Lester Peterson was the first wrestler in the history of Canon-McMillan High School to win a PIAA wrestling championship in 1969.
Yet, when discussion about the greatest Big Macs’ wrestlers of all-time takes place, Peterson is often overlooked, and his legacy underappreciated.
Peterson, who resides in Canonsburg with his wife, Kathryn, won three WPIAL titles from 1967-69.
Yet, his feats and accomplishments seem almost forgotten.
Make no mistake. Lester Peterson’s wrestling achievements are at the top of the list in the rich and storied tradition of Canon-McMillan wrestling.
“He has been overlooked,” said Pat Rheam, a teammate of Peterson’s at Canon-McMillan. “What also gets overlooked is the fact that Lester was a great athlete.”
In the history of wrestling at Canonsburg High School and the merged Canon-McMillan High School, there have been 17 wrestlers from the two schools with at least three WPIAL titles to their credit. That covers 83 years.
When Peterson’s PIAA championship is considered, it is easy to understand this Big Mac is no small fry.
His place in Canon-McMillan wrestling history is obvious and it’s time he takes his just place among the greats.
“Unfortunately, Lester’s legacy has not been recognized like so many great athletes from our area,” said Angelo “Butch” Marino, one of those three-time WPIAL champions and a two-time state champion in his own right.
“Lester was a tremendous wrestler,” said Dave Cook, a WPIAL champion in 1967, PIAA runnerup and legendary coach and official. “He would be considered elite today. Lester did things that nobody did back then. I don’t think people knew what they were seeing.
“He did accomplish so much. I don’t think a lot of wrestling fans realized how accomplished and creative he was out there. He had that balance and such good feet. You couldn’t take him down. He was hard to coach against because you never knew what was coming. You would sit there and watch and often ask: ‘What was that?’ He’s been overlooked.”
Peterson, who also participated in track and field in high school and excelled in the hurdles, does not feel disrespected. When he looks back, he wishes he could have done better as a sophomore and junior in the state tournament. His perception of his high school career isn’t tainted.
“I really don’t feel any kind of way about (being overlooked or not given enough credit for the accomplishments),” Peterson said. “I just did what I did, what I liked to do. I wrestled because I liked doing it.”
Introduction to Wrestling
As Peterson explains it, his wrestling career began by accident while in the sixth grade.
“One day, we were messing around in gym class and I was wrestling around with another kid. Mr. (Nick) Kapotas (a teacher) was there and he asked me my name and if I was going out for wrestling.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do right then. I didn’t know what wrestling was. He just said when you get to seventh grade, I was to come and see him.”
Kapotas was the junior high wrestling coach at the time for Canon-McMillan.
Peterson admits he was interested in wrestling but his father “didn’t want me to go out for the sport. Mr. Kapotas signed the paper for me to take the physical. He did that for me. That’s how I got my first start in wrestling.”
Ironically, Peterson could not crack the starting lineup as a seventh grade competitor.
“I didn’t know what kind of wrestler I was,” Peterson said. “Honestly, I never knew if I was any good.”
Peterson’s breakthrough came a year later. He was a starter as an eighth grader and placed high in a Junior Olympic tournament, losing to Ron Junko, a ninth grader at Trinity. Junko went on to be a PIAA champion in 1967 and a two-time WPIAL champion for the Hillers.
As a freshman, Peterson said he started feeling better about wrestling and his abilities. He found success and was prepared to take the next step on the Big Macs’ varsity team, which was coached by Andy Puchany.
“By then I guess I was OK,” Peterson said. “I still didn’t realize my talents. People were saying I was good. I questioned that. I really didn’t know. I know the guys I wrestled as a sophomore were all pretty good. They were tough on me.
“I was going pretty good, but I was always afraid to lose. I didn’t want to let anyone down, especially my teammates. I always tried to give my best effort and best performance. I wrestled different weights sometimes and when I lost, I felt bad.”
Rheam, an all-around athlete at Canon-McMillan and member of the Washington-Greene County Chapter of The Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame marvels at Peterson’s athleticism.
