In Samuel Johnson's classic novel Rasselas, the hero, Prince Rasselas of Abyssinia, hails from the Happy Valley, where all desires are satisfied. On last Wednesday night, in University Park, Pa., situated in its own Happy Valley, Penn State's rasselers satisfied the desires of an overflow crowd of more than 8,000 at Recreation Hall with a decisive 27-15 upset of No. 1-ranked Iowa.
Last season, as coach Dan Gable's Hawkeyes powered to their ninth straight NCAA championship, the Nittany Lions finished fifth in the nation and apparently a world apart from the Hawkeyes. This fall, though most preseason polls placed Penn State anywhere from No. 2 to No. 4, few experts expected the Lions to beat Iowa, certainly not in the first dual meet of the season. But the Hawkeyes had suffered a recent run of bad luck that had left three of their top wrestlers on the injured list and one academically ineligible. Penn State coach Rich Lorenzo was encouraged about his team's prospects. On Wednesday afternoon, he said, "We have more confidence than we've ever had. In the past we've talked about beating Iowa; now the guys really do believe we can beat Iowa."
That evening it took only the first three bouts to make believers of everyone. Gable, perhaps sensing what was coming, had said earlier, "We've got to get on the scoreboard in one of those first three bouts. We might not be ranked Number 1 very long." They didn't and they weren't.
While hundreds of fans were being turned away from Rec Hall, Jim (Boo Boo) Martin led off with a win over Iowa freshman Steve Martin (no relation) at 118 pounds. Last season Boo Boo, a cherubic premedical student with a 3.93 GPA, was 37-4 and finished fourth in the NCAAs. Says Lorenzo, "Martin's like Clark Kent. He takes his glasses off and goes to work."
December 15, 1986
Against Iowa's Martin, he was at least a Super Boo Boo; he built a 14-0 lead before his opponent was disqualified for stalling. Said Boo Boo, as he hoisted a mighty bookbag to his shoulder, "He quit on me, I broke him." Gable didn't disagree: "Our kids had talked tough, and they had me convinced they were tough. But as soon as I saw the 118-pound match, I said, 'Talk's cheap.' "
The Penn State fans on the floor around the spotlighted mat sensed another victory as 126-pound Ken Chertow took the mat to face Iowa's John Regan. The Lions couldn't have asked for a better man than Chertow to sustain the pace Martin had set. Another premed student, and with a 3.57 GPA, Chertow has intensity written all over him. Once, at a summer wrestling tournament in Kentucky, he sized up the competition as less than daunting and proceeded to win titles in three different divisions.
The noise level diminished as Chertow started slowly; he was tied with Regan early in the third period. Lorenzo, however, was pleased that his wrestler—whose scrappy nature has made him prone to mistakes in the past—was exercising restraint. Famed for his strong finishes, Chertow escaped from Regan, then executed a nifty single-leg takedown, grabbing a 6-3 lead, and eventually won the match, 7-4.
With jubilant disorder restored to Rec Hall, Tim Flynn, Penn State's greatest crowd pleaser, loped into the circle for the 134-pound match. A sign in the stands behind Flynn read: WE OWE YA IOWA; the Lions' cocaptain owed the Hawkeyes like nobody else. In each of the past two years, Flynn has lost to Hawkeyes by one point. Flynn's main weakness is in scoring takedowns, and one of those Hawkeyes exploited it to the point of humiliation, rallying to take Flynn down (worth two points) and then letting him escape (worth one point for Flynn), and repeating that procedure several times. Last Wednesday, with the score 8-0 at the start of the second period, redshirt Iowa freshman Bubba Strauss chose to start on his feet—setting up the possibility of a takedown—instead of taking the top mat position. Flynn's mother is a professional clown, and her son is usually the happiest wrestler in the Happy Valley, but this time he was not amused. "All I could think about was Gable over there yelling to Bubba to let me up and take me down," said Flynn. Instead he took Strauss down and nearly tilted him for a pin. The Penn State senior dominated the remainder of the bout and won by a technical fall at 6:10. As he danced off the mat, the Lions led 15-0, the crowd was deafening, and the meet, for all practical purposes, was over.
There was no shortage of exciting moments left, however. Glenn Koser lost a close match, at 150 pounds, to Iowa All-America Jim Heffernan. Then Penn State's 158-pounder, Duane Peoples, won the sort of match that in the past always seemed to go to Iowa. Tied 2-2 in the final period with John Heffernan, Jim's younger brother, Peoples scored a takedown to take the lead 4-2. But after completing the maneuver, Peoples illegally kept his hands clasped around Heffernan's waist, so the score went to 4-3. When Heffernan escaped with less than a minute remaining in the match, the Penn State sophomore appeared to have blown the bout. But Peoples cut in for Heffernan's right leg, drove hard and took the Hawkeye down with two seconds left, for a dramatic 6-4 victory.
Next, Greg Elinsky, the Nittany Lions' 167-pound cocaptain, bruised his knee and lost his concentration and the match to the Hawkeyes' Royce Alger. Then, 177-pound Dan Mayo built the Penn State lead to an insurmountable 24-9 by tossing around Iowa's Erik Dims—a replacement for injured All-America Rico Chiapparelli—before pinning him at 4:52. In the 190-pound bout, Andy Voit had to struggle for almost a full minute in the final period to stave off a pin by Hawkeye Charlie Sherertz for a dramatic 7-6 victory.
The Hawkeyes may have lost a few pinfeathers at State College, but don't count them out. Come the NCAA tournament at College Park, Md., next March, Iowa should have both Chiapparelli and Brad Penrith, their 126-pound national champion, who is currently trying to get his grades up to snuff, back in the lineup. Dave Martin, at 190 pounds, and heavyweight Andy Haman are also expected to be back in action by then. Still, there's no doubt that a new feeling has permeated this sport, so long the exclusive property of Iowa. Gable, who had suffered only his eighth loss in 182 meets, took it well. "This makes the year more interesting," said Gable. "They're always accusing me of hurting the sport. I helped it today. I helped it a lot."