Sports

Their Moment on the Mat

Girls wrestling is sanctioned in Montana for the first time ever, and the Flathead Valley is the sport's epicenter

Inside the main gym at Flathead High School, loud cheers and screams could be heard during the varsity boys wrestling matchups against Big Sky and Sentinel high schools. The loudest roars, however, weren’t coming from supporters lining the spotlight-lit mats. They were seeping in from down the stairs, through a long hallway, where another wrestling tournament was taking place.

The atmosphere inside the Gene Boyle gymnasium, on the ground floor of Flathead High, was frenzied and spilling out the doors. It reached a fever pitch during the last match of the second crosstown all-girls wrestling dual as Glacier High’s Emily Pedron and her opponent, Flathead’s Trinity Boivin, went into overtime on the mat.

Trinity Boivin of Flathead High School pulls Glacier High School’s Emily Pedran to the mat during a wrestling match at Flathead High in Kalispell on Jan 8, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Pedron gritted out the win, eliciting screams from her teammates and giving the Wolfpack another three points toward their team score of 51, just nine points behind Flathead.

“I’ve been wrestling since I was six years old,” Glacier assistant coach Zach Barber told his athletes when he gathered them up after the last match. “And without a doubt that was far and away the funnest match I’ve ever been at.”

Flathead girls co-coach Sully Sullivan said it was the best crowd he’d seen at any match in years, while co-coach Amber Downing equated the level of energy to what she’s seen at high-level NCAA tournaments — all packed into a tiny high school gym.

“For Montana to have that same kind of interest and support as we’re growing the sport of women’s wrestling is very powerful,” Downing said. “It’s a great move forward for the ladies to see this level of support and enthusiasm for these girls getting out to compete.”

Alexus Cislo of Flathead High School wrestles Madyson Gilbert of Glacier High School at Flathead High in Kalispell on Jan 8, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Jan. 8 competition was the second dual between the Wolfpack and Bravette brawlers, following their Jan. 2 showdown. They now have the only two sanctioned all-girls competitions in Montana state history.

The Montana High School Association (MHSA) voted to approve girls folkstyle wrestling as a sport on Jan. 20 of last year, making Montana the 14th state to offer the sanctioned sport at the prep level. It was the first sport added by MHSA since soccer in 1991, showing the confidence that officials, coaches and fans had in the sport’s growing interest.

“I don’t think they envisioned this,” Jeff Thompson, head coach of the Braves program, said. “Getting this many girls out, and especially in [Class] AA this fast? We probably skipped a few steps they thought we’d go through.”

At least four schools in the state have at least 10 athletes on their rosters, but the majority of female wrestlers are concentrated in the Flathead Valley.

Glacier currently has 22 girls on its roster, and Flathead has 21. With COVID-related travel restrictions on prep sports this winter, this strong participation gives the Wolfpack and Bravettes unparalleled access to competition.

The Flathead Valley has a history as a wrestling powerhouse in the state. Flathead High has won eight state titles since the turn of the century, most recently going back-to-back in 2017 and 2018, while Glacier won state in 2012.

The valley has also produced the best female wrestler in Montana history, Tilynne Vasquez, a title that is sure to be passed along after this season. Vasquez wrestled for two years at Flathead in 2017-18, becoming the highest-placing female at the state tournament when she finished finished fourth at 103 pounds as a sophomore, wrestling against boys. She also placed at national championships and won gold at the Cadet Pan American Championships.

Wrestlers like Vazquez provided strong evidence for expanding the opportunities for girls in the sport.

Flathead High School wrestlers cheer on a teammate during a match against Glacier High School at Flathead High in Kalispell on Jan 8, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

“This wasn’t an opportunity afforded to girls even a few years ago, let alone 15 years ago when I was first giving the sport a try,” Flathead coach Downing said. “In all the years I wrestled, I never had a practice partner that was female, and I only competed against one girl from another state.”

“This here is amazing — finally we’re catching up to the times across the country,” she continued. “For Montana to step into that realm, it’s amazing and our girls have really made sure it took off. It’s not quite the slow progression MHSA was anticipating — I think it’s a little bit of a shock for them.”

Flathead had six girls on the roster last year, five of whom returned this year. The remaining 16 athletes are mostly newcomers to the sport, which the coaches say is the biggest difference between the boys and girls programs.

