BY DON KOVALCHIK
Sun Contributing Writer
Editor’s Note: Today’s article on the 1990-91’
wrestling team is the fifth in a series of profiles on this
year’s Norwich Sports Hall of Fame induction class.
The fourth annual induction ceremony is scheduled
for Saturday, May 3 at Canasawacta Country Club.
Reservation forms are available from the school website
at www.norwichcsd.org. All checks and reservations
should be sent to: Tom Rowe, 22 Hayes St.
Norwich, NY 13815.
Seven decades of Norwich wrestling featured
several outstanding teams. Even in this individual
sport, a group of wrestlers can “jell” into a cohesive
team that achieves beyond its collective abilities. The
’90-’91 team achieved beyond its collective abilities.
The ’90-’91 team distinguished itself remarkably.
Led by senior captains, Neil Peraza, Sam
Rifanburg and Joe Telesky, the squad had a large
number of underclassmen, most of whom had been
coached by Rich Alger, Dave Funk, and Sam Whaley
at junior and modified levels. There were 44 on the
roster, and the lineup could be fluid. Wrestlers might
challenge for a weight class, coaches might move a
wrestler up (even during the meet), and illness or
injuries could cause changes. In the pre-season booklet,
criteria for a varsity letter included team points
accumulated, placing in Sectionals, exceptional contribution,
or extenuating circumstances such as severe
injury. Twenty individuals qualified. Development
and improvement were enhanced by full jayvee meets
and tournaments such as our own Evening Sun
The coaches arranged a rigorous schedule and promoted
a Wrestle-the-Best motto. The team won 13
meets, losing only to Johnson City, ranked 3rd in
NYS. Soon after, UE beat JC 32-28; a few days later,
Norwich trounced UE 45-12! All three teams ranked
in the top 25 of NYS, JC 6th, Norwich 17th, at the
season end. At that time, well over 400 wrestling
teams in NY were all in one division with schools of
8000 students (Brentwood) and tiny locals such as
Gilbertsville and New Berlin.
Traditional powers fell to Norwich that season,
including Chenango Forks, Maine-Endwell, Ithaca,
UE, and nearby rivals, Sherburne Earlville and
Oxford. In the Ithaca meet Kevin Slater was pulled
out of the JV lineup, inserted into the Varsity to score
a crucial win enabling us to move others up in the
upper weights to win the meet over powerhouse
In tournaments with premier teams from other sections
of NYS and other states and even Canada
(Elmira Tourney), scoring differs from dual meets to
reflect team depth and balance. Team scores include
points for advancing, placing, and bonus points for
major and superior decisions, pins, tech falls, and forfeits
In early December, the storied Clyde Cole
Tournament was a tough test featuring Section Two’s
Queensbury, which had won the prior six years.
Norwich won convincingly with 200 points over runner-
up Queensbury’s 168 ½. Norwich had six finalists
and several other place finishers. Matt Downey
and Joe Telesky were champions, while Toby
Franklin, Bob Clipston, Sam Rifanburg and Dan
Jenkins were runners-up. The big win was a hint of
the team’s potential. Joe Winton, Keith Evans and
Mike Blenis all won consolation finals to add important
points to the team score.
In mid-December, Norwich went to Elmira with a
subpar line-up resulting from flu and injuries. NYS’s
reigning top team, Fulton, dominated with Norwich
finishing 4th out of 15 teams including several from
other sections, Pennsylvania, and two teams from
Canada. Two more regular place finishers would
have put us in second place, but several regular consolation
finalists did not wrestle through all the
rounds. Dan Jennings won his weight class, Dan
Jenkins was second and Buster Crandall, Neil Peraza,
Joe Telesky, Steve Doing, Bob Clipston, Keith Evans
and Toby Franklin all placed. Note several different names from the Clyde Cole entry. Another historic test of team depth in late December was the Windsor Tournament; the field
included teams from Sections Two, Three, Five, and Eleven (Long Island’s Huntington). The host school won with 184 to 155 ½ for runner-up Norwich.
Windsor had more champions, with the Purple having more place finishers. That would be reversed later in the season. Runners-up Matt Downey, Joe Telesky and Dan Jenkins lost close decisions in the finals. Sam Rifanburg, Tom Stoddard and Dan Jennings were consolation winners. Drew Downey and Kevin Slater added fourth place finishes, with Slater upsetting the top seed at his weight. There would be a chance to reverse the outcome versus Windsor soon, as the younger wrestlers rapidly developed and the veterans became more determined.
