The impact Penn State Wrestling has made on the sport dates well before the dominant dynastic run that the Nittany Lions have forged over the past decade.
Continuing our on-going series highlighting the past decade of Penn State Wrestling, here are the previous two installments:
After a bit of a down turn in the 1960s, the Nittany Lion wrestling machine was starting to whirl into action.
Under the strong leadership of all-time great Penn State head coach Bill Koll, the Nittany Lions proved to the nation that their success in the 1950s wasn’t a fluke.
In the 1970s Penn State piled up 30 conference champions, 15 NCAA All-Americans, and snagged three total NCAA titles.
So, with that, let’s take a deep dive into who won all of the titles and landed themselves into the lore of Penn State Wrestling.
Penn State Wrestling: Top-5 Grapplers of the 1970s
Conference titles: 2 (1976 & 1977)
NCAA finish: 3rd (1977)
Conference titles: 2 (1976 & 1978)
NCAA finish: DNP (1976-1978)
Conference titles: 3 (1976-1978)
NCAA finish: 5th (1978)
Right off the bat we have three guys who compiled a total of seven EWL Conference titles and two of which finished as All-Americans.
With their career win totals, Jerry White (70) currently sits at No. 73 and Dave Becker (67) is No. 76 in all-time wins in Penn State history. White is also ranked No. 25 in career falls with the 23 pins he racked up during his time in Happy Valley.
Both Becker and White were four-year starters for the Nittany Lions and each of the grapplers appeared in four NCAA Championships (Jerry White 1974-1977 & Dave Becker 1975-1978).
Had Penn State wrestled in a conference tournament in 1975, then it’s entirely likely Jerry White could have three conference crowns to his name and Dave Becker could have been the first Nittany Lion to ever secure four conference titles.
But as it stands, both Becker and White were greats on the mat and they had four incredible years of excellence for the Nittany Lions.
Bill Vollrath, on the other hand, was only unleashed for three of his seasons at Penn State.
Following a disappointing 1-5 freshman campaign, Vollrath strung together an impressive 12-3 record heading into the 1976 EWL Conference Championships. And there he dispatched his Pittsburgh and Lock Haven foes on the way to his first conference title.
Unfortunately, a 1-2 record in the 1976 NCAAs sent him packing early.
Vollrath finished 2nd in the 1977 EWL’s and was again bounced early in the NCAAs as he was pinned in his first match of the 1977 NCAA Championships.
It appeared Bill was going to finally get the proverbial NCAA monkey off his back his senior year after he won his second EWL conference title and won his first two matches in the 1978 NCAA Championships.
However back-to-back losses derailed any hopes of an All-American finish and Vollrath failed to place in any of the three NCAA’s he competed in.
No. 5 – Tie
Conference titles: 1 (1974)
NCAA finish: 5th (1973) & 3rd (1974)
Conference titles: 3 (1969-1971)
NCAA finish: 3rd (1969)
“Really Chris? You have a tie for fifth place? Way to be decisive.”
Hey, I get it, that’s a fair question.
But, you need to understand a couple of things before you start chucking shoes in my general direction.
Yes, Charlie Getty only has one conference title and Clyde Frantz has three. But let’s look at a couple of details.
First, Getty only wrestled for two seasons, he finished third in the 1973 EIWA Championships, and took home the title in 1974. And the guy who beat him in the 1973 EIWA’s was Yale all-time great Tim Karpoff.
As for his fifth and third finishes in the NCAA Championships, both of Getty’s initial losses in the Championship bracket came to grapplers who eventually made the finals.
Western Illinois’ Jim Woods pinned his way to the finals and took out Michigan’s Gary Ernst to win the 1974 NCAA title. Then Getty was upended by Oregon State’s Jim Hagen in the quarterfinals and Hagen rode the momentum to the 1975 finals were he finished runner-up.
So, it’s safe to say Charlie Getty ran into some buzz saws in both the EIWA Championships and the NCAA Championships.
But, he proved why he belongs on this list in his two years at Penn State, because the last time I checked, being a conference champion and two-time All-American still means something.
In the case of Frantz, he participated in three NCAA Championships, but due to the quirky rules we’ve mentioned many times in this series, he only placed once.
All was not lost as Clyde wrestled his tail off and took home a podium finish his sophomore year in the 1969 NCAA Championships.
Along with his top three finish in the 1969 NCAA’s, Frantz was a three-time EIWA champion (all three conference tournaments he competed in), was twice awarded Outstanding Wrestler, was a team captain, and comes in at No. 17 in all-time fall percentage (37.3%). Penn State legend Rich Lorenzo called Frantz “one of the top three wrestlers I ever coached.”
