Penn State Wrestling

Where does Penn State wrestling’s current win streak belong among other great PSU sports teams?

Penn State’s Vincenzo Joseph celebrates his win over Michigan’s Logan Massa in the 165 lb bout during the match at the Bryce Jordan Center on Friday, Feb. 1, 2019.
Penn State’s Vincenzo Joseph celebrates his win over Michigan’s Logan Massa in the 165 lb bout during the match at the Bryce Jordan Center on Friday, Feb. 1, 2019. adrey@centredaily.com

Penn State’s wrestling team is on the verge of its fourth straight undefeated dual season as it goes into its final bout of the 2018-19 season against Buffalo. It’s riding a streak of 58 consecutive dual victories.

If top-ranked Penn State should win on Sunday, it will end the season just 10 wins shy of Iowa’s modern-era mark of 69 consecutive dual meet victories between Jan. 12, 2008, to Jan. 16, 2011. (That streak was ended with a 15-15 tie against Oklahoma State. The Hawkeyes then went on to extend their unbeaten streak to 84.) Oklahoma State owns the all-time record of 76 consecutive dual meet wins from 1937-51.

Although Cael Sanderson said the winning streak is “cool,” it’s not his main focus as head coach of the Nittany Lions.

“Dual meets are important to us. It’s the one time you go head-to-head with each team,” Sanderson said in early February. “But, ultimately, my goal as a coach is to be ready to go for the national tournament. That’s first and foremost. That’s what, in my mind, I was hired to do at Penn State. So that will always be No. 1.”

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The Penn State wrestling team celebrates placing first in the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships Saturday, March, 17, 2018 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. Phoebe Sheehan psheehan@centredaily.com

In the past four years, Penn State has certainly done more than just win duals, with 11 individual national titles, three NCAA team titles, one Big Ten tournament title and two Hodge Trophies so far. The Nittany Lions are well on their way to adding to those totals, as well, heading into the postseason as the heavy favorite for their eighth NCAA team title in nine years, with four top-ranked wrestlers and as many Hodge contenders.

Echoing the sentiments of his coach, sophomore Nick Lee said the dual streak isn’t something that’s ever brought up or even thought about by the team.

“We want to win, so it’s nice to keep that going, but it’s not a priority,” he said. “Every match we go out there just trying to improve from the last match, but it’s nice to have that, and I think that kind of helps us going forward, confidence-wise.”

With two fan favorites of the past four years — seniors Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal — set to wrestle their final dual meet Sunday at Rec Hall, there’s no telling how much longer Penn State’s streak might continue. So where does it currently rank in the Happy Valley history books?

The Centre Daily Times recently spoke with Penn State sports historian Lou Prato to break down some of the other best streaks in the history of Penn State athletics:

Penn State baseball 1920-21: 30 straight games

The time period following World War I, which ended in November 1918,was a difficult time in the United States. In 1919, some soldiers had not yet returned home, while others were still figuring out how to re-adjust to civilian life. Penn State baseball’s captain-elect for the 1919 season, D. Blair Mingle, died before the season started in a military-related plane crash after the war.

Mingle’s death left Penn State baseball without its leader, and coach Hugo Bezdek with just two regulars upon which to mold a team, as many former starters had not yet returned from service. Bezdek, who had also coached Penn State’s football team, then left the team for a short period to coach the Pittsburgh Nationals, leaving ex-captain George “Doc” Wheeling in charge for the 1919 season, as recorded by the 1921 edition of “LaVie,” Penn State’s yearbook.

The rule barring freshmen from playing was lifted due to special wartime circumstances, and the scrappy team put together a record of 9-3. The 1920 team built upon that success, putting together a string of 10 consecutive wins at the end of the season.

In 1921, Penn State baseball pulled together one of the most successful seasons in its history, extending the winning streak to 30 consecutive victories over the “strongest college nines of the south and east.” Of the 20 victories during the 1920 season, 11 were won on diamonds away from home.

The 30 straight victories was a record for college baseball at the time and established Penn State as the strongest team in the east, according to “LaVie.”

