After the first six matches, Norfolk had three wins, Columbus had one and there had been two draws. The Panthers led 14-7. The seventh match at 138 pounds served as the evening’s main event as unbeatens No. 1 Todd Kohl of Norfolk and No. 2 Doug Rice of Columbus squared off.
Kohl was the defending 132-pound state champion.
“Todd was one of the best wrestlers ever to come through Norfolk High,” Panther coach Dave Boyd said. “The crowd was just buzzing. The electricity in there was unbelievable for a high school wrestling match.”
It had the makings of a classic battle, but it wasn’t. Kohl dominated from the beginning, winning 17-2.
Rice’s only points came on intentional-release escapes where Kohl allowed a one-point escape and then quickly countered with a two-point takedown. The superior decision — a margin of 12 points or more — gave Norfolk five team points.
“Todd was one of a kind. He was an amazing wrestler,” teammate Steve Welch said. “He was a street fighter. Nobody could even touch him his senior year.”
Greg Staudenmaier agreed. “Todd was one of the most determined people I’ve ever known,” he said. “He wasn’t going to lose.”
Kohl’s win gave Norfolk a 19-7 lead with five matches to go. But the Discoverers weren’t finished. Not by a long shot.
At 145, No. 2 Brent Arment of Columbus defeated fourth-ranked Kurt Wittler 4-1. “I wrestled him two or three times that year and he got me every time,” Wittler said. “But they were always real close matches, always defensive, kind of just waiting for somebody to make a mistake.”
Then 155-pounders Staudenmaier and Ken Robinson of Columbus fought to a 2-2 draw. “I remember being dog-tired,” Staudenmaier said. “I was very disappointed. I wish I could’ve come up with more energy to squeak out one more point and it could have turned the whole dual around.”
Then the pivotal match of the night saw No. 6 Mike Rambour of Columbus win a nail-biter at 167 over Norfolk’s fifth-ranked Mike Molini 9-8.
Norfolk led 21-15 with two matches to go, but the Panthers were without their 185-pounder, Ken Hoefler, who had torn ligaments in his knee at practice three days earlier.
“I was wrestling the reserve heavyweight and was standing up and he pushed against my left knee and it popped, and tore my knee up on the inside and my ACL,” Hoefler said.
Hoefler was unranked but had an 8-2 record. Troy Broders moved up from the junior varsity to compete in his first varsity match ever against Randy Griffiths, the No. 1-ranked 185-pounder in the state.
“Troy was like I was, very light,” Hoefler said. “He didn’t weigh 185 pounds.”
Broders battled, but Griffiths registered the first pin of the night in one minute and 30 seconds to tie the team score 21-21.
“I had never wrestled him before,” Hoefler said, “but I hadn’t been pinned in a match before.”
It all came down to the 12th and final match of the night. The heavyweights. “I think this is the most fired up I’d ever been for a wrestling match,” Norfolk’s Rick Graae said, “and I think in the long run, that hurt me.”
Legendary Daily News scribe Denny Fuehrer wrote in 1979 that “Mark Stockman, Columbus’ heavyweight, fell into a headlock early and pinned Panther Rick Graae in 36 seconds to determine the outcome.”
Final score: Columbus 27, Norfolk 21.
“I was so hyped and way too aggressive,” Graae said. “I’ve got to hand it to the other kid. He was smart and took my aggression and played it against me. I used a drop-step move. I would push against them and would watch their feet and when I’d see them plant their foot, I would drop down, lift the foot and down they’d go.
“Well, before he set that foot, he turned around, grabbed me in a headlock and my feet went over the top of me and next thing I know, I was counting rafters.”
Graae said it was the worst feeling in the world.
“I did everything to get out of that, but this kid was strong and he just held me there, and it was like it was all in slow-motion, I looked at the referee and his hand was coming down and he hit the mat and shattered my whole world.”
Wittler felt for his teammate and friend. “I lost my match that night,” he said. “I could’ve been the last one with the match tied, but it was Rick and I just really respected the way he took that night and made himself so much better. Rick placed at state that year and the kid from Columbus didn’t.”
“We had three ties that night,” Norfolk 119-pounder Jeff Mitchell said. “I remember it like it was yesterday. I just wish I would’ve won my match. If one of us would’ve maybe turned left instead of turning right, then we win the match and we win the whole thing.”
After the dual, Welch said, Lanny Neese, the Columbus coach, visited the Panther locker room.
“We were all pretty down and he said he had never been a part of anything like that for all the years that he’d coached,” Welch said, “and he’d been coaching for 30 years at that point.
“He said, ‘That was incredible and you guys should be really proud of yourselves, you’re a great team and we got lucky to win at the end, but congratulations to your coach and all you guys.’ He was just a class act.”
Despite the loss, Boyd fondly remembers that night and hopes for a time when high school wrestlers can experience what the Panthers and Discoverers did 40 years ago. “It seems like now they go to all of these dual-meet tournaments and wrestle five or six duals a day and truthfully, I’d like to see them go back to the old traditional thing where you can have a team that you compete with that’s very traditional and draws the crowd in.”
It may happen sooner than later. Norfolk and Columbus continue to wrestle against each other each January. Columbus earned the state runner-up trophy in 2019, while Norfolk finished 11th. Both return six state qualifiers for 2020. The two sides are scheduled to battle in Columbus on Jan. 14, 2020. Mark it on your calendar.
Columbus went on to win the 1979 Class A state championship. The Discoverers’ 185-pounder, Randy Griffiths, took home the gold medal.
Injuries took their toll on Norfolk and the Panthers finished seventh in ‘79, but 138-pounder Todd Kohl won his second consecutive state title. Jeff Brudigan finished fourth at 105, Graae was fifth at heavyweight and Molini took sixth at 167.
Dave Boyd coached Norfolk’s wrestlers for 21 years through the 1995-96 season. He was inducted into the Nebraska Scholastic Wrestling Coaches Association hall of fame in 2003 and retired from teaching following the 2005-06 school year.
Steve Welch works as an accounting sales specialist in the Phoenix area, Jeff Mitchell owns a glass company in Liberal, Kansas, and Ken Hoefler lives in Battle Creek and works as an account manager for an ag and industrial parts and equipment supply company.
Kurt Wittler, Dave Peterson, Rick Graae and Greg Staudenmeier all live in Norfolk. Wittler is a farm manager and sells real estate; Peterson is a Navy veteran and works as an electrical engineer; Graae sells and delivers dairy products and Staudenmeier owns a series of bait shops in Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota.