During its nearly five-decade history, the Mount Anthony Union High School wrestling team has been one of the most successful in Vermont history, across all sports. The Patriots have won 170 individual state championships -- the most of any program in the country -- and 26 state titles as a team.
Yet there was a time early in MAU history when the wrestling program was in danger of being dropped. Thanks to the school's first two state champions, however, it was saved.
Bruce Lackey and James Harwood, each from the Class of 1969, along with nine other teammates, helped keep wrestling afloat.
Lackey started wrestling in seventh grade after learning the sport in gym class, while Harwood didn't start until his sophomore year after being cut from the basketball team. Both started to come into their own as juniors in 1967-68. Under new coach Ted Eisenman, the team traveled throughout the Northeast, wrestling at Hoosick Falls, Keene, N.H., Springfield, Mass., and even into Maine.
Lackey wrestled at 121 pounds, while Harwood was a class up at 127. So the two would battle every day in practice.
"I had gotten better over time, and very close in weight to Bruce," Harwood said. "We had a lot of tough matches in practice."
All that work paid off when the team traveled to Harwood Union for an invitational tournament, what is now considered the Vermont state wrestling championships. Lackey, who went undefeated in his sophomore season, did the same his junior year, winning in the final bout by a decision.
"To us, it was just a tournament for Vermont," said Lackey, who was voted the most outstanding wrestler at the 1968 competition.
With their invitational victories, Lackey and Harwood set their sights on 1969 as the year they would try to take it all.
But there were some roadblocks. The program saw another change as Clarence Pelkie took the head coaching job. And there were rumblings the program could be dropped after the season.
"Pelkie had never wrestled before but he had been an athlete," Lackey said. "He didn't want to see the program dropped so he took over to save the program."
Mount Anthony had more success on the mat. Lackey remained undefeated and took a nearly three-year winning streak into the first official state championship, again at Harwood.
"I was just trying to stay unbeaten. The only tournament we went to was states and you just had to go out and try to win," Lackey said.
Harwood was nearly as good in his senior season.
"I only recall losing one time," Harwood said. "You wrestled a different style then, more stalling."
As the pair became more successful, the confidence was growing that they could lead the Patriots to a state crown.
"We were definitely puffed up a little that we were going to win it," Harwood said. "We ‘planted a seed' about how tough we were at the state tournament."
In his final, Lackey faced off against Harwood's Lanny Benoit, who had the home crowd firmly in his corner.
"I wish I had it to do over," Lackey admits. "I wrestled very conservatively."
But Lackey finished his unbeaten streak, edging Benoit by decision.
"I did what I had to do to win," Lackey said. "Back then, you didn't take the risks they do now."
Harwood also beat a Benoit brother to claim a championship and behind the winners and Rich Squires, named as the tournament's most outstanding wrestler, the Patriots won the first title of 26 in the program's storied history. Other team members included Tim Baldwin, Paul Davignon, Bob Dornion, Fred Harwood, Eugene Hayes, Bob Myers, Jeff Myers and Roy Squires.
Both Lackey and James Harwood moved on, losing at the New England tournament before wrestling briefly at the college level.
Lackey returned to the program as an assistant varsity and junior varsity coach when his son, Ben, wrestled. Harwood stayed away for nearly two decades before returning for a match.
"We never thought of it then, we just enjoyed it," Lackey said. "I'm really proud of what it's become in Bennington."
Armand Patenaude took over the next season, staying at the helm of the Patriots until 1982. Three years later, a 21-year-old Scott Legacy started coaching and Mount Anthony wrestling began rewriting the national record books.
"It's always nice to have a positive legacy and it's positive to have laid the ground work for all the success that has come after us," Harwood said. "That's the thing that I've carried throughout."
Editor's note: This is the sixth installment in a season-long series about the Mount Anthony wrestling team as it seeks its 25th straight state championship.