Memories Matter – Story of the 1971 Minnesota State Wrestling Tournament

By Mike Hajek
Armstrong Contributors Tommy Lamphere and Paul Agranof

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 Armstrong High School Wrestling team had one of those impact moments surrounding the 1971 Wrestling season and the Minnesota State Wrestling Tournament. Of course, there is a story to the 1971 State Wrestling Tournament. Fifty-one years later, at the Armstrong 1971 class reunion, memories circulated surrounding the State Wrestling tournament and the glaring question. Whatever happened to our State Third Place trophy?

In 1971 the Minnesota State High School Wrestling Tournament was a one-class competition with individual points accumulated to determine the team champion and 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 Wrestling tournament. Staples State Tournament entrants were Mark Bendson 95, Mike Roberts 112, 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 individual 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’s teams had tied for third place in the team standings with 25 team points for each team. State trophies were awarded to the top three teams, but only one trophy was available for each team placement. 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 coin-flip loser would have to wait until a duplicate trophy could be made.

1971 Staples Wrestling Team: Front L-R, Mark Bendson, Mike Hajek, Charlie Sowers, Mike Roberts, Bob Miller, Gordy Thompson. Back L-R, Loren Bendson, Herb Greenwood, Dave Fuller, Blayne Kern, Wayne Shequen, Jim Nichols, and Gerald Ganske, manager.

Cardinal Captains Dave Fuller and Wayne Shequen represented Staples, and Tommy Lamphere and Wally Hartzberg represented Armstrong for the coin flip. As one could imagine, there is a story behind the coin flip between the Staples and Armstrong wrestlers. Throughout Armstrong’s Wally Hertzberg’s high school athletic career, he had never lost a coin flip and was confident this coin flip would be different. With the chance to take the state trophy home, there was a lot on the line this time.

Dave Fuller, one of the Staples Captains recalls, “With so much at stake, I wasn’t sure what to call, so I asked teammate Mike Roberts what to call.” Mike said, “always take heads!” Dave didn’t have to make the call because Armstrong’s Wally Hartzberg said to the officials, “we’ll call it.” Wally confidentially called tails, the coin landed on heads, and Staples won the coin flip. To this day, Wally still can’t believe he lost that coin flip. A couple of 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 award 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 the special moment with fond memories of their wrestling season. The matching State Third Place state trophies were proudly displayed in school 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 1971 State Third Place team trophy and answers always fell short on where to look and who to ask. 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 from the Armstrong wrestling team went on to wrestle for the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) under Coach Neil Ladsten.

Today, 1971 seems like a long time ago. Somewhere in the shuffle of time, merging of schools, and changing 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 each wrestler and coach had contributed to reaching their state-level success and tournament placement as a team.

1971 Armstrong Wrestling Team.

During the 1980s, Coach Ladsten had coached several former 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 how he respected the skill and grit of the former Cardinal wrestlers. As Tommy shared the mystery of the missing state tournament trophy and the past 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. The Cardinal wrestlers undoubtedly brought a unique style and grit to the UMD wrestling program. Knowing that Staples had 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.

Members of the ’71 Armstrong Wrestling Team

Shane Tappe, the District Superintendent for the Staples-Motley School District, who was a former wrestler himself, 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 a Staples-Motley Athletic Hall of Fame program and a dedicated area within the high school to honor the legacy of the Cardinal’s athletic success. Over the years, Cardinal teams have achieved an uncommon level of state-level success, earning 31 team state championships! As an area of Cardinal pride, all of the Cardinal state-level trophies are respectfully displayed in the Athletic Hall of Fame area of the Staples-Motley High School. Sure enough, the 1971 State Third Place Wrestling trophy is prominently displayed there.

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 education-related business near Staples and 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 District 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, the history of the wrestling trophy, and how important it was to the 1971 Armstrong wrestling team. Shane took Paul to the Athletic Hall of Fame area, where all of the Cardinal State Trophies were displayed. 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 wrestling stories and more history surrounding the 1971 state wrestling tournament and the Staples and Armstrong tie for third place in the team standings. Shane gave Tommy my name and phone number and thought I could share some history surrounding the members of the 1971 Cardinal wrestling team. As a member of the Staples-Motley Athletic Hall Fame committee, I gather and organize historical information surrounding our athletic programs. I was also a member of the 1971 Staples Cardinal wrestling team and recalled many stories surrounding the Cardinal wrestlers, key matches, and events of the 1971 State Wrestling tournament. When Tommy left me a message, I was in the process of blocking all out-of-area calls on my phone 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 to hear, 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.

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 13 Runner-up, 15 Third place, and 8 Consolation state-level team trophies. Cardinal Athletes have also earned 64 individual State Championships, and equally impressive are the 59 individual state Runner-ups. As one can imagine, at the state level, there is always a fine line between a State Champion and the Runner-up and Third place finishes. Many times, a fraction of a second or inches is the difference. The hard work and commitment surrounding the memories of our Cardinal success continue to be the foundation of our Cardinal Pride throughout our community and school.

Like many schools today, Staples-Motley is challenged but committed to finding appropriate space in the district buildings to respectfully display the many vintage trophies from past generations of athletic success. In general, time had also taken a toll on several Cardinal trophies, and some needed repair. To help preserve the memories of past athletic success, the Hall of Fame Committee is working with the Athletic Department of Staples-Motley to make the necessary repairs.