And Rich Lorenzo certainly knows a thing or two about wrestling.
Talk about high praise.
Conference titles: 3 (1970-1972)
NCAA finish: 2nd (1971)
While at Penn State, Dave Joyner also pulled double-duty in athletics like fellow football player and wrestler, Mike Reid before him.
Joyner kicked off his sophomore wrestling career late in the season by competing in a dual meet against Navy in mid-February. Joyner went on to tie his first two collegiate matches before he got his first win in the Cornell dual meet.
Dave then ripped off eight straight victories to win the 1970 EIWA Conference title and win his opening round match in the 1970 NCAA’s. Unfortunately Joyner dropped his next bout and his sophomore season came to a close.
Joyner’s junior campaign was a full season start to finish as he ended up competing in a total of 24 matches that year.
Dave dropped an early match against Indiana but then went on an insane 20 match win streak.
During the streak, Joyner piled up seven falls and eight other wins in which his opponent did not score a single point. The pinnacle of this dominating stretch was what Dave did in the 1971 EIWA Conference Championships.
In the four matches he took place in, Joyner shutout his competition to the tune of 20-0 on his way to his second conference title.
Joyner then plowed his way to the finals in the 1971 NCAA Championships were he would face the runner-up in the 1970 NCAA’s, Greg Wojciechowski. But The Great Wojo was took much for Joyner to handle and he dropped the tough 5-3 decision to finish runner-up himself.
Due to commitments on the football field, Joyner again had a late start to the season as he didn’t compete until mid-February his senior year. But it was clear Dave didn’t have any rust to knock off, as evident by a perfect 6-0 record heading into the 1972 NCAA Championships.
Of the six total matches Joyner wrestled at this point in his senior year, two of them were regular season matches and four of them were in the 1972 EIWA Championships.
So yeah, Dave got two practice sessions under his belt and then crushed the competition to leave with his third EIWA title.
Things were looking good once again for Joyner following wins in his first two matches on the 1972 NCAA’s. But Oklahoma State’s Harry Geris narrowly slipped by Joyner in a nail-biting 3-2 win in the quarterfinals. Dave got another win in the consolation bracket but then fell to Northern Iowa’s Mike McCready 3-1, and he ended up not placing.
Dave Joyner was a force both on the gridiron and on the wrestling mat and his career fall percentage of 34.1% lands him at No. 21 all-time.
Conference titles: 2 (1973 & 1976)
NCAA finish: 4th (1974), 6th (1975), 4th (1976)
Just like Clyde Frantz, Jerry Villecco’s career stats won’t blow you away on the surface.
But, if there is a list of the greatest Nittany Lion Wrestlers to have never won a title, then Jerry Villecco absolutely belongs on that list.
Villecco was able to wrestle his freshman year (1972-1973) and he put together an impressive initial campaign. The talented grappler went 13-3-1 and won the EIWA Conference title at 167 pounds. Unfortunately these early results were not enough to propel Villecco to place in the 1973 NCAA Championships as he finished 1-2 and did not place.
In his sophomore season, Villecco started to show signs of becoming one of the nation’s elite grapplers at 158.
Going into the 1974 NCAAs, Jerry held a record of 16-1 with his only loss coming at the hands of a Clarion legend, Wade Schalles, early in the season. It’s also worth nothing Villecco started out the year at 167 and then dropped down to 158 midway through the season.
And in the 1974 NCAA’s, Villecco continued his winning ways by breezing through his first three matches.
However, Oklahoma’s Rod Kilgore stood in his way in the semi-finals.
Kilgore crushed Villecco 7-2 and ultimately ended up taking the title at 158. And in the third place match, it appeared the wind had completely gone out of Villecco’s sails as he was pinned by Iowa’s Dan Holm to finish in fourth place.
Jerry went on to have a bit of a disappointing junior season by finishing 17-5 and came in sixth place in the 1975 NCAA Championships.
With the soul crushing losses his sophomore year and the lackluster junior season in his rearview mirror, Villecco turned all of his attention to finishing his Penn State Wrestling career on a high note.
Which is exactly what he did. Jerry plowed through the regular season competition by winning his second conference title and took a perfect record (15-0) into the NCAA Championships (1976). This was going to be Villecco’s time to shine and to finally win an NCAA title. And the road to a title starts by winning the first match.
