Memories matter to 1971 state wrestling teams
By Mike Hajek
Time has a way of fading most of the memories we create throughout a lifetime, but memories that have created a lasting impact, never completely fade.
The 1971 Robbinsdale Armstrong High School wrestling team has one of those impact moments surrounding their 1971 season and the Minnesota State Wrestling Tournament. Fifty-one years later, at the Armstrong 1971 class reunion, memories circulated surrounding the state wrestling tournament and the glaring question “What ever happened to our state third place trophy?”
In 1971, the Minnesota State High School Wrestling Tournament was a one class competition with individual placers accumulated to determine team champion, second and third team placements. There were 12 weight classes and 16 wrestlers in each weight bracket representing schools large and small, from all across the state of Minnesota.
Staples had a very strong representation at the 1971 state tournament. Entrants were Mark Bendson, 95, Mike Roberts, 103, Gordy Thompson, 127, Loren Bendson, 133, Dave Fuller, 138 and Wayne Shequen, 175. At the end of the tournament competition, Mark Bendson placed 5th, Gordy Thompson placed 5th and Loren Bendson claimed the individual state championship.
Armstrong was a metro school and also had a very strong 1971 state tournament with Tommy Lamphere placing 3rd at 112, and Wally Hartzberg claiming the state championship at 120. With 12 brackets and a one class system, participating wrestlers throughout the tournament seemed to know or know of everyone from the other teams in the other brackets.
At the end of the competition, Staples and Armstrong teams had tied for third place in the team standings with 25 team points each. State trophies were awarded to the top three teams but there was only one trophy available for third place. At the awards ceremony, captains from Staples and Armstrong teams met with the tournament official to flip a coin to determine which team would take the third place trophy home. The loser of the coin flip would have to wait until a duplicate trophy could be made.
Cardinal Captains Dave Fuller and Wayne Shequen represented Staples and Tommy Lamphere and Wally Hartzberg represented Armstrong for the coin toss. As one could imagine, there is a story behind the coin flip. Throughout Armstrong’s Wally Hartzberg’s high school athletic career, he had never lost a coin flip and was confident this coin flip would be no different. With the chance to take the state trophy home, there was a lot on the line.
Dave Fuller recalls “With so much on the line, I wasn’t sure what to call, so I asked Mike Roberts what to call.” Mike said “always take heads!” Dave didn’t have to make the call because Armstrong’s Wally Hartzberg said “we’ll call it.” Wally confidentially called tails and the coin landed on heads, so Staples won the trophy. To this day, Wally still can’t believe he lost that coin flip.
A couple months later Armstrong received their trophy but the energy and excitement of the event had evaporated and with nothing to show at the wrestlers’ homecoming, losing the coin flip felt like a bit of a disappointing defeat. When the duplicate third place trophy arrived, the Armstrong team regrouped and rallied around the state third place trophy that represented so many memories of the 1971 wrestling season and state tournament success. They capped off their excitement with a team picture and left with the memories of their wrestling season. The matching third place state trophies were proudly displayed in trophy cases for both schools.
As time and the years passed, the memories of the 1971 state wrestling tournament remained strong with the Armstrong wrestlers and coaches. Stories and memories were commonly shared, as wrestlers communicated from time to time, but something was missing. No one seemed to know what happened to their team trophy and answers always fell short on where to look. Years went by and the Armstrong wrestlers moved on to raising families and pursuing careers. Several Armstrong wrestlers went on to wrestle at the college level, including St. Cloud State and the University of Minnesota. Tommy Lamphere went on to wrestle for the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) under Coach Neil Ladsten.
Destiny brings teams back together
Today, 1971 seems like a long time ago. Somewhere in the shuffle of time, merging of schools and changing of school administrations, the hard earned 1971 state third place team wrestling trophy awarded to Armstrong was somehow misplaced. During those years, winning a state level trophy of any kind was not a common occurrence for most schools across the state. The one common feeling shared by Armstrong wrestlers was how the 1971 season and state third place trophy still had deep meaning for the team. Each Armstrong wrestler recalled how hard they had worked throughout the year and it was a common feeling that everyone had contributed to reach state level success and placement as a team.
During the 1980s, Coach Neil Ladsten had coached several Staples wrestlers at UMD, including Jeff Dravis, Joe Bacon, Blaine Dravis, Phil Sowers, Trevor Lundgren, Al Sowers, Bob Sterricker, Jim Lelwica, Dan Bjerga, Doug Peterson and Robby Rychner.