The streak eventually ended with a loss to Penn near the end of the season, and the Nittany Lions finished 22-3, adding two more losses to Pittsburgh.

At least two standouts from that team — center fielder Henry Luther “Hinkey” Haines and pitcher Myles “Duck Eye” Thomas — went on to play Major League baseball for the New York Yankees with Babe Ruth.

Haines went on to play both professional baseball and football, owning the distinction of being the only athlete to have ever played on national championship teams for both sports. He played a crucial role as a pinch runner in the 1923 World Series with the Yankees and won the 1927 NFL Championship with the New York Giants.

Thomas, who was born in State College, played in the majors from 1926-30 was part of the 1927 “Murderers’ Row” Yankees team, which included Ruth and Lou Gehrig. He finished his career as a pitcher at 23–22 with a 4.64 career ERA.

Gene Wettstone-era men’s gymnastics: streaks of 27, 21 and 20; 9 national championships and more than 200 dual meet wins from 1939-76

Although his longest winning streak was 27 dual meet victories from 1970-73, coach Gene Wettstone presided over not only the most successful era of Penn State gymnastics, but one of the most dominant streaks in the history of the sport at the college level.

In his 36 seasons as a member of the Penn State coaching staff, Wettstone racked up more than 200 dual meet victories, a record-nine NCAA men’s gymnastics championships, including three in a row from 1959-61, 13 Eastern Intercollegiate Gymnastics League crowns, coached his student-athletes to 35 individual national titles and produced 13 Olympians before his retirement in 1976.

During that time, Penn State put together several streaks including the 27 from 1970-73, 21 from 1964-67, then after one loss, 20 more from 1967-69, 16 in 1952-55, and 14 from 1958-60. Despite a few losses sprinkled here and there, Wettstone’s gymnastics teams remained one of the most dominant in that nearly-four-decade span.

In a release announcing Wettstone’s death at 100 years old in 2013, then-athletic director Dave Joyner (who wrestled for Penn State from 1970-72) called the coach the “John Wooden of college gymnastics,” and a “great person and an outstanding tutor that brought Penn State and collegiate gymnastics to the forefront.”

When he was first hired by Penn State in 1939 to instruct officer candidates in physical education during World War II, according to his New York Times obituary, the “closest thing to a gymnastics program” at the university was “a student circus featuring acrobatics and tumbling.”

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Gene Wettstone Centre Daily Times, file

After collegiate competition was reinstated with the end of World War II in 1945, Wettstone won the first of his nine NCAA gymnastics championships. He also coached his teams to victory in 1953-54, ‘57, ‘59-’61, ‘65 and ‘76.

Of Wettstone’s 13 Olympians, three — Steve Cohen (1967), Gene Whelan (1976) and Bob Emery (1969) — won college gymnastics’ version of the Heisman, the Nissen-Emery Award.

Wettstone was passionate about growing the sport of gymnastics, as detailed in his NYT obit, regularly attracting crowds of 7,000 fans in the 6,000-seat Rec Hall in the 1960s, and generating enough interest to hold major events such as three NCAA championships and four Olympic trials in the venue.

Wettstone also coached the 1948 and ’56 U.S. men’s gymnastic teams in the Olympics. He was inducted into the United States Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 1963.

Penn State wrestling: 3 undefeated seasons and a national championship from 1950-54

This is not the first time Penn State wrestling has been on a winning streak. Under coach Charlie Speidel, the Nittany Lions put together a string of 34 straight dual meet wins from 1950-54, including three unbeaten seasons from 1950-1953 and the program’s first national championship in 1953.

Speidel was hired at Penn State as a boxing and wrestling coach in 1927 — despite never having wrestled competitively, according to his EIWA biography — and coached for 34 total years until 1964, taking a hiatus from 1942-47 for Naval service in WWII.

From 1950-54, in addition to the NCAA championship, Penn State also had its first three-time All-American in heavyweight Homer Barr in 1951, won three EIWA team titles and 11 individual conference titles, and produced 16 All-Americans and two national champs in Joe Lemyre (167 pounds) in 1952 and Hud Samson (191 pounds) in 1953.

