MCCULLERS COLUMN: Flathead’s Vasquez a picture of persistence

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If you’d asked Flathead senior Trae Vasquez two years ago where he’d be today, his answer would’ve been on top of the world — or at least the state.

Still just a sophomore, Vasquez was riding high off his second individual state wrestling title and harboring dreams of becoming the first four-time state wrestling champion in Flathead history.

His life since has been seemingly everything but what he envisioned.

He entered his junior season as the favorite to win the 132-pound title, only to lose a painfully close decision in the state finals after battling turf toe over the final few weeks of the season.

The loss provided Vasquez with a level of motivation previously unknown, and the rigorous offseason of training that followed pushed his confidence to a higher level than ever entering his senior year.

Then came the evening of Oct. 13.

Sprinting down the field on kickoff coverage against Great Falls CMR, Vasquez, also an all-state defensive back, saw a crease open in the wall of blockers. If he could split it, he thought, a big hit and momentum-shifting play awaited him on the other side.

As he attempted to do so, he planted his left foot in the Legends Stadium turf for one last lateral cut. Instead, he collapsed in a heap after hearing a sound he’ll never forget.

“BOOM,” he recalls his left knee exclaiming. “It sounded like a gun.”

As he lay on the cold, synthetic grass, Vasquez bawled like a baby.

Not because of the pain. Not because his high school athletic career was likely over. But because he couldn’t finish the game — or the season — with his “brothers.”

When his head hit the pillow that night, he didn’t know that he’d completely ruptured his ACL, badly strained his MCL and so seriously “jacked up” his lateral meniscus that 20 percent of it was irreparable.

What Vasquez did know was he wouldn’t allow his injury, whatever the ensuing MRIs showed it to be, to define him or tarnish his legacy.

That’s why this weekend, when he should be on the mat competing for the 138-pound individual championship and leading Flathead’s charge for a second straight team title, Vasquez will not be thinking of nor sulking over what could’ve been.

He will instead be on the sidelines, where he’s been all year, watching intently and losing his voice as he screams out instructions and encouragement to teammates over the roar of the crowd at the MetraPark in Billings.

“Going through the injury was a loss, but I think an even bigger loss would’ve been abandoning my guys,” Vasquez said.

Make no mistake, he’d much rather be enduring the grind of practices and shedding weight, putting points on the board for the Braves and enjoying a successful senior season alongside his brother, sister and teammates.

He did all he could to compress a six-to-12-month rehab process into three. Or, as he more accurately put it, “do the impossible.”

That timetable would’ve allowed him to compete in last weekend’s divisional seeding, but it was not to be.

Vasquez will miss an entire season for the first time since he started wrestling at the age 4. But, somehow, he’s ignored the cloud and fallen in love with the silver lining.

He’s delighted in a renewed love for the sport he often took for granted, and for the little things in life.

Remaining involved with the team as a coach, cheerleader, adviser and even team captain has been much-needed “therapy” during a trying rehab period.

He’s particularly enjoyed watching and cheering on his sister, Tilynne, who is among the favorites at state in the 103-pound weight class after winning the divisional tournament.

“From the worst thing possible that could’ve happened my senior year, I feel like it’s the best thing that happened for me as a person,” Vasquez said.

“What a crazy journey it’s been.”

And it’s not over yet.

The same doctors who declared his high school athletic career over just after his knee injury have now cleared Vasquez to compete in track this spring. In addition to his football and wrestling prowess, he’s a standout for Flathead in the long jump, 100- and 400-meter dashes and the 4x100 and 4x400 relay teams.

He’s already resumed running. His surgery was three months ago this past Monday.

Vasquez is not sure where he’ll be two years from now. He plans to continue wrestling in college, but he hasn’t decided on a school yet.

Instead of guessing about what’s ahead, Vasquez has learned to soak up the present.

“I’m really grateful for everything that’s happened to me,” he said. “The good, the bad, the ugly. The championships and the losses.

“I’m at where I’m supposed to be at right now.”

Evan McCullers is a sports reporter and columnist for the Daily Inter Lake. He can be contacted by phone at (406) 758-4463 or by email at emccullers@dailyinterlake.com

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