Over the years, Tommy Lamphere remained in touch with Coach Ladsten and through conversations, Neil would often recall how well the Staples wrestlers were coached and respected the skill and grit of the former Cardinal wrestlers. As Tommy shared the mystery of the missing state tournament trophy and the Staples connection with Neil, the story rekindled many fond memories of the competitive edge and aggressive use of the “Don Dravis Cradle” the Staples wrestlers became known for. Without a doubt, the Cardinal wrestlers brought a unique style and grit to the UMD wrestling program. Knowing that Staples tied with Armstrong and was awarded a 1971 State Third Place trophy, Tommy asked Neil if he would be willing to make contact with the now Staples-Motley School District and see if they still had their 1971 state third place trophy.
Shane Tappe, Staples-Motley School District Superintendent, was a former wrestler himself and willingly took the call from Neil. Shane understood the value of past trophies and confirmed he would look into the location of the Staples state third place trophy.
What the Armstrong wrestlers were asking, was simple. “We just want a good close-up picture of the trophy to rekindle and restore our memories of that special time during our high school wrestling careers.”
Staples-Motley had recently established the Staples-Motley Athletic Hall of Fame program and related area within the high school. Over the years, Cardinal teams had achieved an uncommon level of state level success. Cardinal teams have earned 31 team state championships, seven of those team championships were in wrestling under the coaching of Don Dravis. All of the Cardinal state level trophies are respectfully displayed in the Athletic Hall of Fame area at Staples-Motley High School. Sure enough, there was the 1971 state third place wrestling trophy, prominently displayed.
With this good news, Paul Agranoff, a member of the 1971 Armstrong High School wrestling team, had to see the trophy for himself. Professionally, Paul represents the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) and had some business near Staples so he adjusted his travel to stop at the district office to meet Shane. Paul’s goal was to hopefully hold the Staples state third place wrestling trophy and get a few good pictures to share with his teammates. When Paul arrived at the administration office of the Staples-Motley School District, he introduced himself and asked the front desk if he could speak to Superintendent Shane Tappe. Shane recalls the moment as a bit tense. “As a school superintendent, when you get an unannounced in-person meeting from the Minnesota Department of Education, it’s usually not good news.”
Shane was relieved when their meeting and conversation quickly became wrestling related. Shane and Paul shared some wrestling related stories and the history of the wrestling trophy and how important it was to the 1971 Armstrong team. Shane took Paul to the area where all of the Cardinal state trophies were on display. As Paul held the trophy, Shane could see that Paul was filled with emotion as he recalled how much the state third place trophy and their 1971 wrestling season meant to him and his teammates.
Tommy Lamphere reached out to Shane to follow up on Paul’s visit and they shared some common wrestling stories and more history surrounding the 1971 state tournament with the Staples and Armstrong tie. Shane gave Tommy my name and number and thought I could share some history surrounding the members of the 1971 Cardinal wrestlers. As a member of the Staples-Motley Athletic Hall and Fame committee, I am involved in gathering and organizing historic information surrounding our athletic programs. I was also a member of the 1971 Staples Cardinal wrestling team and recalled many of the stories surrounding the Cardinal wrestlers, key matches and events of the 1971 state wrestling tournament. When Tommy left a message, I was in the process of blocking all out-of-area calls due to spam. Tommy’s message started with “you don’t know me but I was a wrestler for Armstrong High School.” That’s all I needed, and that was one call that I was eager to return. Tommy and I shared many wrestling related stories and rekindled some of the highlights and fond memories from the 1971 season.
Reconstituting the trophy
As the Staples-Motley Athletic Hall of Fame program was organizing, honoring the legacy of Cardinal athletics and the related athletic trophies was a priority. Along with the 31 state championships, Cardinal teams have earned multiple runners-up, third place and consolations state level trophies. Like many schools today, Staples-Motley is challenged but committed to find appropriate space in the district buildings to respectfully display the many vintage trophies from past generations of athletic success. Time had taken a toll on several of the Cardinal trophies and some were in need of repair. The Athletic Hall of Fame Committee was willing to help and is working with the athletic department of Staples-Motley to help with the necessary trophy repairs, preserving the memories of past athletic success.
The Armstrong trophy search was such a motivating story and inspiring example demonstrating the value and impact of high school athletics, but there is still a bit more to the story. As the situation with Armstrong wrestling team and missing trophy was discussed within the Staples Motley Athletic Hall of Fame committee members, the idea came up that maybe with our experience repairing trophies, we could build a duplicate trophy for the Armstrong wrestlers. When this idea was shared with Tommy and Paul, the excitement and stories of the 1971 wrestling tournament began to rekindle and circulate between members of the ‘71 Staples and Armstrong wrestlers. Building a duplicate trophy was the best solution to the mystery of the missing trophy. Next step was to begin gathering trophy parts and begin building the duplicate trophy for the Armstrong wrestlers.
