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#MTTop20 No. 6: Mental toughness guided Matt Ruppel to undefeated NCAA championship

Posted at 6:14 PM, Feb 03, 2017

(Editor’s note: MTN Sports began recognizing some of the best wrestlers in Montana history on Jan. 16 with the launch of the #MTTop20. Athletes will continue to be featured until Friday, Feb. 10 when No. 1 is unveiled.)

Top 20 rankings: No. 20 – Jarrett Degen; No. 19 – Luke Weber, No. 18 — Ben Stroh, No. 17 — Curtis Owen, No. 16 — Chris Currier, No. 15 — Chris Nedens, No. 14 — Kyle Smith, No. 13 — Jade Rauser, No. 12 — Scott Barrett, No. 11 — Gary Albright, No. 10 — Turk Lords, No. 9 — Larry Quisel, No. 8 — Tyrel Todd, No. 7 — Reese Andy.

No. 6 – Matt Ruppel, Deer Lodge

Montana wrestlers have won hundreds of championships throughout the history of the sport in the Treasure State. From the high school titles, to junior and senior nationals, to the NAIA and Junior College ranks, Big Sky Country has seen its finest crowned. But only three athletes from Montana have ever captured an NCAA Division I national title, including former Deer Lodge state champion Matt Ruppel.

Matt Ruppel stat sheet

Matt Ruppel burst on the Montana prep wrestling scene and earned runner-up finishes at the state tournament his freshman and sophomore seasons at Deer Lodge. He became one of the top 190-pound recruits in the entire country and lived up to the billing, finishing his high school career with individual state titles as a junior and a senior, posting a record of 59-0-1 in his final two seasons.

Ruppel joined some of the top wrestlers in Montana in travelling to various tournaments across the country, including the Southwest Regional freestyle tournament where he earned a first-place finish. He was also the silver medal winner at the junior world championships in West Germany.

His physicality led to many of his victories, but coaches credited Ruppel’s mentality, which many attributed to his Deer Lodge coach, the late Ron Fuhrman, an ex-Marine. Ruppel’s work in Montana and in tournaments across the country led to him being highly recruited out of Deer Lodge, but academics were also a major factor in his decision to attend Lehigh University.

Ruppel’s freshman season proved he belonged on the national scene. With a record of 25-6-1, he was named the freshman of the year in the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association and finished third in the EWIA tournament.

The following season he posted a 23-6-1 campaign and was runner-up at the EIWA tournament, but it was his junior year that truly put him on the map.

Ruppel set Lehigh records, including the single-season wins record, after going 37-0-1. He captured the EIWA conference championship and became an undefeated NCAA national champion at 190 pounds. He remains one of only three Montanans to win a national title at the NCAA Division I level.

Expectations remained high heading into his final season, winning two of his first three matches. The NCAA granted him an extra year of eligibility due to an injury in the 1990-91 season, but an announcement in 1991 shocked the wrestling world when Ruppel was forced to retire early due to spondylolisthesis, a back ailment where a vertebra slides forward over the bone below it.

Ruppel appeared to be on a fast track to breaking Lehigh’s all-time wins record set by Pete Yozzo in the late 1980s (100-13-3). The Deer Lodge standout would finish his collegiate career with a record of 87-13-3, tied for fourth in the program’s history at the time of his retirement.

He was awarded the 1990 Montana AAU Little Sullivan Award.

… on Matt Ruppel

Former Butte High wrestling coach Jim Street: “Oh yeah, I knew right away that the mental attitude he had was going to take him anywhere he wanted to go. I think that’s where Matt got his work ethic was from Ron Fuhrman, his coach, an ex-Marine.

“Most of his accomplishments are in the record books, but when he first started wrestling freestyle, that caught the eyes of college coaches around the nation. At some of those national and regional tournaments that Matt went to, sometimes along with our Butte kids, he impressed a lot of coaches by beating people in freestyle tournaments just by taking them down. He didn’t know much about turns and stuff at that particular time, so that made people impressed with his ability on his feet.

“I’m not quite sure how Matt ended up picking Lehigh over some of the other schools, other than the academics in the Ivy League and the fact they always had really, really tough, big guys. Lehigh was noted for having really solid people up top. When you watched him wrestle around Montana, he was so dominant that you didn’t get to see how good he really was until you followed him elsewhere and saw him do the same things to people around the country.

“(His undefeated national title) was at 190 pounds. There were some good people in that weight class in his time. You know who was in his weight class and I don’t think even placed? That MMA guy, Randy Couture. He had come back from the Marine Corps and was wrestling at Oklahoma State at that time.

“(His college coach) made a statement that he was hesitant on what to think of Matt when he first got there as a freshman because he was in the wrestling room with the sophomores, juniors and seniors and telling them all to pick up the pace. He was impressed Matt kept doing it and didn’t talk the talk without walking the walk. For a freshman to be helping lead a college program when you’re new on the scene, having the courage to get out there and show them that he wanted to get better and that everyone else can get better, too. I think he was the only national champion Lehigh had his junior year. He was impressed with Matt, thought he was a great young man.”