The Armstrong trophy search alone is a motivating story and an inspiring example demonstrating the value and impact of high school athletics. However, there is still a bit more to the story. As the situation with the Armstrong Wrestling team and the missing trophy was discussed among 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 for the Armstrong wrestling team was the best solution to the mystery of the missing award. The next step was to gather trophy parts and select wood material to begin building the duplicate trophy.

Time has a way of changing the events of life beyond our control. Of the six state entrants of the 71′ Cardinals Wrestling team, Head Coach Don Dravis and 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 of those who have passed away and how 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 continue to live on in the hearts and minds of the wrestlers of both teams.

Building the trophy was a group effort. Superintendent Shane 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 trophy construction doesn’t include the traditional gold-plated metal figurine that was displayed on the top of the state trophies in the past. Locating an 8-inch medal wrestling figurine that matched the same size as was used on trophies in the ’70s 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 persistent 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, legendary Head Wrestling Coach Don Dravis was very proud of the Cardinal wrestling team’s success that has accumulated multiple state-level team trophies, including seven team State Wrestling Championships, four Runners-up, five Third place, and three Consolation finishes. Don was a great coach and was very effective at inspiring young athletes to reach high levels of commitment and success as wrestlers. The trophies earned over the years will always hold a special meaning and memories for the wrestlers and coaches as they reflect on their commitment to hard work and training.

While leading the Cardinal wrestling program as the Head Wrestling Coach, Don was an Industrial Arts teacher for the Staples-Motley District. He was also responsible for training and passing on his passion for woodworking to many of his students. As a woodworking student of Don’s and a wrestler on his teams during the ’70s, I never imagined I would use those woodworking skills to take part in crafting a state-level wrestling trophy that would mean so much to other wrestlers. Especially 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 meaningful wrestling memories. In our minds, 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 State Third Place state trophy, with the engraved names of the Armstrong wrestling team, will truly rekindle the memories of the 1971 wrestling season and help recall the hard work, training, and commitment that led to their season and state tournament success.

Conversations surrounding the trophy and related stories have led to the planning of a 1971 State Third Place Reunion of both teams. As members of both teams gather in Staples for the reunion of the teams, handshakes will not prompt the start of a wrestling match but rather the sealing of new friendships around memories and a common athletic achievement. Wrestlers generally have a lot in common after their wrestling careers end and wrestlers that once competed and reconnect later seem to create lifelong bonds that get better with time. As a special moment during the reunion of the teams, the Staples-Motley Athletic Hall of Fame Committee will look forward to presenting the Armstrong wrestlers with 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 a 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 that still remains today, will be the hard work it takes to be a wrestler and compete at the varsity team level and at the state level. This trophy story did not only recreate a treasured trophy, but it also created some newly developed friendships that have waited 51 years to come back together. Once as competitors, now as friends.

Trophies that rekindle and nurture our fond and valued memories matter. Firmly developed memories help form who we are and who we will become. As athletes and coaches look back at the value of their athletic careers, trophies are a reflection of their 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.

Update – fast forward to July 6th, 2022…

Reunion of the 1971 Staples-Armstrong Wrestling Teams

As a core highlight of the 1971 State Third Place reunion with the Armstrong and Staples Wrestling teams, we reenacted the coin toss that took place at the 1971 state wrestling tournament to determine who would take home the State Third Place trophy that Staples and Armstrong had tied for in the team standings. As the story goes, on the Armstrong team, Captain Wally Hartzberg had not lost a coin toss throughout his entire high school career. That string of victories came to an end at the 1971 state wrestling tournament as Staples won the toss and was awarded the single State Third Place trophy. A duplicate trophy was ordered and arrived at the Armstrong school a couple of months later. In the shuffle of time and merging of schools, the Armstrong trophy was misplaced or somehow lost. Through a series of direct and indirect connections within the wrestling community, a duplicate trophy was built by the Staples-Motley Athletic Hall of Fame committee, which prompted a reunion of the two teams. Fifteen team members and coaches of the 1971 Armstrong wrestling team came to Staples to receive their exact replica trophy and rekindle the memories of the 1971 wrestling season and state wrestling tournament. As the story goes, Wally Hartzberg still can’t believe he lost the coin toss and the chance to bring home the State Third Place trophy to his school and wrestling fans.

Reunion of the 1971 Staples-Armstrong Wrestling Teams.

As a part of the trophy presentation, Staples Captain Wayne Shequen and Dave Fuller stood with Armstrong Captains Tom Lamphere, and Wally Hartzberg as SM Athletic Hall of Famer Jerry Cleveland facilitated a rematch of the coin toss. Wally called tails again, and this time, Armstrong won the toss. The setting for the coin toss rematch at the Timbers event center was much less stressful than on the center mat at the Minnesota State High School Wrestling tournament. There was minimal risk as Armstrong was going home with a State Third Place trophy no matter how the coin landed.

Time fades everything except what we value and choose to recall! As stories and experiences of high school wrestling were shared throughout the afternoon between wrestlers and coaches from each school, it was clear that some specifics and details had faded. What was also clear was how the memories that were valued surrounding the 1971 season and State wrestling tournament had not faded much at all. Memories of our high school wrestling experience and of our high school athletics in general matter! They are a key element in shaping who we are and who we have become. Trophies also matter! They are not the ultimate goal, but they serve as a critical tool to help rekindle the preserve the fond memories of our athletic experience and achievements. Once as competitors, members of both teams shook hands, embraced our new relationships, and departed as friends.

Would you like to receive the latest Minnesota wrestling news in your inbox?