Time has a way of changing the events of life beyond our control. Of the six state entrants of the ‘71 Cardinal’s team, Head Coach Don Dravis, plus wrestlers Gordy Thompson and Mike Roberts have passed away. Armstrong has lost Phil Benson, Mike Hollenbeck, Mike Malkovich and Pat Corrick as wrestlers and Assistant Coach Tom Keating from their ‘71 team. The search for the trophy has resurfaced the memories how those who have passed away and the members of each team contributed to the 1971 season. Trophies have a way of rekindling memories of days gone by but clearly, fond memories live on in the minds of the wrestlers of both teams.
Building the trophy was a group effort. Both Superintendent Tappe and Josh Lee, the Staples-Motley Activities Director, were supportive and agreed to donate spare trophy parts to build the Armstrong duplicate trophy. Members of the Staples Motley Athletic Hall of Fame worked together to recreate the trophy as an exact replica of the original Minnesota State High School League team state third place wrestling trophy.
Today’s state trophies don’t include the traditional gold plated metal figurine that was displayed on the top. Locating an eight-inch metal wrestling figurine that matched the same size as was used on trophies in the ‘70’s, was going to be a challenge. Through some connections with Trophies Plus, a trophy company in Iowa, there was hope. When we asked if they had any state level medal figurines, their first response was; “1971 was a long time ago in the trophy business, but we will do our best to see if we can find one. We were grateful for Jim Jensen, the owner of Trophies Plus and their trophy industry connections and their efforts to secure the vintage wrestling figurine from another trophy company in Omaha.
Trophies have deep meanings for athletes, coaches and fans and truly represent hard work, commitment and achievement. Like all of the Cardinal coaches, Head Wrestling Coach Don Dravis was very proud of the team success that accumulated multiple team trophies throughout his coaching career to include the seven team state wrestling championships and multiple runners-up, third place and consolation finishes. Don was a great coach and very effective at inspiring young athletes to reach high level commitment and success as wrestlers. The trophies earned over the years had meaning and represented a team’s commitment, hard work and success.
As well as the head wrestling coach, Don was an industrial arts teacher for the Staples-Motley school and was also responsible for passing on the passion for woodworking to many of his students. As a woodworking student of Don’s and a wrestler on his teams during the ‘70’s, I never imagined I would use those woodworking skills to craft a state level wrestling trophy that would mean so much to wrestlers from another team that at one time, were fierce competitors.
Without a doubt, Don is smiling down on our efforts to capture and restore the meaningful wrestling memories. Don would surely be working right beside us to build the trophy that will be so highly valued and appreciated by the 1971 Armstrong wrestling team. The duplicate third-place state trophy with the engraved names of the Armstrong wrestlers, will surely rekindle the memories of the 1971 wrestling season and help recall hard work, training and commitment that led to their season and state tournament success.
Coming back together
Conversations surrounding the trophy and related stories have led to the planning of a 1971 Third Place Reunion for both teams. As members of both teams gather at the Timbers Restaurant in Staples on July 6, handshakes will not prompt the start of a wrestling match, rather the sealing of new friendships around memories and a common achievement. Wrestlers seem to create life long bonds that get better with time. The Staples -Motley Athletic Hall of Fame Committee will look forward to presenting Armstrong wrestlers their long lost re-crafted state third place team wrestling trophy.
Time does seem to fade everything, but time has a hard time fading memories that we value, especially when we make it priority to recall meaningful events of those memories. When these two 1971 wrestling teams, from different parts of the state meet again, many stories will fill the room. One big school and one small school, but the common element between them that still remains today, will be the hard work it takes to be a wrestler and compete at the varsity team and state level. This trophy story did not only create a treasured trophy, but it also created with some newly developed friendships that have waited 51 years to come back together. Once as competitors, now as friends.
Trophies that re-kindle and nurture our fond memories matter. Memories help form who we are, and who we will become. As athletes and coaches look back at value of an athletic career, trophies are a reflection of the pride and commitment.
Is there a lesson in this story? Maybe and maybe not. Hopefully the next generation of athletes, coaches and administrations will continue to embrace the value in memories and trophies, no matter when they were earned.
Tom Lamphere and