The New York State High School Wrestling Championships are being held in Albany today and tomorrow and Sullivan County will have two representatives in the Division II tournament for small …
The New York State High School Wrestling Championships are being held in Albany today and tomorrow and Sullivan County will have two representatives in the Division II tournament for small schools—Joey Curreri of the combined Eldred/Liberty/Sullivan West team at 120 pounds and Hunter Roberts of the same team at 195—but none in Division I, the competition for larger districts.
While it is not unusual any more for Sullivan County schools to go virtually unnoticed in the sport, there was a time when that was not the case. In fact, for many years Liberty High School had one of the premier wrestling programs in the Section IX region, which then included all of Sullivan, Orange, Ulster and Rockland Counties.
The very first time Section IX championships were held in wrestling, at Nyack High School in March of 1954, the Liberty matmen came away with two firsts, two seconds and five thirds. Joel Budow and Raymond Yaun, wrestling at 98 and 112 pounds respectively, were the Liberty champs. Jake Budow was runner-up at 103 pounds, while Leonard Costello took second at 154. Only four schools competed.
Liberty dropped the sport shortly thereafter, not because of lack of funding or dwindling participation, but because there were few other schools in the immediate area fielding wrestling teams and Liberty had to travel too far to find competition. The sport was reinstated at the school in 1961 with Jim Sabatelle as the coach, and the team picked up right where it had left off, winning the first-ever DUSO League postseason tournament that season (1961-62), and finishing second to Middletown the following year.
For nearly a decade thereafter, Liberty was a force to be reckoned with in the DUSO League and more than held its own in Sectional competition, including tying for first place in the Sectional tournament with three champions in 1964. For a few years, the program was so successful and so well-stocked with talent, that the school fielded two varsity squads, an “A” team that competed against Middletown, Newburgh, Port Jervis and Kingston in the DUSO city league and a “B” team that took on Monticello, Fallsburg, Ellenville, and a Port Jervis “B” team in the DUSO village league.
There were many outstanding wrestlers at Liberty over the years, brothers Tom and Ted Lewis, Tom Reed, Al Lotts, and John Lennon among them, and each had his own distinct style. To this day, John Lennon's 148-pound match with heralded Art Trovei of Port Jervis in February of 1970-- which ended in a 2-2 draw—was one of the greatest demonstrations of defensive wrestling ever seen in DUSO competition.
Perhaps no Liberty wrestler was any more successful than Ron Lewis, who compiled an incredible 50-3 dual meet record at Liberty—the three losses all came in his first year-- before going on to an outstanding collegiate career first at Orange County Community College and then at SUNY Potsdam.
Ron Lewis followed his older cousin Tom at Liberty, and started wrestling as a 14-year old freshman in 1964. Tom Lewis had not only been a Section IX champion, but his third place finish in the NYS championships in 1964 is the highest finish ever for a Sullivan County wrestler in the one division format.
Ron Lewis weighed just 82 pounds his first year, and typically gave away ten or more pounds in each match competing in the 95-pound division. He won his first varsity match, and went on to lose just three dual meet matches his entire freshman year. He would never lose another high school dual.
“My coach was Mr. Don Debadts, who was also my math teacher,” Lewis recalled recently. “He was very positive about my abilities and made me confident in my performances. My cousin Ted (who was one year younger) and I went through my whole high school career, and he was instrumental in keeping our focus on getting better in the sport and we talked wrestling constantly even during the off season.”
Ted Lewis was a DUSO League and Section IX champion in 1968 and 1970.
Ron Lewis lost in the finals of the DUSO League tournament his freshman year, but won the league title in each of the next three seasons. He was Section IX champ his junior year and was ranked as high as number 1 in the state during his senior year before losing a close match in the Section IX finals—to the eventual state champion, Lee Klepper of Suffern.
Lewis went on to wrestle for two years at OCCC, which was a national power under Coach Don Weber at the time, and served as team captain both years. He finished second in a very competitive Region XV tournament at the conclusion of each of the two seasons. He continued wrestling at Potsdam, again serving as team captain, and winning a number of wrestling accolades while completing his Bachelor's degree in Computer Science. Following graduation, he remained at the school as a graduate student, and assistant wrestling coach for two very successful years.
“Wrestling provided many life lessons, and I would strongly recommend it for a variety of reasons,” Lewis said. “First and foremost it is a discipline. It is the only sport I know of that you can't leave in the gym when practice is over. Weight training and willpower are ever present in becoming a successful competitor in the sport. You have to dedicate hours of practice and drills to polish your style in the sport. Many of these attributes carry over in life after your time in the sport has ended. Unlike a team sport, you have to do it all on your own.”
John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian. He wrestled at Monticello High School from 1967-1970 and in college at Georgia Tech from 1970-72. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.