“Lester’s wrestling technique isn’t what technique is today,” said Rheam, who coached the sport successfully at West Allegheny High School. “There was more toughness and strength involved back in Lester’s day. Kids today are technically so strong. Lester was a great athlete. He was unorthodox. He was unique. Lester could be in a very bad position on the mat and he would somehow find a way to get out of it and come out on top.”
Cook theorizes that some of the lack of publicity or support as one of the greatest Big Macs ever may have come from disappointment at the state tournament as a sophomore and junior.
He thinks that’s unfair.
“Some people, after watching him, thought he should never lose,” Cook said. “Maybe they thought he should have won three state championships. That’s not easy to do in any era. Those are unfair expectations.”
Frank O’Korn, an assistant coach at Canon-McMillan under Puchany, said his boss was “feeling it” a little bit as well. While other high-profile coaches were notching state champions, Puchany and Canon-McMillan were still searching for the first.
O’Korn was a member of Canon-McMillan’s first team in the 1959-60 season, after the merger of Canonsburg High School, Cecil High School and students from North Strabane Township, who previously could choose between attending Trinity, Chartiers High School and Canonsburg. That team produced five section champions.
Success followed but the elusive state individual champion was not realized until 1969 when Peterson finally delivered.
“Canon-McMillan was producing incredible teams and wrestlers during that time,” O’Korn explained. “No one had been able to bring home that first state title. Lester did it. He should be greatly recognized for that.”
Peterson’s road to that gold medal was not easy.
As a sophomore, he lost by injury default – plagued with cramps – to Ed Osborne of Commodore Perry in the 112-pound PIAA semifinals. The following season, as a junior, Peterson was thrashed by Clearfield’s Norm Palovcsik, 16-5, in the 120-pound semifinals.
Undeterred, he reached the zenith of his wrestling career. It took all of his creative wrestling skills, will and refusal to be denied to finally get it done.
In the WPIAL alone, four defending champions were entered at 120 pounds. Peterson claimed his third district crown by defeating Waynesburg’s Gary McClure, 9-6, in the championship bout. McClure had won three straight WPIAL titles before being stopped by Peterson.
From there, Peterson moved on to the state tournament at State College and earned a 9-6 semifinals decision over Dan Sanders of Lower Dauphin.
He then met defending state champion Dave Clark of Clearfield in the PIAA championship match.
Peterson fell way behind Clark, who scored a take down, two-point near fall and an escape in the second period to take a 6-0 lead.
Peterson managed a reversal and took Clark to his back for two near-fall points, cutting the lead to 6-4. Peterson escaped Clark in the third period to make it 6-5. But Clark scored another takedown for a three-point lead.
“I was down, I felt I had one big move left – my pancake,” Peterson said. “That was my strategy. I had to pull it off to win.”
Peterson escaped to make it 8-6. With time clicking away, he made his move.
“He put his arm down and then grabbed my arm,” Peterson explained. “I had him in a bear hug. All I needed to do was the pancake. I hit it at just the right time and caught him. I was a little too far underneath to really turn him over and he was too strong to just hold him there. I got the takedown and the nearfall to be up by two points. I let him go the last 20 seconds and he couldn’t take me down.”
Peterson’s takedown and two-point nearfall in the final 45 seconds had turned into a 10-9 victory to win the state championship and end Canon-McMillan’s individual PIAA championship drought.
“Three-quarters of what Lester did on the mat was created off the cuff,” Rheam said. “He knew when to apply pressure and he knew how to react to pressure. Lester invented the scramble. Most of the time on the mat, it was Lester just being Lester.
“He was a good person, very quiet and humble. He was a good teammate.”
Peterson was elated, especially because his father saw him win that state title, only the second time he saw his son wrestle.
“The first time he saw me wrestle, I lost,” Peterson said.
Said O’Korn: “Lester was a unique combination of balance and agility that you don’t find. He could walk on his hands as well as he could walk on his feet. It was incredible. That win brought a smile to Puch’s (Puchany) face and he needed that one.
“For Lester, he had such body control that was so natural. His style caught everyone’s imagination. His championship match against Clark showed it all.”
It also says it all.