After 30 years, varsity wrestling is returning to Grand Valley, and it’s thanks to one of its greatest wrestlers that the program is seeing a resurgence.
Varsity wrestling was discontinued in 1993, but a $3 million donation from John Harris, ’77, his wife, Diane, ’76, and the Harris family provided the financial support needed for the program to start again.
The men’s varsity team will begin competition in the 2023-2024 academic year while the women’s varsity team will be introduced soon after.
“Thank you to John and Diane Harris and their family, who committed the lead donation, and the many generous supporters,” said President Philomena V. Mantella. “Their gifts assure young men and women committed to collegiate wrestling can pursue the same Grand Valley education that richly influenced the lives of the Harris family and supporters.”
Harris is one of the most decorated wrestlers in school history. In his four years on the team (1973-76), Harris compiled a 117-19-5 record, winning three GLIAC championships (134 pounds) and finishing as runner-up at the NAIA Nationals twice. Harris was inducted into the Lakers Hall of Fame in 1988.
“We are grateful for John and the Harris family for their leadership and transformational gift to help us bring varsity wrestling back to Grand Valley,” said Laura Aikens, vice president for University Development.
“They have been instrumental in every step of this effort, and have inspired many people to help make this dream a reality. I’d also like to thank the the alumni wrestlers and wrestling supporters on the Campaign Committee for their willingness to identify others who want to be a part of this exciting program.”
During its 26-year history, Grand Valley wrestling was one of the top programs in the NAIA and NCAA Division II. More than 50 Lakers earned All-American status, while the team won five GLIAC championships and finished runner-up 10 times. At the NAIA Nationals, Grand Valley finished runner-up twice and in fourth place three times.
“Not only can we bring back the legacy that wrestling was at Grand Valley, we can create that opportunity for future generations, which means everything to me,” said Harris. “And, not only bring it back, but bring it back the Grand Valley way, which is so crucial.”
In May, Director of Athletics Keri Becker announced the hire of the program’s head coach. Joey Simcoe will lead the men’s team after 11 seasons as the head wrestling coach at Tiffin University in Ohio.
Under Simcoe’s coaching, the Dragons produced two NCAA Division II individual national champions and 15 All-Americans. Tiffin finished in the top 10 at the NCAA Division II National Championships three times.
“Joey had a vision for building the program at every level that set him apart from an outstanding pool of candidates,” said Becker. “It was evident from the first conversation that Joey is committed to building a culture of success both on and off the mat, while also giving our student athletes a championship experience.”
With the head coach in place, other preparations continue for wrestling’s return.
On the west side of the Fieldhouse Arena, construction began in April on the program’s future home: a 22,280 square-foot addition and renovation to a portion of the Fieldhouse.
The project won’t just benefit the burgeoning wrestling program. The addition and renovations will add space for multiple clubs, varsity teams and Grand Valley's Police Academy.
The addition will create a three-mat gymnasium, a weight room, locker rooms, offices for wrestling coaches and athletic training rooms available for all student athletes.
The renovation will benefit all Grand Valley student athletes by creating academic advising offices, a welfare and development office for their needs, a lounge and meeting and study spaces.
“With the support of President Mantella, the athletic department, university development, and wrestling alumni, we assembled an awesome team to bring varsity wrestling back to GVSU,” said Harris.