As the Penn State-Lehigh dual came down to the final two bouts, Nittany Lions fans — with their team trailing by two points — tried to rally the crowd with shouts of “We Are!” That cheer was met with resounding “boos” from Mountain Hawks fans.
Sunday’s intrastate rivalry match between the Nos. 1- and 5-ranked wrestling teams provided a unique atmosphere, one that the Nittany Lions likely won’t see again this season. The crowd was seemingly split down the middle, with blues and whites mixed throughout PPL Center with shades of Lehigh brown. During Mark Hall’s match, Mountain Hawks fans chanted “Kut-ler, Kut-ler!” in hopes of an upset, and Penn State fans yelled back as Hall took control.
“They were really into it,” said Penn State’s Nick Nevills, referring to the crowd. “It was really cool to have that kind of atmosphere — and they’re a rowdy bunch. It was a lot of fun as an athlete, to get to compete in that environment. I’d put it right up there with some of the more exciting times I’ve had in wrestling.”
No one left early to beat traffic when Nevills took the mat in the final bout of the afternoon. Instead, nearly all of the 9,896 fans — an attendance record that smashed Lehigh’s old mark of 5,909 — stayed to watch. Some fans sat on the ground level, many others in the rafters and the suites, and the only quiet period came right before Nevills ended the third period with a ride-out to seal the dual.
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The crowd was larger than any game this year involving the minor league hockey team or indoor football team that share the arena.
“I had no idea what to expect, and I was blown away,” Lehigh coach Pat Santoro said. “It was better than what I expected — the atmosphere, the crowd noise, the light show — it was an event for Lehigh Valley. And that’s what we were trying to do — make it a great, fun atmosphere for everybody.”
Said Lehigh’s Jake Jakobsen: “I saw a lot of people in the crowd who I grew up with and coaches who coached me in high school. It was just a really neat thing.”
Penn State fans didn’t have to travel far — State College is only a three-hour drive, after all — and there were plenty of alumni in town. Penn State wrestling legends John Fritz and Andy Voit were even both on-hand.
The two Lehigh Valley residents, along with fellow former Nittany Lion John Yankanich, were attending a pre-dual lunch across the street from the PPL Center at Queen City BBQ. Even before the match, the two couldn’t help but show their excitement to anyone who would listen.
“It’s just a good rivalry,” said Fritz, who grew up in the Bethlehem area before going to wrestle for Penn State. “It’s exciting and it’s really good for wrestling, to be able to come in and pack a place like this.”
Although Fritz and Voit don’t get to travel to State College and see the Nittany Lions as much these days, the Allentown venue provided a more convenient opportunity for them to come out and connect with other alumni and fans.
That held true for a lot of the crowd Sunday, especially for the two former All-Americans.
“Most of us grew up as friends and high school opponents, and then wrestled against each other in college,” Fritz said. “I think there’s more of a rivalry between fans, because we’re all friends.”
This dual, according to Penn State Lehigh Valley athletic director Rich Fatzinger, was different than most of the other Penn State athletic events they’ve promoted, in that they hardly had to do any marketing. “People were coming to us, asking if there were any tickets,” he said.
It showed on Sunday. The PPL Center was bursting with electricity and, because of the demand and the extra seats on the floor, the capacity was raised by more than 1,000. And it still sold out.
“It’s really unique for these young guys, when they step up on the mat,” said Lehigh’s Darian Cruz, the reigning national champ at 125 pounds. “It’s elevated, the crowd, the lights. We’re excited, we were ready, and we were ready to have fun.”
So was the crowd.
The Penn State Lehigh Valley Alumni Society held a pre-match event Sunday at Queen City BBQ, which was part of Chancellor Tina Richardson’s efforts to build connections between alumni and strengthen support for university programs through Penn State athletic events.
“What has not been available for Lehigh Valley alums was to have that connection to Penn State sports they’d have if they were up at University Park,” Penn State Lehigh Valley athletic director Rich Fatzinger said. “But now, University Park teams are coming down here more often, and events like this are a chance to network, and to give our people the University Park experience.”