On a recent weekday evening during Christmas break, the wrestling mats at Flathead High School were teeming with grapplers. It was a vigorous group of over 20 kids as young and inexperienced as 4-year-old beginners and as advanced as one of the best high school wrestlers in the nation.
Leading the exercises were two familiar and respected coaches in Montana’s wrestling circle — Jeff Thompson and Rich Vasquez. Along with other volunteer parents who show up regularly for practices throughout the year, the two men are helping revive Kalispell’s proud tradition on the wrestling mat.
The roots of wrestling run deep in this valley and in many ways today’s success can trace its way back to local youth wrestling programs.
With 150 to 170 kids, the Kalispell Wrestling Club is the largest youth wrestling program in the state. It’s also the most accomplished. Since it was founded in 1973, the local club has produced generations of state championship teams and individuals of all ages, from Pee Wee all the way through high school.
In many ways, the youth club is credited with building Kalispell, and the entire Flathead Valley, into a wrestling powerhouse over the last four decades. Flathead High School developed into a nationally ranked program in the early 2000s, winning Class AA state championships in 2004 and 2006-10. Glacier captured its own team championship in 2012. Both schools have also produced multiple individual champions.
“It starts right here,” Thompson, who coached Flathead’s wrestling team from 2000-08, said last week while helping lead the Kalispell Wrestling Club practice.
“The most important thing that far outweighs everything is having fun. You want them to get that passion for the sport. And the second thing is you want to teach them that intensity and hard work. That will carry them not just in wrestling but for the rest of their life.”
No doubt the youth club has become a valuable training ground and pipeline for local high schools, including Columbia Falls, Bigfork and Whitefish. Athletes of all ages and abilities can train with the club, either for a brief six-week season or for 11 months out of the year, participating with the travel team that regularly takes 40 young wrestlers to elite tournaments across the country. The club trains in all three styles — folkstyle, freestyle and Greco-Roman. The goal is for all ages, genders and sizes to have an opportunity to improve their skills and confidence, along with their leadership and work ethic, which will help them on and off the mat, Vasquez said.
“For us, the big focus is developing wrestling in the valley,” Vasquez said. “We’re hoping that they will wrestle well in high school wherever they go.”
The Evergreen Wrestling Club, founded in the late 1990s, can also take credit for helping teach young kids the fundamentals of grappling and building a strong foundation for future success at Glacier.
It certainly appears to be paying off this season. Flathead is redeveloping into one of the best teams in Class AA. At one point this season the Braves were ranked fourth. Most recently they fell out of the top four in the coaches poll, even though they have only lost two dual meets, against Havre, the top team in Class A, and Missoula Sentinel, the top team in Class AA. Billings Skyview is ranked second, Billings Senior is third and Missoula Big Sky is fourth.
Overall Flathead is 9-2 in duals.
“I’m feeling really good about this team,” said Vasquez, who also coaches Flathead’s high school team. “We’re pretty young, but we’re in the fight and the kids really believe and they know they belong and they expect to win.”
Last year Flathead scored 112.5 points at the state tournament and placed sixth as a team, the best finish for the program since 2011, when the Braves took fifth.
This year, Vasquez has talented senior leaders helping drive progress, including Payton Boyce, Anthony Wright and Logan Wilson. Boyce is ranked third at 205. Wilson is ranked third at 182.
Other ranked wrestlers include Hunter Rush, who is second at 103. Payton Hume is ranked second at 145. Tucker Nadeau is ranked fourth at 160.
Also leading the way is Vasquez’s son, Trae. The 120-pound sophomore is the top-ranked wrestler in his weight class and is undefeated so far this season. Last year he won the 113-pound championship and lost only two matches all season. In July, he earned All-American status at the national tournament, distinguishing him as one of the best grapplers in the U.S.
Trae learned his skills through the Kalispell Wrestling Club, the same way his younger sister Tilynne is developing her abilities. Tilynne, an eighth grader, is also one of the best wrestlers in the U.S. and will compete for a slot on the USA Wrestling world team in May.
The Kalispell Wrestling Club has won the state Pee Wee championship for over 12 years running. It will host the annual event this spring and try to defend its team and individual trophies.
At the same time, this past year, Vasquez and others established the Montana Elite team, a de facto all-star squad of elementary-aged athletes that travels to regional tournaments and competes together. In its first year, Montana Elite has more than held its own against larger states across the West. Most recently, at an event in Colorado featuring teams from 11 states, the Montana team placed fourth. Six of the team members are from Kalispell.
“That tells you the caliber of kids we have here in Kalispell,” Vasquez.
“It’s a neat thing to see that many kids having that much fun and representing us that well.”