Jeff Thompson had to be talked out of retirement.
The decorated Flathead High School wrestling coach stepped away from the program in 2008 on the heels of three consecutive state championships and spent the next eight years focused on his family and his teaching job at the school.
Then in the fall of 2016, when head coach Rich Vasquez abruptly resigned citing a medical condition, Flathead turned its eyes to the charismatic Great Falls native.
Thompson laughed when remembering those conversations just more than a year ago.
“You know, I have such passion for it, I just can’t believe now that I took the time off,” he said. “What’s neat is everybody just said, ‘You can do this.’”
“I retired with a team that won a state title, was ranked eighth in the country, and to jump back in? That’s pressure,” Thompson added. “So I felt like I just had to win the state title.”
Thompson’s Braves did just that, taking home the Class AA crown despite not having a single individual champion. The Braves, with 10 of their 13 state placers from a year ago returning, are the odds-on favorites to do it again this season. Another title would be Thompson’s sixth in his last seven years as a head coach.
But while the winning culture hasn’t changed much since Thompson walked away from his job the first time, what has changed is the competition five miles to Flathead’s north. Glacier High School opened the same year Thompson retired, and its wrestling program took just four years to join the state’s elite. Under coach Mark Fischer, the Wolfpack won a state championship in 2012 and, for a couple years, was the superior program in town.
Something flipped shortly thereafter, however, and six years later virtually all of the town’s elite wrestling talent has flowed through Flathead, even those wrestlers whose home addresses fall within Glacier’s attendance zone. The answer why has been years in the making.
THE KALISPELL WRESTLING CLUB first opened its doors in 1973 under the late Brent Hall and has been molding elite grapplers ever since. Boys and girls as young as 5 receive training from dozens of top coaches — including Vasquez, Thompson and many of the Flathead assistants — and compete in tournaments throughout the Northwest.
The young wrestlers spend a good chunk of their mat time in the wrestling room at Flathead, and, not surprisingly, most of KWC’s alums end up wearing the Braves’ black and orange in high school.
“I got started here at Kalispell Wrestling Club in the second grade, so I’ve kind of been in this room since I was really little,” Flathead senior Kenyon Fretwell said last week. “I’ve just always been here, and it’s weird not to be in here, almost.”
Fretwell’s dad, Lee, is a coach for the Braves, and his younger brother, Lance, wrestles at Glacier. The boys grew up in the West Valley School District, a Glacier feeder.
The practice of attending schools outside an attendance zone is not unique to wrestling, nor is it unique to Kalispell, but the reality is that a generation of young wrestlers who have been practicing at the Braves’ facilities and watching the Braves compete go on to dream of joining the long line of Flathead champions.
“When I was little, when Flathead was really good, I’d come to the duals,” Tucker Nadeau, another Flathead senior, said. “And that was really cool, just seeing how well they did. And then, I don’t know, I just kind of always knew I was going to come to Flathead.”
Nadeau lives in Bigfork but attends Flathead because his father, Marc, is a teacher in the district and a Braves assistant wrestling coach.
“I remember going to one match when I was in the fourth grade, when (Flathead) wrestled Glacier, and I was just awestruck,” Kenyon Fretwell remembered. “All these kids, they’re winning every match … they’re just incredible wrestlers and it was really cool to watch them (at Flathead).
“Of all places, a team that good would be here.”
ROSS DANKERS, THEN JUST 24 YEARS OLD, took over the Glacier wrestling program in 2013. He was an assistant the prior year when the Wolfpack won the state title, but what Dankers inherited wasn’t a program built for the future. It was one, in fact, that was about to face a reckoning regarding the Kalispell Wrestling Club.
Flathead’s now-senior class first enrolled at the school for the 2014-15 season, Dankers’ second season as head coach, and started winning right away. Freshman Trae Vasquez won a state championship that year at 113 pounds and classmate Payton Hume took home fourth at 132. The team finished second in 2016 before winning last year.
Dankers, meanwhile, had three freshmen total on his first team. The next year, numbers were up but most of the wrestlers were either football players he had convinced to come out and wrestle for the first time or kids with, at most, a couple years experience wrestling at Kalispell Middle School.
For a Cambridge, Minnesota native who had wrestled for a powerhouse high school program (Cambridge-Isanit High School) and earned All-America honors at Concordia (Minnesota) College, it didn’t take Dankers long to figure out what the problem was.
“We kind of had that little super-group that’s going through (Flathead) right now,” Dankers said. “But when I came to the valley, when I got the head job, I was like, ‘What are we doing with one club? That makes no sense.’”
If the Kalispell Wrestling Club was funneling young wrestlers to Flathead, it was no surprise the cupboard was fairly bare at Glacier. There were some bright spots, including KWC alum Justin Gibson, a state champion at 138 pounds last year for the Wolfpack, but the depth of talent and experience at Flathead was a cut above.
“I think the big thing, we tried to work with the shared club (KWC) for a number of years and we just saw that it wasn’t necessarily helping our program,” Glacier Activities Director Mark Dennehy said. “You’ve got to have a foundation that starts down in the younger grades, and that was what was changing. I saw it and we saw it, that it was changing, and we needed to work to mitigate that problem.”
So Dankers went to work making connections in the Flathead Valley. He poured himself into the program at Kalispell Middle School. And, two years ago, he created the Wolfpack Wrestling Club, an alternative to the Kalispell Wrestling Club that would breed, he hoped, scores of young wrestlers dreaming of joining the Wolfpack.
To do that, he recruited coaches to run programs at West Valley and Edgerton schools and scheduled the practices right after school ended. He made sure his program was extremely low-cost, $30 to register, and brought the Wolfpack Wrestling Club to Western Montana Little Guy Wrestling tournaments.
Two years later, signups for the Wolfpack Wrestling Club are growing and Dankers and his assistant coaches are already starting to see some up-and-coming talent.
“Some of the initial fifth-graders (in the WWC) are seventh-graders, so they’re almost here,” Dankers said. “Those seventh-graders that are coming, they love Wolfpack wrestling. They watch the highlights; they wear the shirts.”
“I see Ross as an outstanding teacher and coach,” Dennehy said. “And he is one who identifies a problem and then works to solve it through multiple means. He saw a need and went out and got after it and started to build the Wolfpack Wrestling Club.”
FLATHEAD AND GLACIER WILL meet on the mat for their annual crosstown showdown Thursday at 6 p.m. at Flathead. The last two times the schools met on the mat, the Braves rolled by enormous margins, 62-6 in 2016 and 66-3 a year ago.
While Glacier has posted better results in the early portion of this season, the home-standing Braves will once again be the heavy favorites. Both sides of town, however, see that gap narrowing in the near future.
“I think the world of (Dankers),” Thompson said. “I think he’s doing the right thing in focusing the time and energy on that feeder program.”
Dankers, for his part, sees some good in having a dominant rival to chase down.
“You’ve got to have someone you’re aiming for,” he said. “(The past results) are definitely motivating.”
And if and when the day comes that Glacier catches up to its rival, Dankers promised that just pulling even might not be enough.
“We’re trying to maybe even do it better (than Flathead), as naïve as that sounds,” he said. “When I’m putting it together, I’m like, ‘How can we go above?’
“They’re way up here, but I think you have to try to do it better.”