For three straight years, one truth has been inevitable at the beginning of each Class AA wrestling season: Flathead High School will win the state championship. It’s been written in stone.
This year, though, one can’t be so sure. The three-time defending state champion Braves are still the team to beat and are most definitely considered contenders for the title. But losing four individual state champions and long-time coach Jeff Thompson takes a toll. Last year, the Braves never lost a dual or an invitational en route to being ranked as one of the top 10 high school wrestling teams in the nation.
But first-year coach Matt Owen isn’t losing sleep. He estimates he has four legitimate state champion contenders scattered among his 14 returning state placers. Bryce Stacy, Tyler Thomas, Shawn Lau and Tanner Beaman could all win their respective weight divisions. Thomas is actually the only one of the four who has never won the title before. Stacy and Lau each won two years ago, and Beaman took the 130-pound title last year.
While his team’s vast talent is surely comforting, two other things bring Owen peace of mind. The first is that the boys know what it takes – the intangibles and extra work – to win a state title without Owen having to tell them. The second is that Owen and many of the boys aren’t strangers. Owen was an assistant under Thompson at Flathead in 2006-2007 before coaching for a year at Glacier.
Owen knows he has big shoes to fill in Thompson, who guided the highly respected Flathead wrestling program over the past eight years. Thompson, who won multiple Montana Wrestling Coach of the Year awards, retired at the end of last season. But Owen himself brings significant name recognition and experience to the Braves. His father and brother are respected coaches at Polson High School, where Owen was a wrestling star in the late 1990s.
After his stellar high school career, Owen wrestled for North Idaho College and briefly for Montana State University-Northern in Havre. Owen said he is fortunate to have so many influences guiding his coaching philosophy: his wrestling family, his two colleges, Thompson and Mark Fischer at Glacier, among others. He will immediately be put to test this year against a strong Class AA field.
The Braves have already learned how tough the competition is during this young season. At the Mining City Duals earlier this month, Flathead narrowly lost to Billings Skyview, who many consider the top team in the state this year, and Bozeman. Owen points to Skyview and Bozeman, along with Missoula Sentinel, as the top candidates to vie for the state title.
“I think it’s going to be a fun one at state,” Owen said. “It’s going to be close. We’re going to have to be on the ball at state to win.”
Last year, Flathead broke its own state records in total points (410), state placers (19) and wrestlers in the finals (10) at the Class AA tournament. Five of those finalists won the state title, including David Lau, Luke Fischer, Brian Ham and Tyler Wells. Each of those four graduated last year.
But this year’s Braves are still loaded, especially at the tough middleweight classes – 130 to 160 pounds. They should also be able to earn some key points at the heavyweight division, where Thomas and his younger brother, sophomore Connor, are both expected to be state placers.
The elder Thomas, who will play football at Oregon State University next year, finished second at the heavyweight division last winter. He lost by decision to Helena High’s Toby Erickson, who is also returning this year. Connor finished sixth, an impressive achievement for a freshman.
“They’re both big boys,” Owen said of the Thomas brothers.
Owen, who teaches at Kalispell Middle School, said he’s honored to take over the state’s top wrestling program, even if it comes with a little pressure.
“I definitely feel the butterflies,” he said. “It’s an awesome opportunity to walk into a team with this kind of history.”
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