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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Letter to the editor: 50 years of excellence in Brighton wrestling

Jan 05, 2024 10:25AM ● By Contributed by Don Chavis

It is important in the arena of human accomplishments to have a vision of what can be done.

Years ago a group of coaches, wrestlers, and parents had such a vision. It became a quest to take a brand new high school’s wrestling program to the heights of near perfection. Fifty years ago, Brighton won its first state championship and then went on to garner 13 more. The Bengals hold the longest winning streak in Utah wrestling history, 11 in a row from 1978 through 1988. Pleasant Grove came close with seven, but lost to Layton in 2017. They then had to go back to square one.

The premier event of high school wrestling has been the “Battle of the Axe.” In 1969, Don Neff of Brighton, and Tex Casto of Hillcrest initiated this amazing confrontation. The school that vanquished the other would paint its school color on the axe handle. Brighton has dominated this event with numerous orange axes. Fans would pack the gym to the rafters leaving standing room only. Courage ran deep in all the athletes who participated.    

Many exciting things happened in the “Battle of the Axe.” January 1972, Jeff Savage pinned Kim Rolfe of Hillcrest. Both were sophomores and both were future state champions. At one of the dual meets head coach Don Neff, in a rush of adrenaline, threw his crutch to the middle of the mat because of a bad call. January 1974, Sam Merrill of Brighton defeated future state champion Randy Kuwahara 6-4.  It was a huge upset. Also, Brighton’s Doug Young beat Kim Rolfe 2-1. Rolfe was the defending State Champion. In 1973, Doug Petersen, a junior varsity wrestler at the time, surprised everyone by pinning the highly ranked Mike Baily of Hillcrest. Petersen went on to become a dominant wrestler.  He later wrestled in college. The Axe was always boisterous. At one meet, fans ignited a string of firecrackers. The event was temporarily halted while the culprits were dealt with. The big bang added to the excitement.  

Judd Mackintosh, one of Brighton’s all-time greats, first and second in state, shares his thoughts on his wrestling experience. “The best wrestling coaches around, Don Neff and Dave Chavis taught us never to give up. That hard condition gave us a crucial advantage over our opponents. Wrestling is a mental game like life itself. Wrap your head around it and make it happen on the mat. My best friends were wrestlers. We had a common bond because we endured grueling practices and faced the mental and physical stress of stepping on the mat in front of a feverish crowd. There was nowhere to hide. You were out there alone with your opponent. Wrestling taught me many life skills that I have passed on to my children and grand kids.” Mackintosh has become a semi-permanent fixture in the wrestling room over the years. He is always excited to help young athletes develop new skills. To paraphrase General MacArthur’s farewell speech to Congress, “Old wrestler never die; they just hang out in the wrestling room.”

In the 50 years of Brighton Wrestling our athletes have achieved some unprecedented successes:  Two hundred and fifty-three of our athletes have placed in the state tournament. The first was Jay Bennett’s third in 1970 and the last, Gavyn Gappmayer’s third in 2023. There have been three, three-time state champions: Talan Knox, Chris Skudlarczyk and Cam Jones. Seventeen two-time state champions include: Brian Adams, Steve Burton, Brent and Doug Bytendorp, Don Chavis, Don Christenson, David Lundskog, Rami Haddadin, Perry Skudlarczyk, Robb Maxwell, David Petersen, Mike Spencer, Brayden Stevens and Ric Thompson. Brighton has had 75 state champions, 47 runner ups, 47 thirds, 33 fourth places, 29 fifths and 23 sixths. If a Brighton wrestler places in state the odds favor that he will be a state champion.                                                                                                                                                                                                              

There have been many other notable events in the history of Brighton wrestling. Brighton defeated Tooele High School 72-0 (1974) matching the national record of dual meet scores. Probably the best team in the history of Utah wrestling, the Brighton Bengals crushed all opposition at the state tournament held at Clearfield High. In 1987, there were only 12 weight classes and no JV wrestlers could go to state. Brighton qualified 11 boys, all of them placed. Nine were in the finals and five became state champions. The four who took second were state champions the next year. The team out-scored the second-place team, Box Elder, by 108 points. The Deseret News stated, “Saturday was quite probably, the best single day for a high school sports program in the history of Utah athletics.”  

 In the Deseret News, Dec 21, 1995 edition, “Brighton, which ruled the state wrestling wars 11 consecutive years (1978-88), returned to the spotlight Wednesday by snapping current kingpin Orem’s win streak of 59 dual matches. The Bengals defeated the Tigers 29-27.”  

“It feels good, a great accomplishment,” said Brighton coach Tim Blatter. “I’ve never been associated with anything like it.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                

Girls wrestling is one of fastest growing sports in America. Brighton girls have stepped on the mat and competed in a UHSAA sanctioned sport. There is now a state meet for girls. Last year, the Bengal girls performed superbly. Three girls placed: Katelyn Edgell in third, Elena Nonu in sixth and Adrina Tavita in sixth. Way to go ladies! Joidee Gappmayer is the new head coach.

To achieve the dream of having one of the premier wrestling programs in the state, a proactive parent Booster Club is an absolute necessity. The boosters raised money, provided treats and rewards, ran meets/tournament and many other crucial endeavors. The leaders of the first Booster Club were Harv Leo, Bob Norton, Jay Petersen and Earl Hodgkins. The real superstars of the Boosters were three families: the Maxwells—Robert and Suzette, Penny and Bryce Petersen, and Kevin and DeeDee Davis. Their contributions were beyond measure. There have been hundreds of dedicated boosters over the years. They are a key ingredient in our success. Brighton wrestling is very grateful to have had such superlative parents. Jerry Christensen has been a very dedicated booster. He has coached wrestling for a decade and has aggressively publicized other Brighton High pursuits. He is one of a kind.                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

Over the years, Brighton has had a series of very competent coaches. Jedd Jones won two region championships. Paul Messersmith’s wrestlers took second in state. Ted Sierer’s teams were first and second. Both Don Neff and Dave Chavis are “Hall of Fame” coaches with 13 state championships between them. Also Brighton has had some stellar assistant coaches: Lynn Freestone, Manfred Lassig, Jeff Romine, Mark Montague, Wade Brown, Don Chavis, Chad Flook, Ramiro Graziano and Luke and Clay Davis to name a few.

Among the many firsts of Brighton wrestling, the team flew to Denver twice to compete in the prestigious Arvada West Tournament. We won it in the second try. 

The individual Brighton team records are: Joel Savage, consecutive falls, 12, 1971; Junior Salt, most pins in a season, 39, 2006; Luke Davis, most career falls, 86, 2012-16; Robb Maxwell, most career wins, 135, 1997-01; Anthonee Ouk, most wins in a season, 50, 2000; Cam Jones, most consecutive wins, 96, 1998-01; Ralph Fallentine, 0 points scored upon him in the State Meet, 1973; Daniel Purrington, fastest varsity fall, 12 seconds, 2002; Talan Knox, most takedowns in a season 218, 2005. 

The vision of what Brighton could become is now a reality. Fifty years of hard work and dedication has paid tremendous dividends. To the Brighton Wrestling family, “You should be proud of your many successes. It is important that we pass on what we have learned. Character traits of integrity, kindness, good humor, hard work, courage, and perseverance,” should be shared with everyone we love and care about.                                                          

Written by David Chavis