“What a year,” Flathead wrestling coach Jeff Thompson said after the conclusion of the Class AA state wrestling tournament on March 5-6. “Both the boys and girls wrestling teams went undefeated in duals and both won the 2021 state championships. Life is good in the Brave Brawler wrestling world.”
Two weeks after the Flathead girls won the inaugural state championship, Thompson predicted that a home-gym advantage would benefit the boys team. The team proved him right as the Braves came away with their third state title in five years, after back-to-back wins in 2017 and 2018. The program now has 10 state titles on the boys side, the third most in Class AA.
“Success is about routine and doing the same thing over and over to perfection,” Thompson said. “Our boys got to warm up on our own mats in their wrestling room that they have spent hours and hours practicing on … and got to compete on their own black and orange mats in their gym surrounded by their teachers, administrators and teammates.”
While the Braves had just one individual champion, Ethan Freund at 126, they had high scorers in nearly every weight class. Out of 23 state qualifiers, 22 won a match and scored at least one point.
“That is a total team effort,” Thompson said. “Every point matters and we knew we had depth.”
The Braves came into the March 6 wrestle-back and championship rounds already in first place, and behind a typically strong performance in the so-called blood round and 12 top-six state placers, Flathead (247 points) held its narrow lead ahead of Billings Senior (239 1/2) and 2020 state champion Great Falls (192). The 7.5-point margin of victory was the smallest in a state championship since 2000, when a mere three points decided the team champion.
Flathead assistant coach Dallas Stuker thought the Braves needed 12 placers and four finalists to win the meet, which is exactly how it played out.
The Braves made the most of their scoring opportunities on the two-day tourney’s final day. Flathead advanced 14 of its 23 state qualifiers to day two at the double-elimination event and only lost two wrestlers to the first consolation round, which Thompson calls the blood round. Winners after that round are guaranteed a top-six finish.
Freund, the team’s only individual champion, was wrestling in a Montana state championship for the first time after moving from Washington last year. The sophomore entered the tournament as the top seed from the west and helped Flathead seal the team title with a 5-3 sudden victory in the final against Billings West’s Jesse Aarness, who was denied a four-peat.
“He was the best not only at the state tournament but one of the best workout partners in the room,” Thompson said, noting that Freund never missed a 7 a.m. workout or lifting session throughout the season. “[He] was as concerned about his new Flathead team winning the state championship as winning his own.”
Kalispell’s other high school also delivered an individual champ. Glacier High School sophomore Teegan Vasquez won his second state championship after moving up to 120 pounds. Vasquez went on a solid run, winning his first three matches by fall and downing Billings Senior’s Jalen Vladic by major decision 8-0 in the final. The brother of two-time Flathead state champion Trae Vasquez and two-time state placer Tilynne Vasquez, Teegan is eyeing his own four-peat, after two years of nearly flawless state performances.
“He’s just the total package with the combination of athleticism, technical skill and mindset,” Glacier coach Ross Dankers said of Vasquez. “He’s also an outstanding individual off the mat with the way he lives his lifestyle and how he treats people.”
Vasquez was one of two state placers for the Wolfpack, who tied their team finish from last year, finishing 10th out of 16 Class AA teams. Senior Rocco Beccari was fifth at 285 pounds.
“It’s like any tournament — you get some awesome wins from the young kids you feel good about but there are some hard losses that are tough to swallow,” Dankers said. “When you build it organically, it takes some time to grow, but we only graduate three seniors so it’s going to be a fun couple of seasons coming up.”
The Braves, meanwhile, fell just one win short of an individual titlist at three different weights. Junior Asher Kemppainen lost to Big Sky’s Izzy Moreno in a 10-3 decision in the 132-pound final, sophomore Noah Poe-Hatten was unable to repeat his early season win over Big Sky’s Hunter Meinzen and lost in a 5-1 decision, and junior Fin Nadeau, at 152, lost in the finals for the third time in three years. Nadeau squared off against Billings West’s Drake Rhodes, who won a second state title in a 7-2 decision.
Flathead’s other placers were Cade Gardner (third at 120), Gabe Lake (third at 145), Chase Youso (third at 160), Anders Thompson (fourth at 138), Cade Troupe (fourth at 145), Logan Stansberry (sixth at 120), Ryan Nelson (sixth at 182), and Gaige Winter (sixth at 205).
Thompson pointed out that 20 of the state wrestlers return next year, including 10 placers and all four finalists.
“A lot of coaches mention they have a young team, but this young team stepped up to the challenge,” he said. “They were not waiting for the future. The future was now.”
Columbia Falls was Northwest Montana’s top finisher in Class A, coming in seventh as a team. Justin Windauer (second at 126), Lucas Thacker (third at 160) and Josh Bertram (third at 182) were the Wildcats’ state placers.
“It’s like the water just moves out of her way,” Kalispell swim coach Karen Bouda said of Flathead High School swimming star Lily Milner.
Milner, a junior, is now a double-double state champion after winning the 100 freestyle and the 100 backstroke for the second straight year. Her sizzling time of 50.98 in the freestyle was nearly three seconds faster than her nearest competitor, and twice her winning margin from 2020.
“Lily hit that touchpad and could watch the rest of her heat finish,” Bouda said. “It wasn’t even close.”
In the backstroke, Milner’s time of 56.58 was also more than two seconds clear of the field.
The Wolfpack were led by junior Eden Flake, who was fourth in the 50 free and followed that up with a second-place showing in the 100 butterfly in 56.68, which broke the Glacier school record.
Glacier’s boys posted the top finish for a Kalispell team with a sixth-place performance. Glacier freshman Isaac Keim touched fifth in the 50 free and sixth in the 100 backstroke, junior Xander Stout placed fifth in the 100 butterfly and senior Derek Smith was sixth in the 200 freestyle.
In the smaller classifications, Flathead Valley schools put up strong showings across the board at Mission Valley Aquatics in Polson.
After breaking a three-year win streak by Billings Central in 2020, the Whitefish boys just missed defending their title on March 6.
The Bulldogs scored 71 points, well clear of third-place Columbia Falls (43) but three points shy of champion Billings Central (74).
Junior Logan Botner added to his growing collection of individual titles by topping the field in the 100 butterfly and 500 freestyle. Sophomore teammate Jack McDaniel won the 100 freestyle.
Columbia Falls had an individual champion in junior Conner Cheff, who won the 200 IM, while meet host Polson capped off its inaugural year of fielding a swim team with two individual championships after Mason Sloan won the 200 freestyle (1:52.97) and the 100 breaststroke (1:05.18).
Nine years after Bigfork fielded its first swim team, the Valkyries finished runner-up in the Class A-B girls state swim meet in Polson on March 6, scoring 52 points. Billings Central (102) won the meet and Whitefish (42) was third.
Bigfork junior Sophi Logue was a repeat winner in the 100 butterfly (1:05.77) and was joined atop the podium by senior teammate Shelby Thompson, who won the 50 free (26.05).
Whitefish junior Ada Qunell defended her title in the 100 IM (2:09.12) en route to picking up a second win in the 500 freestyle in 5:14.27.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.