STEVENSVILLE — For the four Bitterroot Valley wrestling programs, the "Battle of the 'Root," in Stevensville was — in part — a war of attrition. Stevi, Hamilton, Florence and Corvallis all had wrestlers hobbled by the flu or other ailments, and the two-round bout had just 19 matches to decide the overall team outcome.
That made literally every point imperative Saturday. That's not just conjecture.
Corvallis edged Hamilton 62-61 for the title and the Blue Devils' third stake at possession of the epic gnarled root-wood trophy the four Bitterroot schools compete for. Florence finished third with 38 points; hosting Stevensville scored 25.
"There's just these teeny-tiny little variables," Hamilton coach Chad Davis said, rattling off any number of outcomes that could have swayed the team standings. "You know you can go win the 'Root if you bring everybody, but then you know you jeopardize divisionals next week, so it’s like, OK, I need my young kids to really step up — and they did — but once again it came down to just one point, and it’s like oh my goodness."
Corvallis' razor-thin margin of victory could have been decided at any match, but a Corvallis loss to Hamilton might actually illustrate the team's win the best.
On Tuesday, Corvallis' Randon Weidow lost by techfall to Hamilton's Bridger Williams at 145 pounds, netting the Broncs five points toward the team score at the Hamilton Quad. On Saturday in the second period of his match with Williams, Weidow gambled on a move while wrestling from the bottom and scored a reversal and 3-point near fall that cut into Williams' lead.
"That one move was a huge swing, that was a 5-point move," coach Williams said. "...It was a huge gamble and Bridger wrestled out of it, but Randon is such a big, powerful wrestler."
Corvallis coach Matt Davis explained the difference in Weidow's strategy against Williams.
"(Weidow) was giving up big points like crazy (on Tuesday) and you just cant win a match that way. You have to stay consistent and stick with solid stuff," Davis said. "He did that today, and that’s what makes that match so much more competitive."
Williams still captured a 9-5 decision win for the Broncs in one of just two matches that weren't decided by a pin Saturday.
The other match that came to a score decision was between Stevensville's Kyler Pancake and Hamilton's Noah Hurst. Pancake, somewhat personifying the flu and other ailment epidemics that have hit all four of the Bitterroot wrestling programs recently, held off Hurst for a 13-10 decision.
"I was sick the last two weeks, but I’m finally getting healthy this week — it feels way better," said Pancake, who led 8-2 after the first period and held off Hurst's comeback try. "I was gassed a little bit in the third (period) because I lost a little bit of my conditioning, but I feel a lot better, I’m able to be in the right mindset."
Pancake, ranked No. 4 in Class A at 160 pounds, had three takedowns and a near fall in the first frame.
"Just using my speed. I shot really quick and I was heavy on the head so he couldn’t react as quick to my shots," Pancake explained.
Hurst rallied with a takedown and 2-point near fall in the second period, and he appeared he may have had a near fall late in the third period, but time ran out on the comeback.
It was just another illustration of how competitive the Battle of the 'Root was this year.
"All those matches were pretty fun, there were a couple of barnburners out there today," said Stevensville coach Ted Adams, who found the root that forms the traveling trophy while hiking in the woods. "the team score comes down to 62-6 — that’s what’s fun about the Bitterroot. These guys are giving each other hugs, but they’ll go out and brawl with each other, too."
And the award goes to...
Florence's Spencer Jones was named the Bitterroot's outstanding wrestler for his undefeated record so far throughout the 2018-19 season. Jones, who didn't wrestle Saturday but won by forfeit, was awarded a trophy and recognized by the four school's coaches.
"Everybody, the coaches and kids all know he’s just an awesome competitor," Stevensville coach Ted Adams said of Jones. "I don’t think that kid is even as good as he’s gonna be. He just keeps getting better. He goes to the top-knotch tournaments and comes out on top and he’s literally just a warrior."
Stevensville freshman Devin McLane — who was featured by the Missoulian and Ravalli Republic — was named the Bitterroot's most inspiring wrestler. The 103-pounder has a condition called AMC, and McLane competes without the use of his arms.
Notes: The Battle of the 'Root's name was changed to the "Mike McChesney Battle of the 'Root" in honor of the late Michael McChesney, who passed away last August. McChesney's dedicated service to youth sports in the Missoula and Bitterroot valley, including his work with Florence Little Guy Wrestling, were recognized at Saturday's meet.