Sports

Eyes on the Prize

Dozens of student-athletes from throughout the Flathead Valley will wrestle or swim for a state championship this weekend

The second week of February brings to an end two of the winter’s prep sports seasons as wrestlers (Billings) and swimmers (Great Falls) will arrive from across the state to chase their championship dreams, and the Flathead Valley will have no shortage of athletes in both sports with a legitimate chance to make their dream come true.

Like most seasons, the Flathead Braves wrestling program is in the running for a state title, back among the sport’s heavyweights after a down year in 2019, but on their heels is a rising Glacier High squad with big aspirations of its own. In the pool, Whitefish is staring down a shot at a pair of team titles, and a trio of girls from Kalispell could make a major splash in Class AA.

Here’s what to watch for on Feb. 14 and 15 when the state crowns individual and team champions in both sports.

Glacier High School’s Teegan Vasquez wrestles Flathead’s Cade Gardner at Flathead High in Kalispell on Jan. 10, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

WRESTLING

When your rival is one of the most consistently excellent programs, regardless of sport, in the entire state of Montana, it’s hard to get much attention. And while the 2019-20 season was not the year the Glacier Wolfpack ended their long crosstown losing streak or unseated Flathead at the top of the Kalispell wrestling hierarchy, the school on the north side has a future that looks very bright.

Glacier will send 14 wrestlers to the all-class state tournament, Feb. 14-15 at First Interstate Arena at MetraPark in Billings, and the headliners are a pair of fabulous freshmen. Teegan Vasquez, the youngest member of a Kalispell wrestling dynasty, captured first place at 113 pounds at the Western AA divisional seeding tournament in Helena on Feb. 8, winning all three of his matches by fall and establishing himself as a favorite for the state title. Josh Melton will join Vasquez as a No. 1 seed at state after he took home the 103-pound crown with a pair of tight decisions in the semis and finals.

The top eight wrestlers in each weight class advance from the seeding tournament to state, and the rest of the Wolfpack contingent is led by Camryn Vergeront, who finished third at heavyweight (285 pounds), and fourth-place grapplers Bridger Beach (126), Caden Gilmond (160) and Caedon Seymour (205).

The Braves, meanwhile, are positioned nicely to return to the podium as a team and maybe even challenge for a title. Great Falls High will enter the weekend as the favorite on the strength of its win at the Jug Beck Rocky Mountain Classic last month, but Flathead was second at that event and will bring 19 wrestlers to the state meet, just one fewer than the Bison.

Flathead’s state team boasts its own sensational freshman in Cade Troupe, who came out atop the 126-pound weight class at the seeding tournament and will enter state with a team-best 42-5 record. He will be joined as a top seed by senior Brendan Barnes (138) and sophomore Fin Nadeau (145), both of whom finished first at the divisional last year but finished third and second, respectively, at state. Asher Kemppainen (132), Tanner Russell (170) and Paxton Boyce (182) were all runners-up in Helena.

The Braves will be bringing six freshmen to Billings, including Cade Gardner (113) and Noah Poe-Hatten (152) as No. 3 seeds. Ten of Flathead’s 19 qualifiers are underclassmen.

In Class A, where the divisional tournaments are also scored as team events, Browning placed second to lead all Northwest Montana programs. The Indians qualified 12 wrestlers for state, including divisional champions Chuck Braverock (285) and Charlie Bullcalf (182). Trey Thompson won the 152-pound title for Libby-Troy, one of eight Greenchain wrestlers to qualify.

Polson finished fifth as a team at the divisional but will send a whopping 15 wrestlers to the state tournament. Columbia Falls (10) and Whitefish (8) will also be well represented.

Eureka qualified seven for the Class B/C state tourney, including divisional champs Gunnar Smith (126), Kyle Durden (132), Nathan Schmidt (138) and Hank Dunn (152). Bigfork’s Joseph Farrier finished third at 170 and will be the Vikings’ lone representative.

Preston Ring of Whitefish High School at swim practice at The Wave Aquatic and Fitness Center in Whitefish on Jan. 15, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

SWIMMING

Billings Central has won at least a share of nine of the last 10 Class A state championships in boys swimming, but Preston Ring and the Whitefish Bulldogs are ready to stare down the Rams and take home a first-place trophy for the first time in school history.

Ring, a senior, is already a two-time state champion and will be a heavy favorite to win a couple more, but he’ll be counting on strong performances from his up-and-coming young teammates like Logan Botner, Nick Starring and Jack McDaniel to push Whitefish to the top of the podium.

Whitefish’s girls, meanwhile, are looking to remain at the top of Class A after winning a state championship in 2019. The Bulldogs have their own stars at the top of the lineup in sophomore Ada Qunell, a two-time individual champ last year, and junior Helena Kunz, the reigning 200-yard freestyle champ.

In Class AA, Glacier has never won a state championship in boys or girls swimming, but the Wolfpack girls come to Great Falls with a dynamic one-two punch at the top of the lineup. Senior Caroline Dye, who will swim at Division I Nebraska-Omaha next year, is Glacier’s most experienced swimmer, and she and sophomore Eden Flake give the Wolfpack two contenders for individual titles. It’s another youngster from Kalispell, however, who has gone faster than either Glacier swimmer this year. Flathead sophomore Lily Milner, who placed second in two races at state as a freshman, has posted one of the state’s two fastest times in four separate events this winter.

andy@flatheadbeacon.com

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