Sports

Breaking Out

Don't call it a rebuilding year for the Flathead Valley's vaunted wrestling programs, who have plenty of unheralded grapplers eyeing the podium at state

The all-class state wrestling tournament is one of the great spectacles in Montana sports, a time when thousands of parents, alumni and fans descend on MetraPark in Billings for two days of near-constant action, absorbing the buzz of high-stakes matches occurring simultaneously and featuring competitors of all sizes from every corner of the state.

In the last several years, Flathead Valley wrestlers have had plenty to buzz about themselves at the state meet. Flathead High School is the two-time defending Class AA state champion, having built on one of the state’s great dynasties that once produced six titles in seven years from 2004-10. Crosstown rival Glacier, meanwhile, won a title of its own in 2012, and Class A Columbia Falls has been a perennial power, too, finishing in the top four in the state for four straight years from 2014-17.

The 2019 state meet, however, was shaping up to be the first one in years without a significant Flathead Valley presence. The Braves were replacing 10 of 15 top-six state finishers from a year go, Glacier did not have a single state placer (top-six finisher) in 2018 and Columbia Falls lost nearly half of its roster, 18 total wrestlers, from the beginning of the season to now.

The thing is, with the state’s divisional seeding tournaments coming up on Feb. 2 and the state meet just one week after that, the Flathead Valley’s top programs are starting to make some noise. A young Flathead team is led by its so-called Killer Bs, Glacier boasts a pair of 200-plus pounders with a shot at a state title, and while the Mat Cats won’t be in the running for a team trophy, there’s a good chance Columbia Falls will be well-represented in Saturday’s final round.

Here’s a look at the Flathead Valley’s top contenders as the wrestling postseason gets underway:

Flathead’s Zaybin Stewart competes against Glacier’s Caden Gilmond at the crosstown wrestling match at Glacier High School on Jan. 3, 2019. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Flathead’s Next Generation

Nothing’s impossible, of course, but it does appear Class AA will have a new champion on Feb. 9 when the final results are tabulated in Billings. The next wave of Braves state champions, however, may have already arrived.

Freshmen Cole Eastwood (103), Asher Kemppainen (120) and Fin Nadeau (132) have all been mainstays in the varsity lineup throughout the season, and Nadeau in particular has all the makings of a superstar. His older brother, Tucker, is one of three now-graduated state champions from a year ago, having matriculated to Division I West Virginia University, but Fin might be the more gifted athlete of the two. The younger Nadeau is 32-10 this season after a pair of pins against the two Helena schools on Jan. 26 and was ranked second in the state in Class AA in the most recent coaches poll. Kemppainen, meanwhile, was sixth at 120 in the same poll.

While the freshmen prepare to test themselves on the state’s biggest stage, Flathead’s greatest strength is not at the very top but in its depth. The Braves have been Montana’s deepest team the last two years, a point driven home by the 2016-17 squad that won the state title without a single individual champion. Last season, 24 Flathead wrestlers qualified for the state tournament, easily the most in the state, and the Braves’ depth is a great separator at the state tournament, where having more than one wrestler qualified at a particular weight can be a major point-scoring advantage, like when heavyweights Michael Lee and Alex Paull squared off in the final match a year ago.

Head coach Jeff Thompson playfully calls the second-best wrestlers on his team at each weight the Killer Bs, and that squad this year includes Dillon Yeadon (120), Chase Youso (138) and Finn Sullivan (160), not to mention Ross Cahoon and Sebastian Koch (205), and Aydan Prieto and Michael Downing (285), who have been neck-and-neck all year. But the most dangerous Killer B of all is the one Nadeau bumped down at 132, senior Dominic Battello, himself a state placer a year ago.

“(Battello) has been a great leader,” Thompson said. “Both (he and Nadeau) should be on the podium at state, they’ve both made each other better, and they want success for themselves and success as a team.”

Other individuals with championship aspirations include Brendan Barnes (126), Jaden MacNeil (138) and Tanner Russell (170), all placers last season. If those wrestlers and what should be another large Flathead contingent make it out of the seeding tournament with top-eight efforts, Thompson believes the Braves could be right near the top of the team standings once again.

“This team is just really, really improved,” he said. “We knew it would be a more challenging year to bring home a state trophy, but you never know. If this team keeps progressing, it’s still a possibility.”

Tre Krause, left, battles a teammate during wrestling practice last season. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Krause, Martin Leading Glacier Upward

It’s been a long, slow rebuild for the Wolfpack since that 2012 state title, but in year six Glacier’s head coach Ross Dankers undoubtedly has a team on the rise.

Glacier is unlikely to find itself on the podium, but it’s just as unlikely to wind up as one of the bottom two teams in Class AA at the state meet as it has been each of the last four years. Glacier has two bona fide title contenders, and the type of well-rounded roster that has been synonymous with their crosstown rivals.

“Program-wide, this is probably the first year that we’ve had a full spread of age groups,” Dankers said, referring to his six-year tenure as head coach. “I think we had 13 wrestle-offs the second week of January and that shows the health of the program and where we’re heading.”

Seniors Tre Krause (285) and Colby Martin (205) lead the way for the Pack, and both are expected to place at state, if not rise even higher. Krause has missed much of the second half of the season with an injury but is healthy and ready to return at the seeding tournament, according to his coach, where he finished third last year. Krause then narrowly missed a top-six finish at the state tournament. Martin, meanwhile, was fifth at 170 last year as a member of the Flathead program and, his coach believes, has the skillset to beat any wrestler in the state.

Dylan Miller (120), Lance Fretwell (126) and Caden Willis (152), all qualifiers for last year’s state tournament, figure to be in the mix for top-six finishes at state as well.

Columbia Falls High School wrestler Taylor Gladeau takes on Whitefish’s Brian Sweeney during a meet at Whitefish High School on Jan. 25, 2019. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

Columbia Falls, Whitefish Strong at Top

It has not been the easiest season for Jessie Schaeffer and the Columbia Falls Mat Cats, but the seeding and state tournaments represent an opportunity for a small but talented team to end the year on a high note.

Significant attrition on the roster has dashed any chance of bringing home team hardware, but a trio of individuals still has a shot at glory. Junior heavyweight Taylor Gladeau spent part of the season ranked No. 1 in the state and will look to improve upon a third-place finish at last year’s state meet, football star Colten McPhee is currently Class A’s top 182-pound wrestler, and Jakob Freeman (205) was a state placer a year ago and ranks second in the state entering the seeding tournament. All three have a legitimate chance to follow in the footsteps of Ben Windauer, who won the Class A title at 170 pounds as a senior last season.

Whitefish, meanwhile, did not have a single state placer last year but could return at least one grappler to the podium this time around. Returning state qualifiers Nathan Sproul (103) and Robert Bertelsen (160) are both ranked in the top five in the state at their respective weight classes and the Bulldogs are ranked sixth as a team, coming off a dual win over rival Columbia Falls on Jan. 25.

andy@flatheadbeacon.com

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