The Wrestling School

How grappling became one of Flathead's favorite sports

By Lucas Semb for 406mtsports.com
From left, Noah Poe-Hatten, sophomore, Asher Kemppainen, junior and Fin Nadeau, junior of the Flathead High school wrestling team, March 17, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

At Flathead High School, there’s a unique aura that surrounds athletics — traditional sports like football and basketball, although popular, don’t hold the same grip as they do at most schools.

Instead, Jeff Thompson, a 10-time state champion coach, and his wrestling program take the cake.

With both the boys and girls teams seeking their third-consecutive state championship this season, the buy-in from athletes and spectators alike has skyrocketed. They want to be part of the dominance that is the Braves and Bravettes Brawlers.

“On the macro perspective, Flathead High School has really embraced the sport of wrestling,” Thompson said. “At a lot of schools, maybe wrestling is not known as a popular sport, but at Flathead High School it is probably the most popular sport … we have a lot of girl soccer players, football players, so it’s really cool. Some of the best athletes at Flathead decide that they want to wrestle.”

On Tuesday night at Missoula Big Sky, the Braves displayed their supremacy in short order, beating the home Eagles 72-4 in a dual that hardly lasted 45 minutes.

This type of heritage wasn’t created overnight, and that’s what sets the Flathead program apart. Its wrestlers are oftentimes molded for the Braves’ culture well before high school ever crosses their minds.

Hania Halverson of Flathead High School placed first in 120 at the state wrestling tournament in Billings on Feb. 12, 2022. Photo by Photolanthropy

Kalispell has access to one of the finest youth wrestling programs across the state in the Flathead Valley Wrestling Club, which Thompson has a hand in coaching. From five years old, future Braves are shaped into Braves-caliber grapplers.

“We have a van, we travel all over the country and hit the biggest, toughest tournaments,” Thompson said. “We spend a lot of time with these wrestlers growing up through that feeder program and of course, that’s a big part of our success.”

Thompson’s son and current Flathead wrestler, Anders, spoke on the team’s unity following their triumph over Big Sky, and it went back to those early days.

The effects of the youth program isn’t just coach speak. It gives the Braves a true advantage in a sport where they’re on the mat individually, but the team aspect can make all the difference in how they perform there.

“The guys that are in the program right now, we’ve all been wrestling together since before I can remember,” Anders said. “That’s super advantageous. It especially helps when maybe you see something going wrong, and you can go to that guy and say, ‘hey, do this better.’ … it’s just super close knit. I can talk to this guy (points to a teammate) about anything.”

It’d be remiss not to give the coaches due credit for what they’ve done in creating the powerhouse too. Anders said Jeff has constructed an “operation” that is different from a lot of other programs.

“It’s super high-paced and high-technique drilling,” Anders said. “We don’t do a lot of standing around at all. It’s constantly drilling and working on new things and addressing what went wrong in the match and addressing that for the future … it gives us an advantage.”

Jeff deflected credit to his coaching staff, which he called “one of the best in the country” while saying each person brings their own “forte” to the program.

That’s evidenced by athlete affirmation.

“We have so many different guys that can bring so many different things to the table,” Anders said. “And they (the coaching staff) can individualize each wrestler super well. So like, if this guy wants to wrestle this way, then these coaches can work with him, and then if another guy wrestles a different style of wrestling, then these coaches can work with him.”

Chase Youso of Flathead High School made runner up at 205 at the state wrestling tournament in Billings on Feb. 12, 2022.

What’s been accomplished at Flathead was intentional — a system built from the ground up.

The reward? A chance at a third-straight state title, hence its “aim for three” slogan this season. But as has been the case to the Braves becoming a perennial power, the process is how they achieve, and they won’t take any shortcuts on their way to a three-peat.

“Here’s what happens,” Jeff said. “If the team is successful, then your workout partner is successful and then guess what? You’re going to be successful … it’s a big formula that we’ve embraced.”