Heading into the 2019 Class AA State Wrestling Tournament at the MetraPark Arena in Billings, there’s two big questions to answer.
Will Kalispell Flathead make it three-peat? And, if not, who's going to stop them?
The Braves have won each of the past two team titles and that included eight individual finalists — with three state champions — over the run. Flathead enters the tournament with 22 wrestlers qualified, the most of any Class AA team in the state. That includes three Western AA seeding champs: Brendan Barnes (126), Fin Nadeau (132) and Tanner Russell (170).
While the Braves don’t return any of their three state champions from a year ago, they are bringing back a hefty number of their qualifiers. Experience is always critical at big meets and head coach Jeff Thompson’s squad has plenty.
But Flathead is hardly the only team with a chance to take the state team title — Great Falls (20 qualifiers) and Bozeman (19 qualifiers) will have something to say about that. The Hawks have finished second in each of the past two seasons, though were still 66 points behind the Braves in the team standings last year.
It’ll likely be much closer this season and Bozeman had three Eastern AA tournament champs to go along with seven finalists. Many of the Hawks’ wrestlers are bonus-point machines, which will be critical over the next two days.
One of the reasons Flathead has been so successful over the past few seasons is the fact they’re able to stay alive and pick up bonus-point wins on the backside of the bracket. It’s certainly nice (and important) to push wrestlers through in the championship side, but tournaments are won and lost in the consolation rounds.
That said, the Hawks have three returning state champions: Sterling Quinn (126), Leif Schroeder (132), and Chance McLane (152) all of whom will be among the very top of the favorites at their respective weights.
Schroeder, especially, is working on something special — he’s won state titles each of the past two years and the junior still has a shot at an illustrious four-peat.
• Great Falls, meanwhile, is looking to place in the team race for the first time since the 2014-15 season. Steve Komac’s squad is always tough and this year will be no exception. The Bison had just one winner and two finalists in the seeding tournament, but did have seven wrestlers finish third. It’s a fairly deep squad and it seems likely they’ll finish higher as a team in 2019.
Great Falls was also the first team to take the Mining City Duals in four years not named Havre. The Bison also finished third as a team at the Jug Beck tournament and seventh at both the Tom LeProwse and CMR Holiday Classic tournaments.
• Another name to watch out for? Jace Rhodes.
The senior from Billings West is the all-time wins leader (142-34) for the Golden Bears and he’s won a state title each of the past two seasons. He’s placed over each of the previous three years, finishing sixth his freshman campaign.
This season he burned his way through his competition and comes into the tournament 35-0 with 20 falls. His freshman brother Drake, meanwhile, enters the tournament 37-2 and finished first at 113 pounds. There’s a non-zero chance both of the brothers could be wrestling for state championships on Saturday afternoon. That would be something.
• Helena's Isaac Romero is also looking for a three-peat and the senior dominated his weight in the Western AA seeding tournament. He's like the Bengal's best chance at a state title as the team has struggled in recent seasons.
That said, another name for Helena High fans to know will be 160-pounder Devin Crawford. He struggled in the state tournament a season ago due to sickness, but seems healthy heading into the Metra this year.
• If you’re looking for a dark horse team, look no further than Butte.
The Bulldogs pushed 16 wrestlers to state and had three Eastern AA winners — 33-1 Keagan Gransbery (103), Carl Anderson (160) and Kameron Moreno (205). Fourth-year head coach Cory Johnston’s squad has improved its team finish each of the past three seasons and there’s no reason to think that trend can’t continue.
The Bulldogs haven’t had an individual champ since heavyweight Jeff Queer in the 2017 tournament, but that too could change this season. Gransbery is a dangerous sophomore in a bracket filled with freshman, while Anderson is a senior looking to end his career right.
Scout Allen (126) also returned from an extended injury absence to finish third at last week’s seeding tournament. The Bulldogs are heavy at the top and will need some good luck through the consolations, but they could have an interesting end to the season.