BILLINGS — It wasn’t perfect, but the Flathead wrestling team clinched its first state championship since 2010 on Saturday, despite going winless in the finals.
“Overall, it was bittersweet,” Braves coach Jeff Thompson said.
“We’ve been preaching the entire year that we’re going to wrestle as a team. We did that. We totally stepped it up. Thirteen state placers. That’s an outstanding tournament.
“The bitter part is to have those three guys in the finals and not to come home with a champion. It’s like a funeral. It was really painful.
“You look at the true definition of a team. We don’t have a single champion. Everybody was part of this state championship team.”
There were close calls throughout for the Braves.
Two-time state champ Trae Vasquez led his 132-pound final for nearly the entire six minutes, holding a 4-3 lead until he was penalized for stalling with 8 seconds left in the third period. After securing the tie, Billings Senior’s Jahzriel Peak struck before time ran out, securing a double leg takedown as time expired to win the match 6-4.
“I ran into a good opponent,” Vasquez said. “We both left it all out there on the mats. It’s definitely a hard thing to take, losing at state. But, I’m going to get better from it and get back to the room and keep working.
“I met my match a little bit. I couldn’t effectively get to my shots. He definitely got to his strengths. I wrestled more of his match than mine. Best to him. He wrestled a great match. It’s a great learning experience. I’m going to hold my head proud. I had a great season, my team had a great season. He was just the better wrestler today.”
Payton Hume wrestled within a point of Great Falls’ Jordan Komac for most of his match, falling down 2-1 in the first period and 3-1 in the second before getting a point back on an escape in the third. Hume attempted to close the gap in the final seconds but couldn’t get though Komac’s defense.
Bryce Shaffer struggled against Bozeman’s Leif Schroeder in the 113-pound final, falling behind 8-0 by early in the third period before losing 11-1.
This isn’t the first time under Thompson’s tutelage that the Braves won a state title despite not having an individual champion. In 2006, Flathead put seven wrestlers into the finals and came home with only a team trophy.
“I’m kind of reliving that feeling again,” he said.
“Overall, the kids are excited. They’re very happy to bring the state championship trophy back to Kalispell. With that, it shows that we again are a wrestling town.”
Kalispell’s only individual state title came from the city’s other high school.
Glacier’s Justin Gibson outlasted top-ranked Kai Stewart of Great Falls C.M. Russell in overtime to claim the 138-pound championship.
The two wrestlers deadlocked through the first three periods, each only gaining a single point on an escape, Stewart in the second period and Gibson in third.
In overtime, the two seemed to be deadlocked again until Gibson found an opening, securing a single leg and lifting it over his right shoulder, eventually taking Stewart down with three seconds left in the period.
“Just score. That’s the only thing going through my head (in overtime),” Gibson said.
“I got in on the single and brought it up to my feet. I missed the trip a couple of times. I knew I was running short on time. Finally, I got it.
“I can’t even describe it. It’s the greatest feeling ever. I’m so happy right now.”
Glacier finished 13th as a team. Gibson was the only one to place with 113-pounder Caden Willis losing in the consolation semifinals earlier in the day.
Flathead was more successful in the consolation rounds.
Braves senior Hunter Rush finished third at 103 pounds and freshman Tilynne Vasquez finished sixth, becoming the first female to place in Class AA. She is the second female wrestler ever to place in Montana, following Laurel’s Abi Gontarek, who placed fifth in Class A in 2014.
Cody Devall placed fourth at 120 pounds and Tanner Russell fifth at 126. Kenyon Fretwell pulled off a few upsets in the consolations but couldn’t beat the second-ranked wrestler at 145 in the third place match, settling for fourth place after a 6-4 decision.
Tucker Nadeau finished third at 170 pounds and Colby Martin finished sixth. Hunter Wellcome was fifth at 185, Matt Gash-Gilder third at 205 and Michael Lee third at 285.
Most importantly, with all of those placers, Flathead brought back its eighth state team title.
“It’s been a great ride,” Thompson said. “It’s been a great season.”