Replacing three state champions and coming off back-to-back state title-winning seasons, there were lowered expectations, at least externally, for the 2018-19 Flathead Braves.
Internally, the expectations never change.
So when Flathead ranked seventh out of 14 teams at last year’s state meet — the worst finish in Jeff Thompson’s 12 seasons as head coach — the result was nothing short of program changing.
“We really didn’t want to set us up for failure, so we set the bar a little low (this year),” Thompson said. “Last year was a little more intense. This year we’ve taken the opposite approach.”
The results, so far at least, have been encouraging. And they’re downright terrifying for Flathead’s competition.
With a lineup of five freshmen and three sophomores, the Braves improved to 17-3 in dual matches with a 43-24 win against crosstown rival Glacier on Friday, Jan. 9, and took another step forward in a season that is rapidly washing away any memories of last year. Flathead has won its two biggest individual tournaments (non-dual format) this season, besting 19 other regional schools at the Best of the West in Pasco, Washington in December, and topping a 17-team field that included two of Washington’s top prep programs at the Pacific Northwest Classic earlier this month. The last two times Flathead won Montana’s Class AA state title, in 2017 and 2018, the Braves finished second and first, respectively, at the Pacific Northwest Classic.
This 2019-20 team, Thompson says, reminds him of one other squad from his tenure, and if past is indeed prologue, Flathead is about to go on a spectacular run. The 2004-05 Braves were one year removed from a state championship, Thompson’s first, but were unproven and full of freshmen. That team, somewhat surprisingly, would finish second in the state, and that freshman class would go on to win state championships in 2006, 2007 and 2008, with the 2008 team earning a top-10 national ranking.
This year’s freshman class is headlined by 126-pound dynamo Cade Troupe, who has done things even Thompson has never seen before. Troupe is 30-1 this season, won his weight class at the Best of the West and the Pacific Northwest Classic, and was named most outstanding wrestler at Pacific Northwest, a first for a freshman under Thompson’s watch.
Troupe’s ascent, however, is not entirely unexpected. His father, Dan Troupe, is a former state champion for the Braves and one of the greatest wrestlers the program has ever produced, a two-time All-American at Iowa State University and a member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. Cade was raised in Helena but moved back to the Flathead Valley a little more than a year ago and won the U-14 USA Western States championship at 119 pounds last summer. Still, the start to his high school career has been a pleasant surprise for his coach.
“I just can’t believe, first off, what he’s accomplished,” Thompson said. “He’s beaten at least three different state champions this year. He has no fear. He believes he’s going to win every time he steps on that mat.”
Troupe is far from Flathead’s lone threat, too. Fellow freshman Noah Poe-Hatten is 27-6 at 152 pounds, and classmates Dylan Kratofil (103) and Nolan Cate (120) have at least 20 wins on the mat this season. Then there’s the sophomore class that includes Fin Nadeau (145), who was the state runner-up last year, and is 28-5 and in the running for a state title. Sophomores Asher Kemppainen (132) and Chase Youso (160) have a combined 48-14 mark and could be a force at this year’s state meet, too.
And then there are the team’s seasoned veterans, a quintet of seniors who have their own impressive histories and are ready to reverse their fortunes from last season. Tanner Russell at 170 pounds was, like Nadeau, second in the state in 2019 and he’s lost just three times this year, and 138-pounder Brendan Barnes (29-3) is putting together his best year yet, even after a third-place finish at state as a junior. And at 182 pounds, two seniors — Paxton Boyce (5th in 2019) and Garett Rieke (5th in 2018) — have placed previously at the state meet. Not to be outdone, the team’s lone junior in the starting dual lineup, Zaybin Stewart (205), was fifth in the state a year ago.
What it all means for the 2020 state meet in mid-February is still to be determined, but the one year break the rest of the state got from the brawling Braves appears to be over, and the high expectations are back for the orange and black, even if the veteran coach isn’t ready to anoint this group just yet.
“If you focus on winning and it doesn’t happen, it’s just too much pressure,” Thompson said. “We’re going to get better, we’re going to improve every day and just see where the chips fall.”