Wrestlers Look to Continue Tradition of Excellence

By Beacon Staff

A longstanding tradition of excellence reemerges every winter in Kalispell when the wrestling mats unroll.

Kalispell has been home to numerous individual state champion wrestlers throughout the years, with 20 first-place finishes coming in the last 10 seasons alone. A local team has placed either first or second eight years in a row. Flathead High School has won a total of seven Class AA state championships as a team, including five straight from 2006-10. The program at Glacier High School, entering its fifth year, has grown in stature as well. Last season the Wolfpack had their first individual state champion and brought home their first top-three trophy, earning second place.

Following a couple of major tournaments last weekend, the new season is now officially underway and the Wolfpack appear to be vying for a top spot.

Glacier wrapped up a successful trip to Great Falls for the CMR Holiday Classic on Dec. 17. In 15 weight classes, the Wolfpack had three second-place finishers (Cooper Sipe, Shane St. Onge and Mack Sutherland), one fourth place (Kaleb Mitchell), one fifth place (Lane Armstrong) and a sixth place (Riley Pisk). The team finished third in the tournament that included 13 AA teams.

The Wolfpack are considered by many to be an early contender this season to do well at state both individually and as a team. Only four members graduated from last year’s second-place team that had 12 wrestlers in the top six. Top returners are St. Onge (second), Lucas Mantel (third), Sipe (third), Pisk (fourth), Sutherland (fifth) and Zack Barber (sixth).

At Flathead, the Braves lost the bulk of last year’s talent but still return some proven wrestlers. Two of the team’s seven state placers are back: Larry Francis (second) and Josh Erickson (fifth). The team returns 11 lettermen and had a strong freshman turnout, according to head coach Matt Owen.

“I feel like we will still be a very competitive team this year and we will be surprising a lot of people by the end of the season,” Owen said.

Francis placed third at the annual Tri-State tournament in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, last weekend. The Braves placed 31st as a team in what is one of the most competitive tournaments in the West.

Owens considers Billings Skyview, Glacier, Great Falls High and Bozeman to be the teams to watch out for this year. Bozeman won the team title last year and was the first program besides Flathead or Billings Skyview to win a AA championship since 2003.

The AA state tournament returns to the Billings MetraPark this year.

In Class A, the last time Northwest Montana had a state champion was in 1996 when Polson successfully defended its title from the year before. Since then four teams have taken the top spot – Havre (’97, ’99, ’01, ’07, ’08, ’09, ’10), Sidney (’00, ’03, ’04, ’05, ’06), Laurel (’98, ’11) and Corvallis (’02).

In the Class A coaches poll released last week, Laurel was the top-ranked team followed by Corvallis and Havre. Polson came in sixth with 10 wrestlers named in the top six for all weight classes. Carlos Quinones, who took third at state last year, is ranked first in the 112-pound weight class. Josiah Clairmont, who was third at state last year, is the second-ranked heavyweight. Craig Feistner, who placed second at state last year, is ranked second at 125 pounds.

The Pirates tied for 37th at Tri-State. At state last year, Polson placed seventh with six placers.

The only other Northwestern A team to be ranked in the coaches poll is Libby. The Loggers are 10th and have eight ranked wrestlers. Kyle Leir, who won state last year and placed fourth at Tri-State last weekend, is the top-ranked 145-pound wrestler. Allen Neulib is the top-ranked heavyweight. Austin Bailey is ranked third at 171 and Mitch Haugan is third at 130.

Libby tied for 14th at state last year.