After the Flathead Braves’ record-shattering season last year, the best wrestling team in Montana history expects to be even better this year.
With 15 returning state placers out of last year’s remarkable 18, and four returning state champions, it’s hard to argue against the 2007-2008 Braves. But as Flathead enters the season as the obvious Class AA favorite and ranked No. 32 in the nation, coach Jeff Thompson is still cautious.
“What’s most important is where you end the season,” he said. “Not where you begin it.”
At the state tournament last year, the Braves broke their own record from 2004 by scoring 347.5 points, over 100 points more than second-place C.M. Russell. Their 18 state placers broke their previous year’s record of 17, and seven of those went on to the state finals. Three of the state finalists won and with TC Decker, the 2006 130-pound state champion, Flathead already has four state champs before the season has started. Flathead’s three returning champs other than Decker are sophomore Shawn Lau, junior Bryce Stacy and senior Brian Ham. Those four combined for a record last year of 137-21.
Stacy, also the Braves’ running back this fall, will once again compete in the 145-pound weight class. He dominated his weight class last year, finishing 34-7 as a sophomore. Stacy thinks this year’s team is stronger than last year’s, and he said he’s not worried about a letdown with all the hype surrounding the team.
“It’s motivation,” he said. “It makes us work a little harder. It’s not just us looking at state anymore; it’s us looking at the nation.”
Flathead is looking to win its fourth state championship in five years. Since 2003, in the two years the Braves didn’t win state, they finished second and third. Two years ago Flathead went to a national tournament and placed eighth out of the top 40 teams in the country, Thompson said. They were one point away from finishing in the top four.
With the school split, Thompson said he initially hoped for 40 wrestlers to show up on the first day of practice. Instead he got 65, only five less than at the beginning of last year. From last season’s state team, Thompson said, the Braves lost only one wrestler to Glacier High School and four more to graduation.
“I’m pleasantly surprised,” Thompson said. “Success breeds success.”
The Braves have virtually no weaknesses, returning top six state finishers in almost every weight division from the 98-pound class to the 285-pound heavyweight group. They are loaded in the middle classes, with state champion Ham anchoring the 130-pound class and a host of other placers and champions holding down the 135-, 140-, 145- and 152-pound divisions.
Thompson said his squad controls its own destiny. If the boys don’t beat themselves, nobody should beat them for the state championship. For motivation, he said, he tells his grapplers not to be content with only winning.
“Our goal is to not just win the match,” he said, “but to dominate the match.”
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