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Old 01-03-2013
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The Midlands tournament celebrates 50 years

Illinois Matmen

Wrestlers are adept at thinking on their feet.

Searching for competition over winter break in 1961, Northwestern heavyweight Rory Weber inquired about available tournaments.

“I told Rory we didn’t have the money to travel,” said Ken Kraft, who wrestled for Northwestern and took over as head coach in 1958 holding the position for 22 years.

Financing the $40 entry fee himself, Weber drove out and took first in the one-day tournament at Wilkes Barre, Pa.

Upon return, Weber, who placed at Nationals, insisted Northwestern participate. In 1962, the team piled into three cars for the 12-hour journey. On the drive home, Weber asked why Northwestern couldn’t put together a similar event.

After a search, Kraft was able to set up at the LaGrange YMCA with 135 entrees.

The following winter there were over 200 and then 300-plus entrees as they moved to Lyons Township High School, their home for the next eight years.

Taking the mat and center stage in 1966 was a relatively unknown freshman, Dan Gable, from Iowa State, who entered unattached.

Gable (137) beat Michigan State Olympic silver medalist Don Behm, a senior, in the quarterfinals 9-6 and then defeated Masaaki Hatta, who was a NCAA champion at Oklahoma State [1962] and 25 years old at the time, in the finals. That was the beginning of a 31-0 Midlands mark and five consecutive titles in three weight classes.

Running into Gable at the 2012 Olympic Trials in Iowa City, Behm revisited their first meeting on the mat.

“Dan said, ‘Don, nobody ever took me down as fast as you did that day. How did you do that?’”

“I said, ‘Dan, you came right at me, tied up hard and pushed into me. It wasn’t hard to do. I over-tied and shucked you. You just fell down in front of me.’”

Gable said, “It was so fast, but I didn’t push that hard the rest of the match.”

“I said, ‘Dan, that was the first and last time I used it, you are the only person I ever took down with a head shuck!’ We both had a big laugh.”

Entering the field for the first time as a wide-eyed freshman for Northwestern, Leo Kocher, got a baptism at 142.

“I started wrestling as a sophomore [at Sycamore High School], said Kocher, who competed in 10 consecutive Midlands. “In college, everything was quite new for me. You had Michigan State, Iowa State, Oklahoma State and a lot of great guys who were wrestling internationally. Wilkes Barre was the only other tournament and it wasn’t easy to get to.

“I really didn’t know that much about Gable [coming in]. But I watched him destroy everyone there.”

A quick study, Kocher, took second to Wade Schalles (158), a four-time champion as a senior captain, and second to Larry Zilverberg (158) while in graduate school.

In 1973, the Midlands moved to their current home at Welsh-Ryan Arena [which was then McGaw Hall].

The evolution of the 50th Ken Kraft Midlands Championships is a tribute to its founder. Kraft and a dedicated staff put in countless hours year-round to make it the premier mid-season classic.

Kraft and wife, Marjo, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary over the summer. Marjo helps out along with daughter, Sherry Kelly, who puts the program together. The always dapper, Jack Leese, was an official for 13 years [10 as head referee], and served in a number of areas including tournament coordinator for over 35 years.

Opportunities to grapple with the elite were granted to dozens of wrestlers over five decades through Kraft’s generosity and extensive contacts. The savored memories are always held close by all participants.

After graduating St. Laurence High School [1971] as a 105 pounder, Sammy Fiorella entered Loras College where he began to blossom placing third as a junior and then a NAIA championship the next season at 118.

Over Christmas break as a senior, Fiorella joined St. Laurence alum Johnny Kenny, who was wrestling for the Wildcats, to work out at Northwestern. Following graduation, he trained with the Mayor Daley Club and Kraft allowed Fiorella to enter.

“You’d have national champions, Olympians and All-Americans in the same class; it was quite a site to see,” said Fiorella, who placed eighth at 126 and was inducted into the IWCOA last year ago. “I wrestled a [backup] kid from Iowa in the quarterfinals. Just seeing Gable in his corner got me going. I put an extra beating on him hoping he’d remember who I was.