Villecco was set to face Wisconsin’s Pat Christenson, an unseeded wrestler, in the opening round. Fun fact, at the time no one realized the same people who seeded the 2022 NCAA Wrestling Championships apparently also seeded the 1976 NCAAs. Because Villecco was up against a formidable opponent in the first round.
Christenson shocked the world and breezed past Villecco 5-2. All of the blood sweat and tears of his senior season seemingly went down the toilet in one fell swoop. From eyeing up an NCAA title to losing in the first round. Many wrestlers would pack it in and lose early in the consolation bracket.
But, Jerry Villecco isn’t like many wrestlers.
Remember when I said it is potentially more grueling for a wrestler to lose early and then make it to the third place match? Well this is what Jerry did by winning his next four matches and punching his ticket to the third place round.
Unfortunately Villecco wasn’t able to get past Kentucky’s Joe Carr and he once again finished in fourth at the NCAA’s. But he showed some true grit in grinding it out in the wrestle backs and he made the Penn State faithful proud with yet another top finish in the nation.
Oh, and remember the unseeded grappler who took out Villecco in the first round? Yeah, he ended up winning the whole thing at 167.
Conference titles: 2 (1973 & 1974)
NCAA finish: 3rd (1973), 3rd (1974), 1st (1975)
When you think about some of the best lightweights to wrestle at Penn State, it would be very difficult to narrow the list to less than a handful.
But, without a doubt, John Fritz would certainly make your list.
Like most freshman thrust into the starting lineup, Fritz’s opening campaign was a bumpy ride to say the least.
His first collegiate match was a lopsided 20-5 loss to future Michigan All-American Bill Davids. But Fritz shook the loss off and started to find his groove by compiling a 6-2-1 record heading into the 1972 EIWA Championships.
After winning the first two matches of the tournament, John dropped back-to-back matches and landed in the fifth place match where he ultimately won.
Fritz got off on the right foot in the 1972 NCAA’s as he snuck past his opening round foe in a high scoring 15-12 thriller.
But that’s where Fritz’s freshman ride ended as he dropped a 3-1 decision to Toledo’s Dave Ember in the 2nd round.
And while there were flashes of brilliance in his first season, it wasn’t until Fritz’s sophomore year that his greatness would come into focus.
John blew through his first 17 opponents in the 1973 season, snagged his first EIWA title, and made it to the semifinals in the 1973 NCAA Championships. At that point in the 1973 NCAAs, Iowa State’s Ron Glass was a hammer and all he saw were nails.
The competitive grappler had a pin and outscored his foes 29-14 in his other two matches.
Fritz wrestled a tough match against Glass but he simply couldn’t overcome the offensive juggernaut. John dropped the match 10-5 and it was onto the consolation bracket.
There he won his remaining two bouts and landed on the podium with a third place finish. John Fritz was coming back to Happy Valley an All-American.
Other than an early loss to Indiana State’s Dave Martin, Fritz’s junior season was very similar to the prior year.
John was 12-1-1 heading into the 1974 EIWA Championships and he went to Navy to do three things: Add more hardware to his trophy case, destroy all on-comers, and chew bubblegum.
And the bad news for everyone in the 126 pound bracket was that Fritz forgot to even bring his bubblegum.
John blistered through his four matches to secure his second EIWA title and he was named the Outstanding Wrestler of the 1974 tournament.
The Fritz train continued to rumble down the tracks in the 1974 NCAA Championships with John breezing past his first two matches. But in the quarterfinals, Pitt’s Rande Stottlemeyer derailed Fritz with a 5-2 win and John was relegated from the championship bracket for the third straight year.
In the wrestlebacks Fritz had to win four grueling matches which included two overtime victories in the match before the third place match and the third place match itself.
Back-to-back years John Fritz was the best in the EIWA but he wasn’t the best in the nation.
Well, that was about to change.
In Fritz’s very first match his senior campaign he was set to face the 1974 NCAA Champion, Michigan State’s Pat Milkovich.
The defensive showdown ended with neither grappler at the center of the mat with their hand raised. The 1-1 tie signaled that Fritz was this close to beating the best in the nation.
Going into mid-January, Fritz had hit several potholes in the road.
Following the tie to Milkovich, John lost to Michigan’s Jim Brown and then dropped his second match of the year to Kentucky’s Jimmy Carr.
But as all of the Penn State faithful remember, this was the last loss in John Fritz’s Nittany Lion career.
Fritz held a 15-2-2 record heading into the 1975 NCAA Championships in Princeton, New Jersey, and everyone knew it was going to be his time to shine.