Near season end, the highlight of Section Four wrestling was the STAC Championship, hosted by Norwich for the first and possibly last time, as the conference soon expanded
dramatically. Norwich delighted a largely local crowd and stunned fans and folks from all around the STAC and Section by scoring 211 points to JC’s 203.
Tom Rowe’s headline read, “Norwich’s Depth Leads to STAC Crown.” The Purple had one champion, Joe Telesky, winning
over a Johnson City foe with a swing of eight points.
Johnson City had six finalists and five champions, but
all the Norwich wrestlers,placed, with Dan Jenkins and Dan Jennings vital runners-up. It was a total team effort. Four of the Johnson City champions would go on later to be semifinalists at the highly regarded NY States; their team was then ranked in the top 25 for the country. Every Norwich
wrestler scored crucial points for advancing, placing,
and bonus wins: Buster Crandall, Matt Downey, Aaron Whaley, Bob Clipston, Neil Peraza, Steve Doing, Joe Winton, Kevin
Slater, Sam Rifanburg, Keith Evans, and Tom Stoddard
were in the consolations.
Each added at least 6-14 points to the total, a remarkable
feat. The very next Saturday, again with a packed gym,
Norwich hosted the Section IV Class B Tournament.
Arguably the strongest of the four classes (A,B,C, D)
for several years, Class B would be most difficult for a
wrestler to qualify for the Sectionals, with Section IV
powers Windsor, Forks, Waverly and Bainbridge-Guilford-Afton in the field, as well as other schools having
good wrestlers at some weights.
Windsor had defeated Norwich in their Christmas Invitational, but the outcome was reversed dramatically
“at our house” with 198 points for host Norwich over
Windsor’s 148 ½. Tom Rowe’s headline again summed it well: “Total Team Effort Gives Norwich ‘B’ Title”. As they trod out of the gym, the Windsor Coach said to Coach K,
“You beat the …………. out of us. Why aren’t you ranked higher?” As we left later, Coach Whaley chortled, “They can have the paper, we’ll take the gold’” Coach Alger added his
favorite “No excuses.”
Norwich had won two major tourneys in eight days through the amazing feat of placing all 14 entries in their
weight classes against top notch competition. The
Purple had eight finalists, with Matt Downey, Neil
Peraza, and Joe Telesky champions, and Drew
Downey, Sam Rifanburg, Dan Jenkins, Tom Stoddard
and Dan Jennings all runners-up. Buster Crandall,
Aaron Whaley, Steve Doing, Joe Winton, Kevin Slater,
and Keith Evans were consolation finalists, adding
many points to the impressive total score. Evans was
the last to wrestle in the placing round (consolation
semifinals), so the coaches rounded up his teammates
who stood at mat side cheering Keith to the win. All 14
Norwich wrestlers had advanced to the Sectional
At the Championship Finals, Norwich was a strong third to Johnson City and Chenango Forks. There were nine Purple place winners in the 14 weights. It was clear that this experience and incentive would help the younger wrestlers.
Many of those would go on in subsequent seasons to
place higher and win titles.
Norwich was on the map of New York wrestling, highly
recruited by college coaches, largely because of one division representing over 400 schools.
As seniors in 1993, Keith Evans, Tom Stoddard and Dan Jennings were labeled as “Norwich’s Three Bears”
in the official program at States. In their success they
scored more points than any other individual school in
New York State. Later in the decade Joe Telesky was a
national runner-up wrestling as an underclassman for
Division III Brockport; in 1999 freshman Joe Downey
at the University of Buffalo became an NCAA Division I
qualifier for nationals. The successes of Norwich
Wrestling in the 80’s and 90’s has been reinforcedmost recently with the Section IV Class B and Division II titles captured this past season, and coaches Terry Hagenbuch, Mark
Mussarallo, and Bob Hagenbuch were elated by two Division II State Champions in Albany, Frank Garcia and Tristan
Rifanburg. Many of the names in this article are familiar to local wrestling fans, as these wrestlers are frequently sons of former Purple matmen. The coaches are predominantly products of Norwich wrestling. The junior program, coached by Tim Scheer, another Norwich standout, has been noticeably strong. It appears that Purple Pin
Power is here to stay!