“It was a phenomenal experience. It was an incredible tournament then and still is today. Ken was very gracious in giving me a chance; he was that way with so many wrestlers.”

Periodically, a high school prodigy was allowed to test his mettle. As a sophomore at Jefferson-Morgan High School, Cary Kolat created a buzz when he entered in 1990. Giving the fans a preview of his remarkable skills, Kolat placed third at 118. Returning as a senior, he took fourth at 126. He was only one of four people to go undefeated in the history of Pennsylvania High School wrestling.

“The Midlands was [almost] the equivalent of the NCAA tourney,” said Kolat. “It was very exciting to go down that path and see where you were at that age. I had to have some people speak up for me and Ken Kraft let me in and gave me a shot.”

Losing in the first round, Kolat came back to place third. Now an assistant at North Carolina, he brought the Tar Heels up for the first time in over 20 years.

“This was the premier event in the country,” said Kolat, who took first [at 134] in 1993, ’94 and ’96 (142) as a collegiate at Lock Haven to go with two NCAA titles [1996,’97]. “To have it going for 50 years and not diminish in quality is impressive. It’s definitely stood the test of time.

“I wanted to make a change with our team and switch up our schedule. This is like the NCAA tournament before March. It’s really competitive; we plan on coming back next year.

“There’s more of a Big Ten flavor here. You have a great mix of talented teams here. You have some classes with eight-ten nationally ranked guys. We don’t get to see Midwestern teams and this gives us the opportunity.”

Ageless Libertyville coach, Dale Eggert, got it right after his twelfth and ended up placing seventh at 126 at the age of 40 in 1996.

Now in his 34th year as coach at the University of Chicago, Kocher has been bringing a couple of kids up to Evanston every winter.

“It gives our guys a chance to learn what their potential is and to see the very best perform,” he said.

In the last decade a variety of individuals from DIII, primarily in the upper weights, proved they’ve belonged and placed. Elmhurst’s Joe Rau (184) was sixth last year and a match away from placing this season.

“It was a lot of fun seeing what Rau did, he deserved to be here and his success wasn’t a surprise,” said Northwestern coach Drew Pariano. “I think that’s part of what makes the Midlands special, giving the DIII kids an opportunity. The tradition of a high school guy getting chance to come in and see what he can do is unique.”

Two-time champion, Jason Welch (157) placed sixth as a prep senior before joining the Cats.

Entering the mix as a freshman for the Wildcats in 1995, Pariano quickly felt the weight of his peers.

“[At 142] there was John Fisher, Bill Zadick and Roger Chandler. 150 had [champion] Alan Fried, Chris Bono and Lincoln McIIlravy…it was insane,” he said. “I beat a ranked guy [in the first round], but [Indiana’s] Roger Chandler worked me over real good.”

With NCAA tournament seeds based on strength of schedule, the Midlands performance carries added significance.

According to Pariano, what transpires with the National Duals will have an effect on the Midlands.

“I believe that the NCAA’s decision to mandate a dual meet champion will place emphasis on duals and it’s our job to continue to make the Midlands relative on the national scene,” he said. “Don’t be surprised to see schools such as Oklahoma State, Missouri and Penn State to be back in Evanston soon.”
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Old 01-03-2013
tigercoach tigercoach is offline
Join Date: Dec 2006
Posts: 902
“Dan said, ‘Don, nobody ever took me down as fast as you did that day. How did you do that?’”

“I said, ‘Dan, you came right at me, tied up hard and pushed into me. It wasn’t hard to do. I over-tied and shucked you. You just fell down in front of me.’”

The shuck is one of the least known and most under-utilized takedown moves of all time --- But it can takedown anyone if properly used. Above is one of the best examples of 'anyone' being taken down by it I have ever heard of.
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