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1972-73 wrestling team slated for Bears Hall of Fame induction

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POTSDAM - The SUNY Potsdam wrestling team headed into the 1972-73 campaign with great momentum and the best concentration of talent the program ever had.

Later today, the1972-73 SUNYAC Wrestling Champions will be inducted into the Bears Hall of Fame. The wrestling program’s 50th reunion will be held at Maxcy Hall following the ceremony.

Bears Hall of Fame Coach Dr. Neil Johnson started the program from scratch 10 years earlier and his teams steadily ascended the State University of New York Athletic Conference ranks. After not registering a point during its first conference tournament in 1964, the Bears had their first conference champ in Bob Bernard by 1966, and were fourth in the SUNYAC Championship by 1969. Don Eldred garnered Potsdam’s next individual title in 1971. The 1971-72 season showed glimpses of what was to come. On the strength of Rich Molbury’s championship and second place finishes from Ron Lewis, Bob Johnston and Fergus Murphy, the Bears climbed to runner-up status in the conference.

Three strong recruiting years came together in 1972-73. Johnson had brought in two classes and Frank Millard, who filled in one season when Johnson was on sabbatical for his Ph.D., brought in the third.

“They were good wrestlers from good programs,” said Johnson. “So they had a winning attitude and they definitely shared their maneuvers. In many ways, I learned from them and used some of that material the rest of my career.”

The wrestlers thought pretty highly of their coach as well.

“Neil wasn’t an emotional coach,” said former Bear Mike Schmid. “He didn’t rant and rave. When he tried that strategy, we just kind of smiled. He seldom got mad, despite our giving him reason to. Neil was a steady, thoughtful, positive influence. He believed, and still believes in healthy, active living and in building relationships and being positive. Neil was a second father to me, and I suspect, to virtually everyone on the team.”

Johnson was famous for his acronyms and his wrestlers can still recite them. PMA stood for Positive Mental Attitude. SCCA=W meant Skills, Conditioning, Confidence, Aggressiveness equals Winning. RMMM was Recruit, Manage, Mold, Motivate. The coach says this team did a lot of these things on its own.

“We recruited them,” Johnson said. “I didn’t have to do a whole lot with teaching of skills. We taught each other skills, but the selection of maneuvers was pretty much what they shared with each other. And we did a lot drills to mold them into a team. I managed them but motivation, we didn’t have to worry about. They took care of that. They pushed each other. I didn’t have to harass them at all. In fact, they put a lot more pressure on each other than I did.”

Johnson looked at each season as divided into thirds. The first season lasted until winter break. The second season went through the rest of the regular season. The third and most important season was tournament time. The coach and his team took advantage of the schedule to evaluate and make adjustments in order to put forth the best lineup for the postseason. Depth was never an issue during the season. The Bears overcame early season losses at 126 and 158 lbs., but Johnson and his staff were able to manipulate the lineup to continued success, even with some guys wrestling in new spots.

“For example on this team, Tom McCue finished second in the state at heavyweight,” said Johnson. “The only place he could get in the lineup was heavyweight. He couldn’t beat Molbury. He couldn’t be Murphy. He was a 177 pounder when he made All-American and runner-up in the nation. So we balanced the lineup based on our talent. He was the weakest of the three, but he got all the way to second as a heavyweight against a guy who was a good hundred pounds heavier than him.”

The Bears steamrolled their opponents through the first half of their dual meet schedule, which included a 38-0 whitewashing of St. Lawrence and a 49-9 drubbing of Plattsburgh. Potsdam downed its first six challengers by an average of 31.4 points-per-meet en route to a 6-0 start.

“Molbury, Murphy and McCue were pinners,” Johnson said. “If you lose a match, you lose three points. You get a pin you and get six, which means you’ve got to beat us twice to offset this. We had a number of pinners on the team. That’s where the scores got lopsided.”

The Bears finished that season with 28 pins totaling 168 points or 43 percent of their 395 points for the year.

