Braves Best Again

Flathead repeats as wrestling champ with three individual titles, Eureka and Columbia Falls also have individual winners

Entering the “blood round” on the second day of the Class AA wrestling tournament in Billings, Flathead High School head coach Jeff Thompson knew he had a deep squad and liked the odds of quite a few Braves advancing.

But the decorated coach couldn’t have anticipated his wrestlers would go undefeated in the crucial round and guarantee top-six finishes across the board.

“I’ve never seen where we’ve won every single match in that blood round,” Thompson said. “It started with our lighter weights and kept going. We couldn’t have asked for a better second day.”

The Flathead Braves walked away with the school’s ninth state wrestling championship, placing 15 wrestlers and earning 288 points at the Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark, where Classes AA, A and B/C battled for state bragging rights on Feb. 9-10. The next closest AA teams were Bozeman with 222 points and Billings Skyview at 181.5.

The title was the Braves’ second in a row, eighth since 2004 and sixth of Thompson’s coaching career. He coached Flathead from 2000-2008 and then returned to lead the Braves back to the top of the standings last year.

Thompson’s 2008 squad holds the all-time record for points scored at the state tournament with 410, but that was with 15 weight classes. This year’s performance appears to have landed the Braves at the top of the record books yet again.

“We believe this is a state record for state placers with 13 weight classes,” Thompson said of his 15 wrestlers who finished in the top six.

Seniors Tucker Nadeau (182 pounds), Payton Hume (170) and Michael Lee (285) took home individual titles, a year after the Braves managed to win the overall team title without a single individual winner.

Lee won a decision over teammate Alex Paull in his title match, giving the Braves the top two heavyweights in the state while turning coaches largely into spectators.

“Let’s just say we didn’t do a lot of coaching (that match),” Thompson said.

Hume capped off an impressive senior season during which Thompson said the senior spent countless hours perfecting his craft, all with the knowledge that he’d likely have to get through Billings Skyview senior Brock Bushfield to be a state champ. Bushfield is a three-time state finalist and two-time champion.

Hume’s long hours paid off dramatically, scoring a decisive 11-1 decision over Bushfield with what Thompson called the “perfect match.”

“He was on a mission,” Thompson said. “He put in the hard work, the dedication. He’s a kid you have to kick out of the wrestling room because he puts so much time in. It shows you what hard work does.”

Thompson believes Hume has the talent and mindset to be a Division I wrestler. Thompson would know since he was an accomplished D-I wrestler at the University of Minnesota.

“He’s a student of the game,” Thompson said of Hume. “He absolutely loves everything about the sport of wrestling.”

Speaking of D-I prospects, Nadeau’s pin of Missoula Sentinel’s Dylan Goforth in the 182-pound title match gave the Flathead senior an unblemished 46-0 record on the season. That would be impressive in any context, but given the Braves’ grueling schedule, which included major Pacific Northwest regional tourneys, Nadeau turned in a season for the ages.

“Tucker has wrestled basically the best competition in the Northwest U.S., and for him to go undefeated — to only get taken down one time all season — is really impressive,” Thompson said. “Our schedule was insanely tough.”

“With Tucker, it’s nothing flashy,” he added. “He’s constantly on attack, constantly looking to score. He’s fundamentally one of the most solid high school wrestlers I’ve ever seen.”

Nadeau certainly has the tools to wrestle at the next level, but he’s also an elite football and rugby player, 4.0 student and National Merit Scholar.

“He can pretty much pick what he wants to do,” Thompson said. “I would love to see him at that next level. I really believe he has the skillset to wrestle at the Division I level.”

The Braves sent a remarkable 24 wrestlers to the state meet, and only nine didn’t place in the top six. Among the other placers was sophomore Tilynne Vasquez, who finished fourth at 103 pounds, making her the highest female finisher at any level in Montana high school wrestling history.

“For her to be in the top four of the Montana AA wrestling tournament is a huge feat,” Thompson said.

The Braves lose a few key seniors, including their three state champs, but the team’s depth — as evidenced by 15 placers — bodes well for next year. So does the team’s top-notch coaching staff.

“Couldn’t have done it without my amazing coaching staff,” Thompson said. “They teach them not only to be good wrestlers, but also to be successful in life.”

Eureka senior Garrett Graves earned his second straight undefeated season and state title by pinning Florence-Carlton’s Spencer Jones in the final Class B/C 182-pound match. Teammate Gunnar Smith won the title at 113 pounds, but Eureka fell short of a second straight team title, coming in second behind Colstrip.

Ben Windauer won the 170-pound Class A title for Columbia Falls, leading the Wildcats to an eighth-place finish. Polson finished fourth in Class A behind Bridger Wenzel (132) and Parker Adler (152), who were second at their respective weights. Libby’s Buddy Doolin also placed second, at 113 pounds. Sidney-Fairview won the Class A title, besting five-time defending champion Havre.

Glacier checked in 13th in Class AA with 45 1/2 points. The Wolfpack did not have an individual wrestler place in the top six.