By EVAN MCCULLERS
The Daily Inter Lake
Flathead is the defending Class AA state wrestling champion, tough in every weight class and made last weekend’s divisional seeding look like a cakewalk.
It’d be easy to call the Braves the favorites to take state for the second year in a row this weekend in Billings.
Not so fast, says Flathead head coach Jeff Thompson.
“We really don’t feel like we’re the team to beat going into this,” Thompson said. “Of course, we’re the returning state champions. But we feel like, ‘Hey, we’re the ones hunting instead of being hunted.’ That’s kind of a good feeling. We enjoy that.”
The team standing between Flathead and a second straight title — and the reason Thompson feels like the hunter instead of the hunted — is Bozeman.
The Hawks not only can say they’re capable of beating Flathead. They can point to the results that prove it.
Bozeman topped the Braves at the Jug Beck Rocky Mountain Classic on Jan. 12-13 and bested them in the finals of the AA Duals a week later.
But all is far from lost for Flathead, even given its struggles this year against its primary competition in Class AA.
The most encouraging factor for the Braves entering this weekend’s action is the simple math.
Sixteen Bozeman wrestlers qualified for state to Flathead’s 24.
More wrestlers competing, more opportunities to pick up points that could be the difference between a repeat and a runner-up trophy.
“Our goal was to get 22 guys in, just to be able to compete with Bozeman,” Thompson said. “Our way to possibly beat them at state is our depth.
“Traditionally, Flathead has kind of been known for a well-rounded team. This (team) just fits that mold. We’re solid at every single weight.”
When the dust settles, Thompson said he hopes to have 12 wrestlers place (top six), five in the finals and three as individual champions. Those numbers, he says, will have Flathead right in the thick of things.
“I really feel like we’re peaking at the right time,” Thompson said. “The last few years, Flathead has really stepped up at state. We feel like this team can do it, too.”
The Braves’ crosstown rival, Glacier, is hoping for an improved team finish this season despite a slightly lower number of state qualifiers.
The Wolfpack will take 12 wrestlers to state, down from 14 last season, but higher finishes at the divisional seeding tournament have the qualifiers in a better position to make noise in the early rounds this time around.
“Our balanced team from top to bottom will be good for hopefully having numerous guys getting wins and contributing to that team score,” Glacier head coach Ross Dankers said. “I really appreciate how this group of wrestlers have bought into what we have been asking of them, and I feel they are primed and ready for their best performance.”
Tristan Little (120) and Tre Krause (285) paced the Wolfpack with third-place finishes at the divisional tournament. Cody Frost (103) and Kael Willis (113) finished fourth, placing them directly in the middle of the pack in the first round.
“In my opinion, there is no better high school sporting event than the state wrestling tournament,” Dankers said.
First-round action begins at 10:20 a.m. Friday at the Billings MetraPark.
Live streaming of the all-class state wrestling tournament is available at mhsa.org.
Flathead State Lineup
103 — Brendan Barnes, Sophomore, 44-5
103 — Tilynne Vasquez, Sophomore, 12-2
113 — Bryce Shaffer, Senior, 35-12
113 — Damian Naldrett, Sophomore, 15-8
120 — Dominic Battello, Junior, 30-15
120 — Cody Moats, Senior, 11-6
126 — Braden Comer, Junior, 16-22
126 — Hunter Reichert, Junior, 19-15
132 —Jaden MacNeil, Junior, 28-13
132 — AJ Ekanger, Sophomore, 16-7
138 — Bo Meyer, Junior, 20-20
145 — Tanner Russell, Sophomore, 32-14
152 — Kenyon Fretwell, Senior, 31-12
152 — Joseph Battello, Senior, 17-6
160 — Garrett Rieke, Sophomore, 30-6
160 — Paxton Boyce, Sophomore, 18-4
170 — Payton Hume, Senior, 40-4
170 — Colby Martin, Junior, 24-10
182 — Tucker Nadeau, Senior, 41-0
182 — Taylor Morton, Senior, 8-5
205 — Hunter Wellcome, Senior, 19-11
205 — Ross Calhoon, Junior, 9-3
285 — Michael Lee, Senior, 29-5
285 — Alex Paull, Senior, 30-5
Glacier State Lineup
103 — Dylan Miller, Junior, 20-8
103 — Cody Frost, Freshman, 20-8
113 — Kael Willis, Freshman, 17-18
113 — Bridger Beach, Sophomore, 11-16
120 — Tristan Little, Junior, 25-21
120 — Lance Fretwell, Freshman, 14-14
132 — Caden Willis, Junior, 25-18
152 — Andrew Glynn, Senior, 24-20
160 — Caden Gilmond, Sophomore, 15-24
170 — Mason Torrez, Junior, 18-10
205 — Connor Knoeplfe-DeRue, Senior, 17-22
285 — Tremayne Krause, Junior, 31-11
285 — Larrison Stevens, Junior, 8-5