Banners for every sport hang from the rafters of the Flathead High School gymnasium, ticking off all the state championships the school has ever won, some of them going back more than 100 years.
There are dozens of years up there, but only one team ever gets to be first, situated at the top with the rest of the champions beneath it. It’s an opportunity that has long passed for most students, already seized by an earlier generation.
This year, however, that opportunity was staring Flathead’s burgeoning girls wrestling program directly in the face, and with an added bonus. The Brave Brawlers could be more than just the first group at Flathead to stamp their year on that banner; they could be the first school in Montana to call themselves state champs.
And it was an opportunity they wouldn’t let slip away.
Flathead held off Billings Senior and won the inaugural girls wrestling state championship at Lockwood High School on Feb. 20, bringing home the first trophy in the sport’s history and setting the standard for generations of girls wrestlers to come.
“Only they get to say that they were part of the first state championship team in Montana,” Flathead coach Amber Downing said.
Flathead finished with 142 points, just seven clear of runner-up Billings Senior in what ended up being a tightly contested two-team race. Cascade (68) was third at the all-class event, which included grapplers from 47 teams around the state. Glacier (42) was 15th, led by fifth-place finisher McKenna McCarthy at 145 pounds.
The Brave Brawlers claimed the title despite not having a single state champion and advancing just one wrestler to a championship match. That was senior Aleeya Derlatka, who won twice at 145 pounds before falling to Gallatin’s Lily Schultz in the final. Derlatka, one of a handful of Flathead wrestlers who previously wrestled with the boys team, said any sting from coming up just short of an individual title was more than tempered by the team’s triumph.
“It was always just for the team,” Derlatka said. “That’s for everyone. We all can celebrate that. The championship (match) was, honestly, just for me.”
Derlatka also celebrated the significance of even having a tournament just for girls, something that was not lost on any of the participants. Last year, on a team of primarily boys who had been wrestling for years, Derlatka said she never considered she could wrestle at a state tournament. Now that she has, she appreciated the chance to play a role in a barrier-breaking bit of history.
“Wrestling’s never been viewed as a women’s sport, really, so the fact that it has finally become its own sport gives us recognition as women,” she said. “Winning the first state title is really nice. It feels good.”
Downing, too, said being part of the first state tournament for girls wrestling was special, a feeling enhanced by the “electrifying” atmosphere inside Lockwood’s brand new gymnasium.
“You would have thought that you were at a much higher level of event. The energy was something quite exceptional,” Downing said. “The enthusiasm that all of these teams had for the girls was unique and through the roof … Everyone was there to make history.”
Thirteen Flathead wrestlers scored points en route to the team’s win, including six state placers (top six). Alyssa Poe-Hatten was third at 103 pounds, Hania Halverson was fourth at 113, and Boston Howell (170) and Lucille Libby (205) both finished sixth.
But the most surprising and significant result came from Trinity Boivin at 120 pounds, who came from way behind to stun Billings Senior’s Isabelle Dillon in her first match of the tournament. Downing said Boivin trailed by double-digits in points before pinning Dillon at 3:00, a result that, had it gone the other way, would likely have given the Broncs the title. Boivin won her next match, too, beating her teammate Hannah Greene to secure a sixth-place finish.
Greene is herself a fitting portrait of the way girls wrestling exploded in popularity at Flathead this year, where more than 20 wrestlers made up the squad, most of whom had never participated in the sport before. Greene was a cheerleader at a wrestling match earlier this year when she saw the girls team for the first time and asked to join. She did in mid-January, wrestled twice in the regular season, and won her first bout at state before an arm injury in her third match ended her season.
A senior, Greene was drawn to the team after she saw the way they supported each other during the match she watched, and she said she felt that support personally as soon as she showed up for her first practice, even if the learning process was “excruciatingly slow.”
“I was not expecting to be welcomed as quickly as I was,” Greene said. “They didn’t care that I was learning slow. I kept apologizing, but all of the girls on the wrestling team, even the boys, everybody was super supportive.”
Greene didn’t have a chance to score for Flathead because of her injury, but she was able to contribute something else in a rather unexpected way. During the second day, a tournament organizer left scrambling at the last minute for a national anthem singer asked the Brave Brawlers for ideas. They recommended Greene, who has sung the anthem at a handful of Flathead sporting events, and she accepted, after a little prodding from her teammates.
“They told me, ‘Hannah, you’re singing,’” she recalled. “I was so happy that I could do something else for the team.”
The moment Greene will remember even more fondly, of course, was what happened at the end of that day. Downing said the girls stayed up until after midnight reminiscing about the season and celebrating their victory, while also trying to appreciate the significance of the win. Greene, for her part, tried her best to sum up the moment as she and her teammates tabulated points in the stands with the final result coming into focus.
“I told the girls, ‘We’re the first ever girls wrestling team that has won state,’” she said. “We have these banners in the gym and there’s all of the years that those activities have won state and I told them, ‘Guys, we’re the first year on that banner.’”
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