BILLINGS — Nothing came easy for Glacier seniors Kaleb Mitchell and Jackson Barber at the state wrestling tournament.
Both survived matches decided by one point and were pitted against opponents they’d never beaten, but when the dust settled at Rimrock Auto Arena Saturday, both were crowned Class AA state champions — Mitchell at 140 pounds with a 5-4 decision and Barber at 160 with a 5-2 decision.
“It feels like I’m on top of the world right now,” Mitchell said. “It’s something I’ve trained for, it’s something I’ve worked for for awhile now.”
Neither entered the tournament with championship pedigrees. Mitchell was a three-time state placer, but had never finished higher than third. Barber placed sixth as a freshman and fifth as a junior. Both had their fair share of losses along the way as well. During the regular season, Barber went 17-6 against Class AA opponents while Mitchell was 14-6.
But both peaked at the right time.
“It just shows how much heart those two have,” Glacier coach Mark Fischer said. “Nothing came easy for them, they had to work their butts off throughout their high school careers. What a great way to cap their senior season.”
The 140-pound final matched Mitchell with Billings Skyview’s Seth Ehlang. Mitchell lost a 1-0 decision to Ehlang at the State AA Duals in Great Falls so takedowns should’ve been hard to come by, but Mitchell set the tone with a takedown 12 seconds into the match.
“For a second I was real excited,” he said. “But I knew I had to focus on the task at hand. There was a lot of time left.”
Ehlang escaped 18 seconds after the takedown, but Mitchell brought him down again to finish the first period with a 4-1 lead. Starting from the bottom position, Ehlang escaped early in the second period, then scored a takedown of his own to knot the score at four. Mitchell began the third period on the bottom and while he struggled to escape Ehlang’s grasp, he kept his arms free. With 12 seconds remaining, Mitchell escaped and fended off a shot from Ehlang to seal the title.
“That kid’s tough on top,” Mitchell said. “He held me down the whole period, but I saw an opening and made it happen.”
Mitchell pinned his first-round opponent, but had to battle the rest of the way through his bracket. He won a 7-3 decision in the second round, breaking a late tie with a takedown and two back points. He won his semifinal with a 7-2 decision.
Barber’s final-round opponent, Skyview’s Matt Dillon, thrashed the Glacier wrestler 18-4 at the State AA Duals, but Barber was not intimidated in the rematch. Tied 2-2 after two periods, Barber escaped 14 seconds into the third period to take a 3-2 lead. More than once Barber glanced at the clock hoping the seconds would tick away faster as defending his lead was not easy. Dillon forced Barber to the mat with 30 seconds remaining, but Barber clung to his right leg to avoid the takedown. As Dillon tried to shake his leg free, Barber slid on top, scoring a takedown of his own.
“First through sixth we’re all pretty equal (at 160 pounds),” Barber said. “It comes down to who wants it the most. I had another match where I won by one point just holding on with that one arm with all I had and it was enough.
“It just feels great. It’s the hardest obstacle to achieve and it feels great when you finally achieve those obstacles. I’ve been working all year for this and it’s a dream come true.”
Like Mitchell, Barber pinned his first-round opponent and had to work for everything else. He survived his second-round match against Billings West’s J.R. Slotsve in a 4-3 decision, then edged Flathead’s Jake Egley 6-3 in a contentious semifinal.
As a team, Glacier failed to defend its 2011 state title, finishing seventh with 153 points, well behind champion Great Falls High, which tallied 263.5 points.
Still, Fischer couldn’t have been happier with the finish. Glacier had just one individual champion a year ago when it won the team title and the school had just two individual champions in its history.
“The way that we finished, you can’t walk away from here without a smile,” Fischer said.
Six other Glacier wrestlers placed. Dawson Day took third at 171, Lucas Mantel was fourth at 135, Grant Tafoya placed fifth at 152 and Cody Decker, Tanner Stupack and Zach Dennehy placed sixth at 119, 152 and heavyweight, respectively.
“As a team we have to realize that these Eastern AA teams are used to wrestling physical and if we want to come back here and compete as a team next year, we’re going to have to be able to wrestle physical,” Fischer said. “A lot of that has to happen in the practice room. I think this tournament was a good learning experience for our kids about what we need to do in the future if we’re going to compete against those teams and get back to the podium.”
While Glacier had two individual champions, little went right for Flathead. The Braves placed 13th out of 14 in the team standings with 34 points and 145-pound senior Suny Cheff, who took fourth, was their only place-winner.
Senior 160-pounder Jake Egley cruised through the first two rounds, but lost a 6-3 decision to Barber in the semifinals and was disqualified from the tournament for biting Barber’s forearm, costing Flathead the points he accumulated in the opening rounds.
“I’m sure it was frustration,” Flathead coach Scot Davis said. “I still think he’s a great kid. People have their moments.”
Egley led 3-1 after two periods, but a reversal with 43 seconds remaining in the third evened the score at 3. Barber scored a near fall with eight seconds left for the win.
Cheff pinned Bozeman’s Jakob Luckey in the consolation semifinal, but had a hard time scoring in the third-place match against Bozmen’s Tommy Challeen, which he lost 4-1. Cheff entered the match 1-2 against Challeen this year and Davis said Saturday’s match looked much like the others.
“It’s the same match every time,” he said. “He’s just hard to score on, but I think Suny did his best wrestling of the year here. He did his best wrestling right at the end and that’s what you look for.”
Overall, Davis said the tournament was a disappointment, but he’s optimistic for next season.
“We can do better,” he said. “It’s disappointing. We had what I thought was a pretty good first round. The second round was horrible and that kind of set us up for this.
“But you have to look at the whole season. Overall, I thought we had a pretty good season for what we have. It’s baby steps. We’ll get better but they’re going to have to work harder in the offseason, weight training and more wrestling.”