Barely weighing 112 pounds, Shonn Roberts is a slim sophomore at Columbia Falls High School and one of the smallest members on the wrestling team.
But inside the padded den of the Mat Cats and in matches across the state, Roberts demands respect.
After becoming the first freshman state champion in school history last year, Roberts has moved up two weight divisions and remains the undisputed king. He has won every match this season against Montana opponents. He’s not only ranked No. 1 in Class A at 112 pounds, but he’s No. 1 for all classes in Montana.
When Roberts travels to Billings this weekend for the state wrestling tournament, he will try to become one of only a few Columbia Falls grapplers with multiple state championships.
In the recent All-Class High School Wrestling Poll, which gathers input from coaches around the state, Roberts is No. 1 in his 112-pound division.
“That shows how much people respect him around the state,” said former Columbia Falls wrestling coach Wes Knutson.
It wasn’t always that way.
Roberts was thin as a pole growing up, even for his age. And no one in his family had wrestled.
“My dad said I was pretty wild so he put me in wrestling,” Roberts said. “And I liked it.”
Roberts suffered his lumps year after year in the Columbia Falls Little Guy Wrestling Program, but his passion for the sport grew.
Jessie Schaeffer, a former state champion at Columbia Falls and the Mat Cats’ head coach the past seven seasons, remembers little Roberts struggling to win matches throughout grade school.
“By sixth and seventh grade things starting clicking for him and he started doing really well,” Schaeffer recalled.
As a freshman, Roberts went 26-2 and defeated Havre’s Grayson Brenna in the finals with a 4-0 decision to claim the Class A championship at 98 pounds. He became the first Columbia Falls freshman to win a state title and only the third Mat Cat champion in at least a decade, alongside Kelly Houle and Michael Hader.
So far, he’s lost just four times in more than 40 matches during his high school career.
At the West Kids and Cadets Regional Championships tournament in Pocatello, Idaho, in July, he won eight of 10 matches and earned the outstanding wrestler award among some of the best grapplers from across the West.
“Ever since that tournament he came back with an attitude of, ‘Step on the mat with me and bring it,’” Schaeffer said. “His confidence level has gone through the roof and that’s definitely made a difference in his wrestling.”
What Roberts lacks in size he makes up for with technical prowess and quickness. He still has that youthful energy that can catch opponents off guard. But more importantly, as Schaeffer describes it, Roberts is a mental giant.
“He’ll go home and watch college matches on YouTube. He’ll watch the same match over and over again and try to pick it apart,” Schaeffer said. “He loves the sport and has a true passion for the sport. Those are the types of kids you want.”
Knutson praises Roberts in similar fashion. For 18 years, between 1987-2005, Knutson helmed the Mat Cats program and established a respected tradition that included a team state title in 1990 and 13 individual champions. Knutson was recently inducted into the Columbia Falls Hall of Fame, becoming only the fifth coach ever and first since Larry Schmautz in 1998.
Knutson sees several qualities in Roberts that are shared by former great grapplers.
“At that size, you have to be active because everyone is quick and that’s something Shonn does so well,” Knutson said. “He’s a great kid. He’s really respectful and just a nice young man. As a coach you always dream about having a kid like that. It was so neat to see him win it last year and now have the potential to win several more.”
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