“When you get to high school with the boys, they’ve already been exposed to the sport,” Downing said, comparing the girls’ learning curve to learning a foreign language around native speakers. “The girls don’t know what the terminology is, what a stance is, so they’ve been coming in early and staying late to work on it.”

At Glacier, a similar scene has unfolded this season, with the majority of girls coming to the sport with no background.

“When you come in with a crew of athletes that are totally green, have never stepped on a mat or watched it, it challenges you as a coach,” Barber, Glacier’s assistant coach, said. “But it’s fun going through the basics with the kids and I’m pretty blown away with the steps they’ve made this year. Even this week!”

The improvements for the Wolfpack were on display on Jan. 8. Compared to the first dual, when the Bravettes won 78-6, sweeping all but one match, the second dual was far more competitive and had even more energy.

“As a unit, these girls are just all in for each other,” Barber said. “Obviously we’re trying to keep people apart and enforce safety measures, but they’re all out there screaming and yelling and are so stoked when they come off the mat.”

Alexus Cislo of Flathead High School prepares for her match at Flathead High in Kalispell on Jan 8, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Having a combined 43 female wrestlers concentrated in the same city makes crosstown duals easy to organize, as well as the most hyped-up wrestling competitions in the state.

Hania Halverson, a junior transfer to Flathead from Oregon, is one of the most experienced wrestlers for the Bravettes. She started wrestling as a seventh-grader in Oregon, and when she got to high school, the state already had a sanctioned championship tournament for girls.

“In some ways, though, I think Montana is even ahead of states like Oregon,” Halverson said. “We just had an all-girls dual with Glacier with 21 girls per team. In Oregon that never really happened.”

Halverson said there was a once-a-year tournament that would have an all-girls section to it with wrestlers from across the state. To have back-to-back weekend duals of this size, without having to travel farther than the other side of town, is a whole different experience.

“The energy this weekend and last weekend, it’s pretty unique to see,” Halverson said, noting that she already can’t remember what it was like not to wrestle

in such a charged atmosphere. “Everyone was so hungry to get in a real match, and we’ve been waiting for a while to get on the mats and prove ourselves.”

Halverson was a state qualifier in Oregon and is using her experience to show younger wrestlers what they can get out of the sport.

“The girls are so athletic and they all put in the time to get better,” she said. “I see so much encouragement and bonding without even having a team bonding event — I think wrestling in itself is team bonding — and I’m excited that everyone is so into it.”

Halverson also points out the huge benefit to having a role model like Downing, a woman coach with years of wrestling experience, on male-dominated mats.

Flathead High School wrestling coach Amber Downing shouts to one of her wrestlers out on the mat at Flathead High in Kalispell on Jan 8, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Downing wrestled with the East Helena Wrestling Club in elementary and middle school and was a team manager at Helena High. She’s currently the coordinator for the Montana Intensive Wrestling Camp, one of the longest-running youth camps in the state, and a primary way for young wrestlers to gain exposure to the sport.

To increase the visibility of girls wrestling, Downing starting bringing in Carlene Sluberski, the former head coach of Montana’s only collegiate women’s wrestling program at the University of Providence in Great Falls, as a speaker.

The regular exposure to top-level female wrestling coaches has helped local coaches market the sport to newcomers. The added incentive of taking part in the inaugural all-girls state tournament was another selling point that helped turn out such high numbers this year.

“Overall, as a group they really enjoy being the pioneers — you know, they embrace it,” Thompson said. “It’s a memory they’ll have the rest of their life. They are the first.”

When the final whistle blows on March 6, ending the last match of the inaugural MHSA state girls wrestling championship, odds are that the first-place trophy will be traveling to Kalispell.

“I’d love to see the Flathead girls win the first sanctioned Montana state championship,” Halverson said. “With our numbers, it’s totally possible and I think the girls on the team are willing to put in the effort to make that happen.”

The only obstacle that might stand in Flathead’s way is a hungry pack of wolves across town.

“Regardless of where we come out at the end of the year, they’re still making history within Montana,” Downing said. “And that’s special for them.”

The Glacier High School girls wrestling team breaks a team huddle after their match at Flathead High School in Kalispell on Jan 8, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

micah@flatheadbeacon.com

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