invitational is now held in December instead of January.

“We had a lot more duals back then than tournaments,” said former Akron wrestler Tom Schneider who in 1974, won a first place medal at the Akron Invitational. At 167 lbs., Schneider pinned a Remsen freshman and an Alcester senior. It’s his only medal.

The tournaments took a long break between the afternoon and evening matches so families could do evening farm chores, said Curt Winquist, who wrestled for the Raiders in the early years, too.

There were a lot more farm kids available then, said Gary Horton who was Akron’s first wrestler to place at the state tournament. It was during his senior year, 1975-1976. ”Then it was about half farm and half town kids.”

“We had about 30 kids wrestling,” said Henrich. “That was good numbers.”

Akron-Westfield’s current team has 17 high school students.

Weight classes are constantly changing, said Gary Horton.

The first weight class was 95 lbs. Now it’s about 106 lbs or “6” as the wrestlers say.

The wrestlers’ practice room was the old music room, above the boiler room in the original Akron High School — a small room just off the gym (which is now the dining room at the Akron Community Center).

The room had a chalkboard which stuck out, an obstacle in wrestlers’ way.

“It used to be really fun to take the mat out of that room, too,” said Henrich. “You had to take it out through the little (classroom) door and carry it half way up the stairs before you could get it turned to go into the gym. I was afraid somebody was going to get hurt.”

“You’ve got a lot better facilities now,” he added.

For conditioning, several of Akron’s high school wrestlers recalled they had to run up the three flights of stairs, run across the third floor and back down the three flights of stairs over and over.

Of course, there were a few who only ran two flights up and down, and others who stayed on the third floor balcony until the last lap.

When a wrestler broke his ankle running the stairs, the wrestlers switched to running laps in the gym — no more hiding from Coach Henrich.

Uniforms were long johns topped with shorts and a tank top, they said.

“I remember beating the one — Doug Voss of Beresford — who beat me every time,” said Winquist. “At an Akron Tournament, I got mad and beat him. We were friends. I just saw him recently.”

“It was fun,” added Winquist, who wrestled as heavyweight. “It was a new sport — it was always a packed crowd because people came to see the new sport.”

“It was a lot different back then,” said Henrich. “They didn’t have class sizes like we do now at Sectionals.”

“We competed against everyone, including Le Mars,” he said, explaining Akron-Westfield is now Class 1A. “They only advanced 12 wrestlers and if you got beat in your first match, you were out.”

Only first place winners advanced as the second place winner was an alternate in case the first place winner couldn’t compete, said Henrich, who coached both high school and junior high in the sport for 34 years. Sometimes he had assistant coaches, including Jim Small, Charles Dickman and Rod Sailors.

The first three Akron wrestlers to qualify to compete at state were Gary Horton, Darwin Stotz and Rickard Hedeby.

“One of the biggest things is to see people go through the program and have success,” said Henrich, “and later on see what they are doing and are still successes.”

Several wrestlers have gone on to be wrestling officials, including Brad Harvey, Tom Huls, Mark Kenny, Doug Manley, Doug Olson, and Curt Von Hagel. Several have received Official of the Year Awards. Manley was inducted into the Iowa High School Athletic Association’s Hall of Fame.

“You build friendships you have forever,” said Henrich. “You have a lot of time in-between matches to make friends.”

Teammates Schneider, Utesch and Horton are still friends today.

“Winning the Akron tournament was always special,” said Henrich.

“It’s a team sport but you can still have a couple of kids really excel,” said Henrich.

“You have to have a good sense of balance,” said Horton. “The anticipation (of what your opponent will do).”

“You really have to be disciplined with your weight,” said Horton. “It’s a heck of a commitment to watch your weight throughout the season.”

“You go through Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s pushing yourself away from the table,” laughed Utesch.

“Doing a lot of workouts,” said Horton. “Conditioning is a large part of it. If you’re in good condition, you can win in the third period.”

“The more you put into it, the more you get out of it,” said Horton. “Just like in life.”

Several wrestlers have won national titles and some have continued wrestling in college.

In 1989, Akron wrestling alums Tom Schneider and Chuck Utesch started an organized Grades K-8 youth wrestling program. In 2014, they turned it over to former wrestlers Tyler Schneider, who is Tom’s son; David Ericson and Chad Morrow. Now, it’s under the direction of Schneider and Morrow.

In 2004, Chuck’s son, Chris, was Akron-Westfield’s first state champion.

In 2010, the All-Class Reunion included an Alumni Wrestling Tournament. About 50 people participated. Horton and Henrich were coaches. Schneider wrestled.

In 2017, John Henrich, grandson of Jim Henrich, had his second state championship with a season record of 44-0.

Watching their kids and now grandkids play is a seed Henrich planted, said Utesch.

This Saturday will be the 50th annual Akron Invitational, and a celebration is planned.

“Come for the camaraderie — from years past and years to come,” said Utesch.

“I hope we get some of those guys from that (original) era to come,” said Horton. “It’d be fun to talk with them.”

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