John pinned his first two opponents and then won 7-5 in the quarterfinals and 10-3 in the semifinals. He had made his first ever NCAA finals and his opponent was none other than Pat Milkovich.
The 1975 finals bout was just as close as their regular season tilt, however both grapplers sprinkled in more offense.
With the matched knotted at 5-5 at the end of regulation, Fritz pulled his magic and won 3-1 in overtime.
Fritz had climbed the mountain towards greatness many times, but in the 1975 NCAA’s he finally reached the summit.
With his 71 career wins, Fritz currently sits at No. 69 in Penn State history. But it’s not records that make John Fritz, it’s the determination, the grit, the grind, and his wrestling courage that people remember. This along with his two conference titles, three All-American finishes, and 1975 national title are why his name is etched in stone in Penn State’s history.
Conference titles: 3 (1970-1972)
NCAA finish: 1st (1971) & 1st (1972)
Andy Matter wasn’t just a dominating wrestler, he was a force of nature.
In his first full time season in 1970, Matter blew the doors off his first two foes to the tune of 21-4. Andy then proceeded to pin five of his next six opponents.
Leading into the 1970 EIWA Championships, Matter was 10-0 with five pins and he outpaced his opponents 57-13. And not surprisingly, Andy chewed through the competition at the EIWA’s to take home his first conference title.
Matter continued his dominance with a 16-1 win in the opening round of the 1970 NCAA Championships. But in his next match against Oklahoma State’s John Lightner, Andy was a little too confident in his skills.
Up 8-0 in the third period and in bottom position, Matter tried to go into cruise control. But this backfired as Lightner caught him in a bad position. Matter’s back was eventually turned to the mat and his run in the 1970’s NCAA Championships was over.
Two things never happened after that match: Matter vowed to never be cocky and Matter never lost an NCAA Championship match again.
In Andy’s sophomore year he rolled through the competition in both the regular season and in the 1971 EIWA Championships. In the 167 pound finals, Matter faced Lehigh’s super talented wrestler, Steve Shields. Andy got the better of Shields 5-3, but it wouldn’t be the last time these two faced each other that season.
Following Andy’s second EIWA Conference title, he participated in a Regional qualifier and once again Steve Shields stood across the mat from him.
But this time Shields was the lone man standing at the center of the mat after his 5-2 decision win.
The loss fueled Matter and he proceeded to lay waste to all opponents in the 1971 NCAA Championships. The only foe to not allow Matter to score double digits against them was Andy’s semifinal match against Illinois State’s Eric Bates (6-0).
Matter punched his ticket to his first ever NCAA finals and who would be his counterpart? Yep, it was Steve Shields.
The meeting marked the third straight weekend the rivals would lock horns. And the match did not disappoint.
The score was locked at 5-5 following regulation, so it was on to overtime. And in overtime neither grappler could land the deciding takedown. With both warriors gasping for air after giving everything they had, it was Andy Matter’s hand who was raised following the referees’ decision.
The three electric matches between Matter and Shields in back-to-back-to-back weekends in 1971 were the first and only times these two would ever faced each other in college.
I realize it’s hard to believe, but Andy Matter’s senior year put his prior two seasons to shame.
Eight out of his first 11 matches in 1972 were won either by a pin or by a major decision. Matter was a perfect 16-0 going into the 1972 NCAA Championships after winning his third straight EIWA title.
Piling up a combined score of 28-4, Andy rolled through his first three matches in College Park, Maryland. Simply put, no one was going to stop Andy Matter.
And after he put the finishing touches on a 6-2 decision win in the finals against Iowa State’s Keith Abens, Andy Matter put himself in rarified air. The win marked the first time a grappler had won two NCAA titles in the entire history of Penn State wrestling.
The accomplishment cemented Matter as the best Nittany Lion to ever don the blue and white singlet. Andy finished his career with three EIWA titles, two NCAA titles, and a completely absurd winning percentage of 96.7%. At the time only Dick Lemyre (1952-1954) was close as he finished with 93.0%.
And yes, have Penn State fans seen some truly historic wrestlers in the past decade plus?
Absolutely. But Andy Matter wasn’t just the best wrestler of the 1970’s for Penn State, he is unquestionably one of the top eight in program history.
To put things in perspective, a long time fan of Nittany Lion Wrestling told me the following:
“When we went to Rec Hall back in the early 70’s, it wasn’t a question of whether Andy would win. The only question was by HOW MUCH!”
That says it all.