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Justin Hinson could give you a general outline of the day, but the details are hazy.

After a workout at his in-home gym, the bulky 15-year-old climbed into the passenger seat of his father's three-quarter ton Dodge pickup truck. They were headed to the store to get dog food, or something.

It was a crisp day in the Bitterroot Valley almost a year ago now, in the last week of January. The Southwestern A Divisional wrestling tournament was hardly a week away and Hinson, a 170-pound sophomore, was among the favorites at his weight.

With even a decent showing he'd qualify for the state tournament. He could win it even, setting himself up for a run in the final meet of the year at Billings.

But Hinson wouldn't make it to state. He didn't even wrestle at divisionals.

As the truck idled at a red light at the corner of Main and First streets in Hamilton, within sight of the local Safeway grocery, an inattentive driver slammed into the vehicle's back end. Hinson's head crashed into hand post attached to the door then rebounded back toward his seat's headrest for a second blow.

"His lights went out and my lights went out right after that," said Jerry Hinson, Justin's father, who like his son sustained a concussion during the collision.

Hinson woke up in the emergency room of Hamilton's Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital, his chin resting on a neck brace and his head pounding. Of course he couldn't wrestle, the doctors said. Along with the head injury, he'd also suffered severe whiplash and damaged muscles in his neck and shoulder, ailments that would require months of physical therapy.

There was plenty of pain – there still is on occasion – but what the young man felt most that day last January was sadness.


Justin Hinson paces the edge of a worn wrestling mat, one of six such surfaces spread throughout the crowded Ronan High School gym for the Western Montana Duals tournament.

His 5-foot-10 frame carries a good 25 pounds more than it did this time a year ago, putting a strain on his opponents as well as the seams of his blue Superman warm-up shirt that's stretched tight across his chest.

Moments from now he'll pin his first opponent of the meet in just 28 seconds, the latest victim in a redemption tour that's hit 27 victories against zero losses this winter.

"What took you so long? A whole 28 seconds?" a Broncs teammate jabs playfully when Hinson's match concludes rather unceremoniously.

When wrestling practice opened in Hamilton in mid November, head coach Chad Williams had his athletes set goals for their upcoming season.

Hinson's response: "I don't want to lose a match."

Reinvigorated by his forced hiatus, the Bronc is out to make up for lost time. When medical professionals cleared him to return to full contact training last summer – after almost four months of agonizing waiting – Hinson jumped right into summer tournaments and jujitsu classes.

He boosted his at-home training, adding work with a 250-pound Humvee tire to his routine and stealing himself away in his family's garage that houses his workout equipment for hours. He retired there every morning to work alone.

"I don't like to get distracted," Hinson said. "During wrestling season, I kind of own the garage."

His weight training thrust his mass upward near 200 pounds. After cutting pounds to try and reach a competitive weight of 182 started having adverse effects on his health, Hinson bumped up to the next class at 205.

Even though he's really closer to 195 pounds.

"So far it hasn't been a challenge. He's dominating everybody," said Williams, in his eighth year as Hamilton's head coach after serving as an assistant at rival Corvallis. "I always worry about the real big kid that cuts a bunch of weight to get down to 205. He's a small 205-pounder, but his athleticism and speed makes up for it."

Hinson credits his alternate training for some of that. Along with traditional wrestling practices, he's become impressively versed in mixed martial arts despite only a few months working under the tutelage of Bitterroot Valley MMA gym proprietor Branden Olsen.

"You've seen the kid, he's just a monster," said Olsen, adding that Hinson competes – and wins – above his age and experience levels in tournaments. "He was very good for his age, but since he's been training here he's progressed by leaps and bounds, just a beast.

"He uses jujitsu to help his wrestling and his wrestling to help his jujitsu, and it's been working out really well for him."


Justin Hinson stepped on a wrestling mat for the first time in fifth grade, already with the makings of a skilled grappler. He took first in his debut tournament and fourth at state for Hamilton's Little Guy Wrestling Club.

By his freshman year, Hinson had swelled to 160 pounds and faced a consistent diet of more experienced competition. Most wrestlers, who once showed promise as freshman at lighter weights like 103 or 113, grow into middle weights by their junior or senior seasons.

"At state, all the kids in my bracket were seniors with one junior," said Hinson, who still managed fourth at the State A meet in 2014.

Much to the surprise of his competition.

While receiving their accolades on the podium on the tournament's final day, Hardin's Tanner Delp, whom Hinson had edged in the consolation semifinals earlier that day, asked the Bronc's grade level.

"It gave me a big confidence boost, having a senior say, 'Hey, you know you're doing amazing for a freshman,'" Hinson said. "When I got home, I hit the weight room 'cause I wanted to be ready. Never quit."

That's been a consistent maxim for Hinson's time with Hamilton wrestling, Williams said.

"I used to tell the kids Dan Gable would be wrestling after winning a match for fear that the Russians were training, too," the coach said, likening his junior's work ethic to that of the former Olympic wrestler and longtime University of Iowa head coach. "He said the same thing. 'What if somebody else is pulling tires?'"


Justin Hinson roared with approval as his freshman teammate rolled an opponent into a pinning maneuver in the second round of a match at Ronan's duals tournament.

The first eyes he met, after shaking hands with his vanquished foe and a quick run by the coaching staff, were Hinson's. The leader of the Broncs put his head together with the 120-pounder's and walked him through the precise location of handholds for a textbook ankle pick, one of Hinson's specialties. Then he pulled the young wrestler in for a hug, his arms engulfing the Bronc nearly half his size.

"That's a kid you've gotta give a lot of confident to," Hinson said as an aside. "He's a freshman. He gets nervous."

That's just Hinson's way, added Hamilton's 160-pounder Manny Rivera, a fellow junior who grew up wrestling Hinson before the latter boy ballooned in size.

"He's funny, gets along with everybody," Rivera said. "But you've got to be a different guy on the mat. You don't want to be nice on the mat."

Opponents haven't seen many of the smiles, Hinson's gregarious side disappearing come first whistle. Then appears a ferocious Bronc as likely to down an opponent in the first round as rack up the points for a technical fall or major decision. Rarely are there any other outcomes, Williams said, but his wrestler thrives in the occasional close match as well.

"He's a clutch wrestler," the coach said. "He'll go out and get stuff done right at the very end. He's got that gas tank on him."

How much fuel is in the tank remains to be seen as Hinson chases Hamilton's first individual state championship since before he even picked up the sport. The Broncs haven't had a winner since 189-pound Brady Anderson in 2009.

Though he'll be happy to make the somewhat inevitable return trip to Billings for state next month, Hinson wants more than that. He wants gold.

"Not just content to be out there," he said.

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