The national championship year included several lopsided victories, including shutouts of Virginia and Penn, and a 27-3 win over Navy and a 28-5 beating of Syracuse.

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Larry Fornicola Centre Daily Times, file

Penn State dominated its way to the 1953 NCAA title, held in its home arena of Rec Hall, posting five All-Americans including Samson (first place), Dick Lemyre (second), Jerry Lemyre (third), Don Frey (third) and and Jerry Maurey (third).

Several Centre County wrestlers were also on that team, including Bellefonte’s Larry Fornicola, and State College’s Charlie Ridenour and Bill Shawley.

Coach Speidel used the success Penn State was having to attract more fans and build a larger following for wrestling. According to the article “Penn State Coach ‘Sells’ Wrestling,” which appeared in the 1956 New York Times, Speidel “had a habit of buttonholing students, faculty, and townspeople, talking wrestling and attracting to his corner one of the most loyal athletic followings on the campus.”

Just as they do today, Penn State wrestling meets under Speidel always drew capacity crowds, according to the article.

Identifying Pennsylvania towns and cities where he felt wrestling needed a “little push,” Speidel made a point to go out to various high schools and hold clinics for all who were interested in learning the sport.

By the time he retired, Speidel had accrued 14 top-10 NCAA finishes — including the national championship — six national champs, 15 finalists, 41 All-Americans and eight EIWA conference titles.

Penn State football: 30 wins and 1 tie from 1967-70

Penn State fans might most fondly remember 1982-1986 since it produced two national championships. But one of the Nittany Lions’ most successful periods when it came to winning streaks was from 1967-70, when they went unbeaten for three straight seasons, their only blemish a 17-17 tie with favored Florida State in the 1967 Gator Bowl.

The 1967 season was just longtime football coach Joe Paterno’s second at the helm. After two early-season losses (to Navy and UCLA), the Nittany Lions rattled off seven straight wins to earn a spot in the Gator Bowl with captains Bill Lenkaitis and Jim Litterelle to finish the season 10th in The Associated Press poll.

In 1968, Penn State put together its first undefeated season under Paterno, behind the talent of junior captains, defensive tackles Mike Reid and Steve Smear, and the quarterbacking of Chuck Burkhart.

That streak was tested several times during that season, including the homecoming game against Army. With two-and-a-half minutes left in the game, Army trailed by just six points, then went for an onside kick, as recalled in Prato’s book, “100 Things Penn State Fans Should Know Before They Die.” But in a scramble for the ball, All-American tight end Ted Kwalick came up with the ball and ran 53 yards for the game-clinching touchdown to save the season and keep the streak alive.

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** FILE ** Joe Paterno, associate football coach at Penn State, directs players in this Jan. 28, 1965 file photo in State College, Pa. Paterno turns 80 on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2006. (AP Photo) AP, file

The Nittany Lions sailed through the rest of the season without issue, until the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1, 1969, against Kansas. Penn State was down 14-7 with the ball on the 50-yard line with 1:16 remaining when Burkhardt threw “a bomb” to halfback Bobby Campbell that took the Nittany Lions to the 3-yard line, Prato wrote. Penn State scored, then decided to go for the win with 2-point conversion.

Kansas batted down Burkhardt’s pass and started celebrating — but the celebration proved to be premature. The Jayhawks had 12 men on the field, and Penn State got another shot. This time, Campbell ran into the end zone to hand the Nittany Lions the 15-14 victory. Penn State ended the season ranked second in the AP and UPI polls.

Penn State took that momentum into 1969, where it added another 10 straight wins, bringing its streak up to 28 heading into the postseason. As one of the top teams in the country, Penn State was looking at going to either the Cotton or Orange bowls. Due to racial tensions in the South, Prato wrote, the team collectively decided against going to Dallas to play the winner of No. 2 Texas vs. No. 3 Arkansas, and chose to go back to the Orange Bowl instead.

