There are many ways to get to the top, but in Class AA wrestling, there is only one: through five-time defending champion Flathead High School.
While this is known throughout the state, it’s especially obvious to Glacier High School, Flathead’s cross-town rival. Now in its fourth year of existence, the Wolfpack wrestling program is hoping that the road has veered just slightly north, to the other side of Kalispell, and will now go through them.
“People come to Montana and they know about Flathead; they know Flathead’s the team to beat,” said Glacier senior Boyce Ballard. “We would love to be that team.”
Glacier is no longer the little wrestling brother to Flathead. It is now truly a state contender, as it proved by beating the Braves 37-27 on Jan. 6. It was the first cross-town wrestling victory for Glacier in school history.
But the foundation for that momentous win had been gradually laid over the previous three seasons, with the program quietly becoming one of the best in the state. Entering this year, Ballard said the Wolfpack knew they could rise to the top of Class AA. The first step was beating Flathead.
“We believe we can win a state championship,” Ballard said.
This year’s Class AA race is wide open. Flathead is the defending champion and therefore still the team to beat. Glacier has proven it’s in the mix, as are Bozeman, Billings Skyview, Billings Senior and Great Falls High.
“This year is crazy,” Glacier head coach Mark Fischer said. “There are so many teams that could take the tournament. It’s a unique year.”
The fact that Kalispell can produce two contenders in the crowded 14-school Class AA, which features the biggest cities in Montana, speaks to both the town’s athletes and to its high level of coaching found at all age levels.
Fischer and Matt Owen, Flathead’s head coach, say the Kalispell Wrestling Club does a great job at getting younger wrestlers into the sport. Then Kalispell Middle School, aided by high school coaches, continues to hone them. By the time the kids reach high school, they’ve already had years of quality training.
“There’s always a big combination of factors that goes into any successful program,” Owen said.
Owen is in his third year as head coach of the Braves and has ably filled the rather large shoes of previous coach Jeff Thompson. Under Owen and Thompson, the Braves have won the last five Class AA state titles and six out of the last seven. They have been ranked nationally on multiple occasions, including this season. In its preseason rankings, Amateur Wrestling News named Flathead the 40th best high school program in the nation.
While Flathead has maintained its elite status, Owen said it’s more difficult today to field a deep team than when Kalispell only had one school. Essentially, half of the town’s prospective wrestlers now go to Glacier.
“I think we have a lot of great wrestlers – top-end wrestlers who could come home with state championships,” Owen said of his Braves. “The difference is that we’re not as deep as we have been in the past. The numbers are lower than they used to be.”
Owen added that while the school split affects numbers, it doesn’t change “the type or quality of kids.”
In the most recent Class AA coaches poll, Flathead was ranked second and Glacier third, behind Great Falls High. Flathead has a greater number of top-ranked wrestlers than Glacier, though Fischer said his team’s strength is in its talent across the board.
The Braves feature three No. 1 wrestlers: heavyweight Connor Thomas, 160-pound Larry Francis and 152-pound Steel Hahn. Flathead also has wrestlers ranked in the top six in three other weight classes. Glacier has six wrestlers ranked between second and sixth, including the sophomore Mitchell brothers. Kaleb Mitchell is No. 2 in 105 pounds and brother Alek is second in 112.
A day after their cross-town showdown, Glacier and Flathead traveled to Spokane for the Pacific Northwest Classic. The Wolfpack finished second behind host University High and the Braves finished fourth. They were the only two Montana teams.
“We’re getting better and better,” said junior Shane St. Onge, who beat Flathead’s Hahn to claim the 152-pound title at the classic. “I’m excited.”
Glacier’s wrestlers have the talent, and now they have the belief. They know they belong in the conversation for the state’s best wrestling program.
“They believe that’s where they’re at,” Fischer said, “and I would not count them out of that.”
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