The school is the center of virtually every small North Dakota town. When the school’s athletic teams do well, they become a source of pride for the entire community. When a team makes it all the way to the State Tournament, the community goes crazy as virtually everyone leaves town to attend the event. It’s a big thing, and both athletes and spectators alike will remember a State Tournament for the rest of their lives. Let me tell you about once when we had such a team in Velva…
It was early 1976, and the Aggies were enjoying an extremely successful wrestling season. They were winning duel after duel led by defending state heavyweight champion Rick Nechiporenko. The regional tournament was coming up in a few weeks, and people wondered how many of the eleven man team would place first or second, qualifying them for an individual berth in the state tournament. Anticipation was building in the community.
The general consensus was that it would take at least six state qualifiers for the Aggies to have a chance at placing as a team. When nine eventually made the cut, the community sensed that something special was on the horizon, and people began making plans to go to Jamestown. I was in seventh grade and ecstatic when Dad agreed to take me and my friend Tim to the North Dakota State Class B Wrestling Tournament!
I was in awe as we walked into the Jamestown Civic Center, and found the floor covered with four separate sets of wrestling mats. We found seats just in time to watch our fellow seventh grader, 98 pound James Anderson take the mat for his first match. Herman, as he was known by everyone at school, appeared a little overwhelmed by the huge crowd at his first State Tournament, but when the whistle blew, any jitters he may have had were immediately gone and he got down to business!
That first day flew by in a flurry of excitement. Rick Nechiporenko lived up to his reputation as a wrestling machine, crushing opponent after opponent, earning himself Velva’s sole berth in Saturday night’s championship round. Brian had suffered two losses that day, ending his tournament, but the rest of the team was still alive for Saturday afternoon’s consolation brackets. Velva sat in 5th place as a team at the conclusion of Friday’s action.
Over breakfast the next day I expressed concern that it would be difficult to move up in the team standings since Rick Nechiporenko was our only wrestler still alive for an individual title. The adults at the table told me that our strength was in the “wrestle backs,” and that we could indeed capture a team title with only one in the championship round if everyone else did well during the Saturday afternoon round. Well, let me tell you, that’s exactly what they did!
Herman placed 4th at 98 pounds
Paul Telehey placed 4th at 105 pounds
Mike Kelner placed 5th at 119 pounds
Ken Kramer placed 5th at 132 pounds
Jim Nechiporenko placed 3rd at 138 pounds
Laurie Anderson injured his shoulder but still placed 3rd at 155 pounds
Dave Michaelson placed 5th at 185 pounds
Velva sat in first place as a team after the afternoon round but Lisbon, Napoleon, and Watford City were all breathing down our necks, and they had more wrestlers vying for individual championships than we had. It was going to be close!
The Jamestown Civic Center was bursting with excitement as the Championship round began Saturday evening. There was only one mat remaining in the center of the floor, so all eyes were going to be on each championship bout. Eleven individuals and one team would be crowned champions that night, and thousands of wrestling fans were on hand to cheer them on.
One by one, the remaining wrestlers from Lisbon, Napoleon, and Watford City all lost their matches. By the time Rick Nechiporenko took the mat for the final match of the night, Velva was still in first place; they were going to be team champions no matter what happened! At that point however, all attention switched from the team standings, back to the individual match at hand. Velva’s best wrestler ever, Rick Nechiporenko, was taking the mat for his final match in an Aggie uniform! Rick was the heart of the team that year, and as his name was announced over the PA, we stood on our feet and screamed our approval for this young man who now had Velva Aggie wrestling on the brink of winning their first team Championship!
The whistle blew, but before we had even taken our seats, the unthinkable happened: Rick was taken down by his opponent, and landed on his back. Rick’s body was sticking up in the air at a grotesquely unnatural angle; his shoulders pinned hard against the mat. The Velva fans were in shock as the referee began his count; “one-two-.” Rick somehow managed to lift one shoulder just enough to keep the match from ending. The referee began counting again, but before he could reach “three” Rick had broken free, performed a reverse, and was now the one in control. From that point, it took Rick mere seconds to roll his opponent onto his back, and as he had done countless times before, win the match with a pin in the first period!
After Rick was awarded his individual championship trophy, the rest of the state qualifying team joined him on the awards stand. The Velva Aggies were then awarded the 1976 North Dakota State Class B team trophy! I had never been so proud to be able to call Velva home!
Velva has gone on to win six State Wrestling Championships, but the one in 1976 was the first. It was the one that put Velva wrestling on the map, and I was there to be a part of history that night! Thank you Rick, Herman, Paul, Mike Ken, Jim, Laurie, Tim and Brian for making it a weekend I’ll never forget!