By Ken McDowell
Special To NJC
Northeastern Junior College (NJC) will be celebrating the past and introducing the future on Sat., Nov. 12 as the Plainsmen wrestling team returns to the mat after over four decades.
After launching their season for the first time since the 1978-79 season in the Cowboy Open at the University of Wyoming Saturday, NJC will host Northwest Kansas Technical College in the first home match in the Bank of Colorado Event Center. The dual match will start at 5 p.m.
Along with celebrating the return of wrestling to NJC, the day will honor the success of the program's history at Northeastern. When the program ended in the late 1970’s, wrestling was the only sport at NJC to win National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) national titles.
The first NJCAA National title came in 1964 and the Plainsmen won back-to-back titles in 1966-67. Members from those teams, along with grapplers from other past squads, will re-unite on Nov. 12 to "Celebrate the Past and Introduce the Future."
The special day kicks off at 12 p.m. with a luncheon for wrestling alumni and their spouses. At 1:15 p.m. there will be a tour of the new wrestling room in the basement of Hayes Student Center where the former student game room was located.
A campus tour will follow at 2 p.m. and at the same time the NJC Plainsmen basketball team will host Colorado Northwestern in the Bank of Colorado Event Center.
The day will conclude with the NJC wrestling team hosting Northwest Kansas Tech at 5 p.m.
The history of NJC is very rich with four coaches leading the way. The first coach was Tracy Borah, who mentored the squad in the 1955-56 season. Shorty Fetter was the coach in the 1957-58 season and in 1959-60 Keith Loper was in charge.
The late Bill Lanham then took over and coached the team until the program was discontinued at the end of the 1978-79 season. Lanham coached the squad to all three of its national titles and for his success, was inducted into the NJCAA Coaches Hall of Fame in 1979.
He was the first of six NJC coaches to receive that honor. Lanham continued to teach physical education and CPR until his retirement in 1982 and in 2000 he passed away.
Lanham led his team to 132 dual victories during his tenure along with the three national titles. After the 1968 championship season Lanham was selected “NJCAA Coach of the Year.”
Jack Annan, who is the director of the NJC Alumni Association, is behind the effort of the Nov. 12 festivities to celebrate the return of wrestling.
“From 1955 up until 1979 Northeastern had a very strong wrestling program,” he said. “After the 1979 season NJC and some of the other junior colleges dropped their wrestling programs.
"But in the last year (NJC) President Jay Lee talked about re- establishing the wrestling program at NJC and the decision was made to do that, starting this year.”
The sport is successfully returning this year with 35 wrestlers on the squad under the guidance of coaches Greg Barner and Derrick Nelson.
Annan hopes that on Nov. 12 wrestlers from the past and the present and future will get the renewed program off to a successful start.
“The first home dual is Nov. 12, and we thought we would celebrate the past and introduce the future on that particular day to celebrate the new wrestling program,” Annan added. “We have been in touch with several of the past wrestlers for them to come and join the celebration of the return of wrestling.”
Annan said that during an intermission at the Nov. 12 opening match, he will personally introduce past wrestlers. The trophies from the national championship teams will also be on display.
Two of the past wrestlers are from right here in Sterling - Jack McLavey who wrestled for NJC in the 1956-57 seasons and Tom Hastings, who was a member of the 1964 team that won the first of 3 national titles.
McLavey wrestled for 2 years at Sterling High School (SHS) before going onto NJC where he was a member of the first wrestling squad. During his two seasons, the Plainsmen grapplers captured Empire Conference championships.
“My first year at NJC was kind of anti-climatic because I lost an extra 10 pounds just for the conference meet,” McLavey recalled. “I went too far and I lost all of my stamina. I placed but I didn’t win.”
McLavey regained those 10 pounds the following year to wrestle in the 157-pound division, eventually defeating the reigning conference champion he had lost to the previous season.
McLavey anticipates area wrestling fans will see a repeat of that same exciting competition on the mat this season as fans did in the 1950s.
“I think we will see high quality of wrestling,” he predicted. “It is my understanding that most junior colleges in the area dropped their wrestling programs and they are starting to bring them back, so it will be tough to get competitive teams to wrestle against right away.”
According to McLavey, wrestling returning at the junior college level is a very positive thing.
“I’m excited about it because it gives students another option and it is an individual sport,” he said. “Jay Lee, the president of NJC, said a couple of years ago that he was going to try to bring wrestling back, so I have anticipated it returning.”
Hastings wrestled during the 1964 season when NJC won its first of three national titles. That was the only season he wrestled, but Hastings also had the honor of competing on the Plainsmen football team for two seasons. That program was also discontinued years ago.
Hastings has many fond memories of wrestling for one season at NJC as a heavyweight. He advanced to the championship match in the heavyweight division in the NJCAA National Tournament in 1964 in Worthington, Minn. and lost by a one-point decision.
“Jack was just eluding to the fact that wrestling is an individual sport. I played football here, too,” he recalled. “I was a lineman and you could do a lot of work on the line and nobody would even know you were there.
“But when you wrestled you got credit, but it was a team sport as well as an individual sport. And the heavyweight match was always the last match and there were several times when it came down to when the heavyweight had to win his match for the team to win. There were also times that I needed a pin for the team to win to get the points, so there was some pressure there.”
Hastings also observed that there has been some misconception that wrestling is being introduced to NJC for the very first time.
“There were reports in the newspaper that this was the very first wrestling program ever at NJC,” he laughed. “That kind of upset me, because when football and wrestling went away it seemed like everybody just forgot about those sports.”
Hastings said that he was able to handle wrestling and playing football in the same season in 1964.
“Football was in the fall and wrestling started up after football was over,” he said. “It was nice being in shape from football season going into wrestling. Since I was a heavyweight I didn’t have to be in that good of shape. I got to eat steaks and whatever I wanted, so it was a lot different for me being a heavyweight.”
Hastings added his recollection of wrestling for Lanham.
“Bill was probably one of the meanest guys I have ever met in my life,” Hastings laughed. “He was a little guy and he knew all of the holds and all of the little guys use those holds. Heavyweights don’t.
“We just used a bear hug and a half-nelson, so Bill didn’t have much to do with me, but he really pushed some of those lighter weight guys hard.
“I knew Bill pretty well even after wrestling and he was a good guy. But I’m sure some of the lighter weight guys knew him even better. It was neat to see him inducted into the NJCAA Hall of Fame and that was another reason why I was upset that wrestling was forgotten about."
Hastings recalled, “We really did some great things and there were some big moments for this community. So I thought it was great for him and there are some big moments ahead for the future wrestlers who come here.”