EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a multi-part series highlighting the inaugural “Teams of Distinction” recently announced by the Owatonna High School Hall-of-Fame committee.
The following installment gives a brief history of wrestling in the state of Minnesota and chronicles the 1953-54 OHS state championship team.
Every powerhouse program starts as a determined upstart.
Before the banners, trophies and parades, an ambitious group of athletes must first push the boundaries of any previously-established expectations, break through the metaphorical ceiling and forge a path that can be followed by generations to come.
For the Owatonna wrestling team, it’s trailblazing season came in 1954 when the Indians captured the program’s first team state championship and sparked a run of success that has been surpassed by only a small handful of programs in the entire state.
In the 50 years that directly followed the Indians’ breakthrough campaign, OHS added three more team state titles, two runner-up performances, 12 individual state championships and 15 Big Nine Conference crowns.
In the 15 years since it last finished atop the MSHSL podium in 2005, OHS has remained one of the most consistent big school programs south of Apple Valley, racking up 10 individual state championships and seven conference titles in the span. The Huskies have also remained a fixture in St. Paul, finishing a combined 3-3 in their two most recent state tournament appearances in 2017 and 2020. They also qualified for the Class AAA dual competition in 2010.
Owatonna has undoubtedly built a formidable reputation in a sport that has deep roots and a passionate following in Minnesota. The three-day state tournament attracts crowds that swell in excess of 50,000 spectators and is currently hosted at a 16,000-seat NHL arena. Numerous web sites dedicated exclusively to the coverage and promotion of the sport have cropped up in the last decade and contribute to the unrivaled media coverage of the season-ending mega-event in downtown St. Paul.
There’s no question, high school wrestling is a big deal in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
Sixty-six years ago, things looked a lot different.
Weight divisions have shifted and lineups expanded. The postseason scoring format and basic qualifications have changed and offseason training programs have evolved to a degree that wrestling has transformed into a year-round endeavor.
Prior to the 1953-54 season, wrestling had only been around as an officially-sponsored varsity activity at OHS for nine seasons. Despite cycling through two coaches prior to hiring Fred Stoeker in 1952, the Indians had built a rock-solid foundation in their formative years and quickly transformed into one of the top programs in the region.
Entering the team’s 10th season, expectations had grown to an all-time high. The Indians were coming off a great season and rolling back the majority of their lineup that had finished comfortably within the top five at the 1953 state tournament. The year before that, the team had come tantalizingly close to the ultimate prize when it climbed all the way to second place at the season-ending competition in Minneapolis.
The undefeated regular season offered little resistance as Owatonna claimed its second consecutive Big Nine Conference title with a 24-16 victory over Mankato and took its unblemished record into the postseason.
At the time, teams were divided into seven competitive regions based exclusively on geography. The Indians’ shared Region One with Albert Lea, Austin, Blooming Prairie, Faribault, New Richland, Northfield, Plainview, Rochester, Stewartville and Waseca.
In the mid-1950s, current first-rung suburbs were only just beginning to evolve from rural farm communities to the bustling hubs they would eventually become and housed a fraction of the high schools compared to today. Because of this, Region One and Region Five — which, at the time, encompassed some of the largest schools by enrollment located mainly within Minneapolis and the immediate surrounding areas — were the two largest groups in the state. Because of this, the governing board awarded three entrants apiece into the state tournament from those regions and two from the remaining five.
In Owatonna's neck of the woods, the Indians boasted the deepest stable of grapplers in the 11-team region and were billed as the unquestioned favorites as Day 1 commenced at Carleton College on Friday, Feb. 19, 1954.
An excerpt from the Owatonna People’s Press stated: “From a distance, it doesn’t look possible for any of the other teams in the region to dislodge Owatonna as regional champion.”
In feat that was described as “unprecedented” by the the local newspaper, OHS somehow surpassed its pre-tournament hype and qualified its entire lineup of 11 individuals for the state competition after a dominant two-day tour de force in Northfield.
Describing the action after the first day at the regional meet, the People’s Press wrote: “Qualification of all eleven Indian wrestlers for the [final] matches Saturday morning puts the team in commanding position. Besides this, unofficial figures give Owatonna 8 pins, to 5 for Rochester, Northfield and Stewartville.”
Having steamrolled its way through the regular season and adding to its already substantial momentum at the regional meet, the Indians were a freight train running downhill as they entered the state tournament hosted by the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Buoyed by its heralded trio of Sam Bengtson, Roy Minter and Ronnie Baker, OHS found itself tangling with with a pair of established powerhouses — Anoka and Mound — at the top of the leaderboard heading into the final day of competition. Anoka had captured consecutive state titles in 1949 and 1950 while Mound finished atop the podium in 1947.
In the end, though, 1954 belonged to the Indians.
“A jubilant team of Owatonna High School wrestlers and coach Fred Stoeker came tooting back to this city early last night with the first state wrestling team championship in the school’s history safely in tow,” wrote the People’s Press in an article published on Sunday, Feb. 28, 1954. “The athletes brought back to city fans waiting to acclaim them an oversized trophy and these considerable achievements, forged out of sound coaching, mat skill, determination and, not to be overlooked, weight of numbers.”
Bengtson (138 pounds), Minter (154) and Baker (165) each claimed individual titles and accounted for 18 of Owatonna’s 24 total points in a unique scoring system that featured a single team-point for pins and victories by default. Conference rival, Mankato, made a late push and leapfrogged Anoka and Mound on Day 2 and came in second with 20 points.
Owatonna, which shattered its previous school record of 18 points at the state tournament in 1949, also netted two points for Harold Maile’s third place finish at 133 pounds and one point for Ronnie Jacobsen’s fourth place finish at 112. Jacobsen and Baker each recorded pins and Dick Wolesky scored a default victory to round-out the scoring for the Indians.
In the immediate aftermath of the historic title, Bengtson’s championship was chronicled extensively in the People’s Press and noted for its significance within the burgeoning Owatonna wrestling community. Following in the footsteps of older brothers Jack and Don, Sam became the third of four siblings to secure gold in Minneapolis.
“Jack grabbed of the title in the 112-pound class in 1948. Don did it in 1945, and Sam turned the trick this year in 136. Dick (Bengtson) was the other top matman, but his state showing was confined to fourth place point in 1948,” wrote the People’s Press.
In his final match, Sam Bengtson escaped the formidable grip of Litchfield’s Darrel Vick before wiggling free for a “vital” escape in the 9-4 victory.
Below is an account of the action as described in the People’s Press on Tuesday, March 2, 1954:
“If Pa Bengtson swallowed a cigar last Saturday afternoon or Ma Bengtson dropped one of her choice pieces of antique chinaware, it would have been understandable. It was painful to see the agony written on the face of Don, son of the two, Mr. and Mrs. Paul A. Bengtson, 518 E. Broadway, as he crouched in front of spectators, helplessly twisting, perspiring and yelling for kid brother who faced elimination. Sam was down, his shoulders a split fraction of an inch from a pin, and his opponent slowly bearing down for the kill. There was sudden movement, an escape, and in less than three seconds Sam was on top.”
Outside of the Bengtson trio, the only other Owatonna wrestler to win a state title prior to 1954 was Gerald Hendrickson, who ran the table in the 95-pound division in 1945. In the program’s first eight years of existence, the Indians compiled 10 second place individual medals.