The padded room tucked in the heart of Flathead High School, decorated in black and burnt orange with the names of former state champion wrestlers and nationally ranked teams covering the walls, is a home away from home for Jeff Thompson. It was where he spent countless hours in the early to mid 2000s, when he guided the Braves to four state championships and dozens of individual titles.
Now, after a seven-year hiatus, the former two-time regional coach of the year is officially back, and he’s picking up where he left off — leading a championship contender.
Thompson and the Flathead Braves have rolled into the new wrestling season with a dominating blast from the past. Last weekend, the Braves finished third at the competitive Mining City Duals in Butte, losing narrowly to Havre, the best pound-for-pound team in the state. With an 11-1 record so far, Flathead is determined to be back on top in Montana’s wrestling realm.
Among the bolstered team of 61 wrestlers, Flathead boasts several state contenders. Junior Trae Vasquez, an All-American in the national ranks, is chasing a third consecutive state title a year after completing an undefeated 41-0 season at 120 pounds. Vasquez has jumped to the 132-pound division and is enjoying continued dominance, going undefeated so far.
Vasquez’s sister, freshman Tilynne, is bursting onto the scene as one of the best female wrestlers in the nation. This summer, Tilynne finished third in the women’s cadet nationals competition. Wrestling at 103 pounds, she has only dropped two matches so far this season. Her sights are set on becoming what is believed to be the first female in history to place at the Class AA state tournament.
“She’s definitely one of the best in the state,” Thompson said. “Her technique is so good and she’s just so fast.”
Flathead is loaded with talent at all weight classes and athletes who have state trophy aspirations, including senior Matt Gash Gilder (205 pounds), junior Michael Lee (heavyweight), junior Tucker Nadau (170 pounds), senior Hunter Rush (113 pounds), freshman Garrett Reike (160 pounds), junior Payton Hume (152 pounds), and senior Cody Devall (120 pounds).
The list of all-state contenders continues to develop every day. Half of the team — 30 wrestlers — are freshmen.
“The future is bright,” Thompson said.
Molding this latest group of grapplers is a familiar set of leaders, none more prominent than Thompson.
A three-time state champion at Great Falls High and a collegiate wrestler at the University of Minnesota, Thompson previously coached the Braves from 2000-2008, building a program that produced 107 state placers, 48 state finalists and 13 state champions. Flathead won titles in 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2008, and was ranked 10th nationally in 2008. The National Wrestling Coaches Association twice named Thompson the organization’s regional coach of the year.
But the consuming nature of coaching had taken away from his life as a father and husband, and in 2008, Thompson decided to step down. He still helped with youth wrestling programs but his days leading the high school team were over.
In the hustle and bustle of working as a full-time high school business teacher, helping raise six children and assisting with the youth programs, Thompson felt drawn back to the Flathead wrestling room.
“It was just that missing piece in my life,” he said. “I think everybody has a calling and something they’re passionate about. Coaching wrestling and the sport of wrestling are such huge passions of mine.”
The head-coaching job opened this fall after Rich Vasquez stepped down due to medical issues. Immediately interested, Thompson talked about it with his wife, Carrie, and each of his children, making sure they would be OK with him retaking the reins of the program.
“We are very, very busy and we had to try to figure out how to balance everything,” Thompson said. “But they were very excited and very supportive.”
Vasquez made significant progress rebuilding Flathead into a title contender in the last three seasons, and Thompson accepted the position hoping to finish what his predecessor started. To accomplish this ambitious goal, he asked a group of friends to join him. Now Flathead has a bona fide “dream team” of coaches who are former state champions and standout leaders. Jeff Anderson, a Flathead teacher who coached Thompson at Great Falls and has been a mentor of his for years, is a former national coach of the year. There’s also Dallas Stuker, Kelly Quinn, Lee Fretwell, Scott Harrison, Sully Sullivan, Tyler Wells and Jeff Sipe.
“We’ve been focusing on building that relationship with our athletes and building that trust. It’s a term that’s overused, but I really feel like this team is coming together as a family,” Thompson said.
Flathead won its last state championship in 2010. Last year’s team brought home a third-place trophy, its best finish in five years.
To restore the tradition, Thompson said the Braves will earn a hard-nosed reputation for being aggressive with a high wrestling IQ.
“We will constantly be on the attack and constantly trying to score,” he said. “We want to take our competitors out of their comfort zone.”
Across the state, Bozeman entered the season as a top contender, yet the Braves defeated the Hawks at last week’s Mining City Duals, 33-26. Helena placed second at the tournament and has the target on its back now as Flathead chases the top ranking in Montana.
“It’s all about believing in yourself,” Thompson said. “It boils down to somebody has to be the best. Why not us?”