Behind the Mendoza Award

The Major Ray Mendoza Award

“It is a proud privilege to be a soldier – a good soldier – with discipline, self-respect, pride in his unit and his country, a high sense of duty and obligation to comrades and to his superiors, and a self confidence born of demonstrated ability.” General George S. Patton

When 19-year-old Kyle Snyder won the UWW freestyle World championship for the USA at 97 KG’s in Las Vegas in September 2015, he capped off a remarkable run of success by “Major Ray Mendoza Award” winners. Initiated at the December 2009 Ironman in honor of the late Major Ray Mendoza killed in action in Iraq in November of 2005, the Mendoza Award is presented three times each year and goes to the individual wrestler who earns the most “Team Points” at that year’s Ironman, Beast of the East or National Prep Tournament at Lehigh.

Former Blair Academy (N.J.) head coach Jeff Buxton tells me, “Ray came to Blair as a two sport athlete; he was a star running back on the football, but graduated with a passion for wrestling. His dedicated, loyalty, mentally tough and ability to persevere through adversity made him an exceptional candidate to pursue a military career and he enrolled in West Point Prep. After finishing the year he had second thoughts about the military and decided to attend Ohio State, having great career. After graduating he continued to wrestle and joined the Marines. Ray and I always kept in contact after he graduated from Blair. He was a great husband, father and fabulous friend and human being. I was lucky enough to teach his daughter at Blair.” Mendoza was survived by his wife Karen, son Alak, and daughter Kiana.

By design, the Mendoza Award is limited to these three top tourneys by its originator Dave Ritterpusch, a Lehigh grad and retired Army Colonel. The award has proved to be a great predictor of future wrestling success. The Mendoza was created by Ritterpusch in 2009 and he then went about selling it to the three tournament directors through his perseverance, tenacity and congeniality. Ritterpusch tells me he had two ideas in mind. One, to remember and honor Major Ray Mendoza. Idea number two, to identify and recognize the wrestler who contributed the most to his team’s results in the respective tournament in terms of an actual objective and measurable standard, team points earned.

From Howard Beach New York, Major Ray Mendoza was a Blair Academy class of 1987 post-graduate wrestler and teammate of Ritterpusch’s son Kurt. The two remained friends and “brothers in arms” over the years. Mendoza came in 2nd at the 1987 National Prep tournament at 189 lbs. The Major then graduated from Ohio State University where he wrestled. Lt. Colonel Kurt Ritterpusch is now the Provost Marshall for the First Cavalry Division; he has served four tours in the middle east war zones. He tells me, “Ray was a classmate, teammate and housemate when I was at Blair. His dedication and honor were without reproach. He always had a quiet strength and a certain intensity. I have no vignettes to share at this point in time, but share with you that I have never known anyone who was more focused on the work of the team. Be it in the wrestling room or in a rifle company – he expected every member to do their best for the team.”

Rare two-time Mendoza winner Kyle Snyder, World champion, he beat the defending champion from Russia in the finals, was the latest evidence that the Mendoza Award is a predictor of future success. To further support that point, this summer 16-year-old Spencer Lee from Franklin Regional (Pa.), who won the Mendoza Award at the 2013 Ironman, captured the UWW freestyle Junior World championship in dominating fashion at 50 KG’s, with a technical fall in each of his five matches- all this though Spencer was the youngest wrestler at the World championships.

A third of Mendoza winners have yet to wrestle at the college level and two Mendoza winners who were NCAA All-Americans last year red-shirted the 2014-2015 season- however six Mendoza winners were All-Americans at the 2015 NCAA’s in March. This brought the Mendoza AA total to date to 15 since 2009. This year’s six NCAA All Americans were headed up by two true freshmen, West Virginia’s Zeke Moisey (Bethlehem Catholic Pa.) and Ohio State’s Kyle Snyder, each of whom placed second . Two other Mendoza winners placed third at the 2015 NCAA’s, with Northwestern’s Mike McMullan (Wyoming Seminary Pa.) getting his fourth straight NCAA top-three finish and Penn State’s Morgan MacIntosh (Calvary Chapel Calif.) getting his second AA placement. Rounding out the Mendoza winners who were 2015 AA’s were the University of Virginia’s Nick Sulzer (St. Edward Ohio), the very first Ironman Mendoza winner, who placed for the third time at NCAA’s, coming in 5th; and Virginia Tech’s Zach Epperly (Christiansburg Va.) who placed 7th. Stanford incoming-freshman Joey McKenna (Blair Academy N.J.), Ironman champ in 2013 won the 2014 freestyle Junior World championship Silver medal.