Seen by many outside the program as “ducking” the Texas-Arkansas winner, Penn State received backlash from the media and some fans. In an attempt to drum up more southern support, President Richard Nixon went down to the Cotton Bowl game, which had been hyped as “the National Championship Game,” and presented his National Championship Presidential Trophy to Texas — the victors over Arkansas.

That move greatly angered Paterno, who had been a supporter of the president. In an attempt to smooth things over, Nixon announced he would present Penn State with a plaque for “the longest winning streak in the country.”

When Paterno received that call from the White House, he uttered arguably his most famous words:

“You tell the president to take that trophy and shove it.”

Penn State’s streak came to an end in Week 2 the next season, in a 41-13 loss to a ranked Colorado on the road.

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Penn State’s Blair Brown, center, leaps in the air between teammates Megan Hodge, left, and Alisha Glass (6) after the winning point was scored to defeat Stanford 3-2 in the finals of the Women’s Division I NCAA volleyball championships in Sacramento, Calif., Saturday, Dec. 15, 2007. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli) Rich Pedroncelli AP, file

Penn State women’s volleyball: 109 straight games and 4 consecutive NCAA titles from 2007-10

Before this current Nittany Lion wrestling team, the most dominant team in the modern era of Penn State athletics was without question Penn State women’s volleyball.

Known in volleyball circles simply as “The Streak,” Penn State, under head coach Russ Rose, put together a record 111 straight set victories from Dec. 15, 2007, to Dec. 18, 2008, and a 109-game winning streak. The team also won four consecutive NCAA titles from 2007-2010. No other Division I women’s volleyball team has won more than back-to-back national titles.

Penn State didn’t just win — it dominated — losing just 19 sets in that four-year period.

The dynasty didn’t end after Penn State failed to win a fifth consecutive title in 2011, as the Nittany Lions reloaded after the graduation of key seniors Arielle Wilson, Blair Brown and Alyssa D’Errico — who are part of an elite group of athletes to have been four-time national champs — and won two more consecutive national titles from 2013-14. That’s six NCAA titles in eight years.

The dominance of Penn State during that era has yet to be touched by any other women’s volleyball team. There hasn’t been an undefeated champion in Division I women’s volleyball since Penn State in 2009, according to NCAA.com, let alone a team that didn’t lose a set until the national semifinals.

Penn State’s success transcended volleyball, as Nittany Lions women’s volleyball became perhaps one of the most dominant NCAA Division I sports teams in this generation. Comparatively, UConn women’s basketball won 111 consecutive games from 2014 to 2017, and Oklahoma men’s gymnastics is currently on a streak of 108 meets and counting since Jan. 17, 2015.

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Penn State’s Alisha Glass (6) and Arielle Wilson (7) block the spike of Michigan’s Alex Hunt (8) during the Michigan at Penn State women’s volleyball Big Ten championship game Saturday, Nov. 28, 2009. CDT/Michelle Bixby Centre Daily Times, file

During Penn State’s four-year run, the Nittany Lions produced many outstanding and decorated athletes. Megan Hodge was named the Most Outstanding Player for the 2007 NCAA Championships, and the AVCA Division I National Player of the Year and Big Ten Player of the Year in 2009, among other honors. Christa Harmotto (2007), Nicole Fawcett (2008) and Blair Brown (2010) were also Big Ten Players of the Year, and Wilson (2007), Darcy Dorton (2009) and Deja McClendon (2010) picked up Big Ten Freshman of the Year accolades, just to name a few.

Harmotto, Glass and Fawcett would all go on to compete in the Olympics.

For his part, Rose was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year for each of those four consecutive national champion years, and the AVCA Division I Coach of the year in 2007 and 2008. In his 40th season at the helm at Penn State, Rose is considered a legend and a staple in the world of collegiate volleyball.

Lauren Muthler covers what’s happening right now in Centre County, from breaking news, road closures and weather, to cool and interesting stories she finds along the way. Oh, and Penn State wrestling.
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