Hauling Home Hardware

Flathead took second place in dramatic fashion at the Class AA state wrestling meet, just one of many highlights from a busy championship weekend for Northwest Montana’s prep athletes

By Andy Viano
Glacier High School's Teegan Vasquez wrestles Flathead's Cade Gardiner in a crosstown match at Flathead on Jan. 10, 2020. Vasquez, a freshman, won the 113-point state championship on Feb. 15. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Class AA state wrestling tournament on Feb. 14-15 ended with the 126-pound championship match, and while all eyes at Billings’ First Interstate Arena at MetraPark were on two Billings grapplers squaring off for a title, there was perhaps no more interested party than the wrestlers, coaches and fans from Flathead High School.

Billings Senior’s Matthew Dewitt won the 126-pound crown in extra time, but the victory came via decision (a win by fall or technical fall scores additional team points) and allowed the Braves to hang onto second place by the smallest possible margin and claim a top-two team finish at the state meet for the eighth time in coach Jeff Thompson’s last nine seasons at the helm.

“I’ve been part of this at the Metra since I was an athlete in 1989,” Thompson said. “And this was probably the closest team race I’ve ever seen.”

Thompson’s alma mater, Great Falls High, won the team title as predicted with 242 1/2 points, but the race for the next three spots was incredibly tight throughout the weekend. The Braves came into Saturday’s wrestle-back and championship rounds in fourth place, but behind a typically strong performance in the so-called blood round and 10 top-six state placers, Flathead (197 points) surged to second ahead of Billings Senior (196 1/2) and 2019 state champion Bozeman (186).

“It just shows you that every point really does matter,” Thompson said.

Flathead High School’s Tanner Russell wrestles Glacier High School’s Kael Willis at Flathead High in Kalispell on Jan. 10, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

To score those points, the Braves made the most of their scoring opportunities on the two-day tourney’s final day. Flathead advanced 11 of its 19 state qualifiers to day two at the double-elimination event and lost only one of those grapplers in Saturday’s first consolation round, the round Thompson calls the blood round, after which round-winners are guaranteed a top-six finish.

“We focus on team first. Do it for yourself but also do it for your team,” Thompson said. “This has always been Flathead’s round; Flathead has always dominated that round.”

Flathead’s young team entered the season with little in the way of expectations after a seventh-place finish in the state a year ago and with a roster full of freshmen and sophomores, but the Braves inserted themselves into the state trophy conversation with a strong start to the season and wins at the Best of the West and Pacific Northwest Classic tournaments. In the end, it was the Braves’ combination of up-and-comers and established seniors that carried the day in Billings. Flathead earned its runner-up trophy without a single state champion, relying instead on point-producing performances up and down the lineup.

Kalispell’s other high school, however, did deliver an individual champ. Freshman Teegan Vasquez gave Glacier its first champion since 2017 with an incredible run at 113 pounds, winning all four of his matches by fall and claiming the tournament’s quick pin award by earning those four wins in a combined 5 minutes and 12 seconds, or 48 seconds shorter than the length of a regulation, three-period match. The brother of two-time Flathead state champion Trae Vasquez and two-time state placer Tilynne Vasquez, Teegan pinned Belgrade’s Carter Schmidt in the final to end his freshman season with a 37-1 record.

“The concepts for him just flow together so quickly and so smoothly,” Glacier coach Ross Dankers said of Vasquez. “An average wrestler, or even a good wrestler, is thinking about things or the transitions come at a moderate pace. He’s three, four steps ahead of everyone else on the mat.”

Vasquez was one of two state placers for the Wolfpack, who earned their best team finish since the 2013-14 season. Glacier finished 10th out of 14 Class AA teams at this year’s tournament, a marked improvement from the prior five seasons, when the Wolfpack occupied one of the bottom two spots. Senior Camryn Vergeront was sixth at 285 pounds at this year’s tournament.

“It’s encouraging, the move forward, but it’s not what I would call satisfying,” Dankers said. “It’s encouraging that we’re getting better, but the expectations continue to rise.”

Flathead High School’s Brendan Barnes wrestles Glacier High School’s Ricardo Hewitt at Flathead High School in Kalispell on Jan. 10, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Braves, meanwhile, fell just one win short of an individual titlist at three different weights. Brendan Barnes ran into four-time state champion Leif Schroeder of Bozeman in the 138-pound final, Tanner Russell was pinned by Missoula Big Sky’s Bridger Hall at 170 and sophomore Fin Nadeau, at 145, came closest of all. Nadeau, who was second to Schroeder last season, squared off against Bozeman’s Brock Rodrigues and the match went to a fourth overtime period. In that period, Nadeau started from the down position and had 30 seconds to escape and win a title, but Rodrigues held Nadeau down to claim victory.

Barnes and Russell were two of four seniors who provided a stable core for their young teammates all year long, and both end their careers with multiple state placements. Barnes did it three times and Russell all four years, including back-to-back seasons in second place. Fellow seniors Garrett Rieke, who battled serious injuries that cost him significant parts of each of the last two seasons, was third at 170 pounds and Paxton Boyce finished fifth at 182.

Flathead’s other placers were Asher Kemppainen (3rd at 132), Noah Poe-Hatten (3rd at 152), Cade Troupe (4th at 126), Chase Youso (5th at 160) and Zaybin Stewart (5th at 205). Youso and Stewart both won three matches in a row after first-round losses to fight their way back to the podium.

In the smaller classifications, Eureka gave Northwest Montana one more state trophy winner with a third-place finish in Class B/C. The Lions boast three state champions this season in Gunnar Smith (126), Nathan Schmidt (138) and Hank Dunn (152). The title for Smith is the third of his career.

Columbia Falls was Northwest Montana’s top finisher in Class A, coming in eighth as a team. Justin Windauer (3rd at 113), Braydon Stone (3rd at 182), Lucas Thacker (5th at 152) and Josh Bertram (6th at 170) were the Wildcats’ state placers.

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

One year after finishing in last place and just six years after the school first fielded a team, the Whitefish High School boys earned their first state championship, taking home the top spot in Class A-B at the all-class state swim meet in Great Falls on Feb. 14-15.

The Bulldogs scored 96 1/2 points, well clear of second-place Hardin (61) and three-time defending champion Billings Central (44 1/2) to put the finishing touches on a memorable season led by a superlative senior and a strong, young supporting cast.

Preston Ring added to his state title haul with two more individual championships in Great Falls, giving him four in the last two years. Ring won both of his races comfortably, taking the 200-yard individual medley in 2:03.05, 11 seconds faster than the field, and the 100 freestyle (48.17) by more than five seconds. But Ring was not Whitefish’s only two-time champion. Sophomore Logan Botner also nabbed a pair of state titles, topping the field in the 200 free and 100 backstroke. Nicholas Starring won his own individual title in the 500 free and was second behind Botner in the 200. The Bulldogs also won the 200 medley and 400 freestyle relays en route to the team title.

The Bulldogs girls, state champions a year ago, finished second, with sophomores Helena Kunz (100 free and 200 free) and Ada Qunell (200 IM and 100 back) winning a pair of individual titles.

In Class AA, Glacier’s girls posted the top finish for a Kalispell team with a fifth-place performance. The Wolfpack were led by sophomore Eden Flake, who was second in the 100 butterfly and third in the 50 free, and senior Caroline Dye, who touched third in both the 100 free and 100 back.

Flathead sophomore Lily Milner, meanwhile, won her first two career state championships. Milner swam a 52.05 to win the 100 free by more than a second and took first in the 100 back in 57.42.

andy@flatheadbeacon.com

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