After a red-hot start, Potsdam got a taste of its own medicine at Brockport as the Bears kicked off their second half. In an empty and eerily quiet gym, the defending SUNYAC Champs handled Potsdam 28-6. It was a lesson the Bears didn’t forget and served as motivation the rest of the way.

Potsdam shook off the defeat with a 26-16 upset of Division I Syracuse in Manley Field House. The victory sparked a 6-0 run to finish the regular season with a 12-1 record. Along the way, the Bears downed Cortland 27-17, crushed Clarkson 40-6 and edged St. John Fisher 23-17.

Potsdam started its postseason run by capturing its fifth straight Northern New York Tournament Championship. Next, the Bears played host to its conference foes in brand new Maxcy Hall.

“The building was so new that the bleachers weren’t there yet,” said Johnson. “Everything was gray. The walls weren’t painted. We had football bleachers brought in specifically and that’s what we had in there for basketball and wrestling.”

Brockport was the favorite to defend its title, but the Bears were up to the challenge. Tony Peraza, a freshman, defeated Albany’s Larry Mims 6-2 for the 142-pound title. Joe Galea edged Brockport’s Dave Cook 4-3 for the 167-pound championship. Molbury matched the feat at 177 lbs., handling Paul Bruns of Brockport, 5-2. Potsdam also got a surprise boost from Keith Lyndaker, who battled his way to the 150-pound final before falling to eventual Wrestler of the Meet, Bob DaRin of Cortland. Freshman Tom McCue also recorded a second place finish at heavyweight. Jerry Pleskach (118 lbs.) and Murphy (190 lbs.) each posted consolation final wins to round out the Bears SUNYAC Championship. Potsdam totaled 82.5 points, placing them 14 points in front of the second place Golden Eagles.

“There was a point where we didn’t know if we were going to win it or not,” Johnson said. “At one point, Tony was behind his man and there was only about a minute to go. Then Tony takes his man down and puts him on his back. Tony was amazing that way. He was in such good condition. He was a freshman and 19-1was his dual meet record. No one expected him to do what he did.”

Johnson describes the feeling after the victory as “awesome” and said there was almost a moment of disbelief before the reality of the accomplishment sank in.

The SUNYAC title gave the talented Bears more confidence and momentum as they headed into the New York State Championships. Potsdam found itself up against Division I opponents like Syracuse, Army, Cornell and Columbia, but still managed to pull off a third place finish. Peraza captured the 142-pound state title with a 13-9 decision over Mims in a rematch, while Galea and Molbury each garnered second place finishes.

1973 was the last year that Division II and III wrestling programs competed against each other at the NCAA College Division Championship. Despite stiffer competition, the Bears closed out their season with a respectable 36th place finish.

While the lineup was strong from top to bottom, five future Bear Hall of Famers stood out with impressive individual records. Molbury was 27-6. Freshmen Peraza and McCue were 21-2 and 19-8, respectively. Galea went 22-6 and Lyndaker was 14-4-1.

The core was in place for greater national success over the next few seasons. Molbury captured Potsdam’s first ever national championship the following year and Peraza became an NCAA Champ in 1976. Five wrestlers from the 72-73 squad went on to become All-Americans over the next three seasons, including Peraza twice. Potsdam finished fourth as a team at the NCAA Division III Championships in 1975 and ninth in 1976.

The success the 1972-73 squad achieved was due as much to each other as each individual’s own talent.

“They were a family,” said Johnson. “Some of them lived together. They traveled together. They took care of each other and protected each other as well as pushing each other. These guys were good, good solid people. These particular guys, they put us on the map. And made recruiting a lot easier.”

Many of Johnson’s wrestlers went on to great personal and professional success after Potsdam. The program and the College produced successful teachers, coaches, businessmen and lawyers among others. They have been as good in their post-graduate lives as they were on the mats in Merritt and Maxcy Halls.

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