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Spartan Empire

The Missoula Sentinel wrestlers pose with the Garden City Dual trophy after topping Missoula Big Sky Friday at Sentinel's gym. 

MISSOULA — The championship round of Friday's Garden City Duals between Missoula Big Sky and host Missoula Sentinel certainly wasn't a battle of good and evil — both squads consist of hard-working high schoolers.

But the Spartans did embrace the dark side just a bit to reclaim the trophy.

After running out for warmups to Star Wars' "Imperial March," Sentinel stormed back from a 15-6 deficit to top Big Sky, 36-21.

"It’s intimidating. If I was the Eagles, I’d be pretty scared," Sentinel sophomore Justin Kovalicky said of the pregame entrance music associated with movies' all-time villain, Darth Vader. "It matches up perfectly, we’re the Evil Empire. It’s awesome."

To the Eagles' credit, the Big Sky wrestlers sat in the center of the mat appearing unfazed as the Spartans — wearing warmup T-shirts with Vader on the front — circled the pad. The near-rebellious positioning was by design.

"We just wanted to say we’re not scared of you guys," Big Sky's Dougie Swanson said.

And the Eagles showed as much. Despite forfeiting two weight classes (103 and 182), Big Sky battled. Swanson himself secured a 3-0 decision with a late takedown, 11 seconds remaining in the third period. 

The boisterous Big Sky fans at Sentinel's gym bellowed with the 132-pounder's match-icing move, which ultimately knotted the dual score at 6-6.

"It’s unexplainable when you hear that crowd roar loud, when you get that last takedown, when you feel the other kid break or give up, it’s just unexplainable," Swanson said. 

Sentinel's cheering section was equally as vocal when Kovalicky initially gave the Spartans a 6-3 lead in the Garden City championship's second bout.

The 126-pounder scored his first takedown late in the first period and franticly tried for the pin. The crowd reached a fever pitch.

"As soon as I got that (two points), I knew I had to get that pin. I wasn’t going to let the match go past the first period," Kovalicky said.

He didn't. Two seconds before the first-round buzzer, the ref slapped the mat. Sentinel erupted, and Kovalicky could appreciate the frenzy.

"To be totally honest with you, you don’t hear the crowd erupt, you don’t hear it; when that whistle blows, the entire gym goes quiet," Kovalicky said. "Its you and your opponent and nothing else."

Sentinel senior Bryar Newbary echoed his underclassman's thought after his first-round pin at 205 pounds. 

"That’s when I really heard it was after the match," said Newbary, who leveled his opponent at the 1:13 mark. "You just have to focus on what you’re doing, you cant focus on outside sources."

While that seemed to be a sentiment most wrestlers agreed on, Newbary was a little off on where the Evil Empire moniker comes from. 

"Our head coach is a huge Star Wars fan," the senior said.

But according to coach Jeremy LaPorte, that's not the case.

"I don’t even know if I’ve seen Star Wars before," LaPorte said, just moments after posing with his team and the Garden City Duals trophy — taken back from Big Sky, which won last year.

"We kind of got deemed a few years back; people around didn’t like us very well, so we kind of deemed ourselves the Evil Empire here in Missoula. It’s kind of fun," the coach said, chuckling.

It was a fun match, too. Big Sky's Trevin Welzien started the Eagles off with a 4-0 decision win before Kovalicky's pin and Swanson's win by decision. At 138 pounds, Hunter Meinzen edged Sentinel senior Cam Hegel, 4-2, in one of the closest bouts of the evening.

Big Sky also got a win from Stormee Kipp at 160 pounds, battling a broken hand and a season plagued by injuries.

"We got injuries and things going on, but I couldn’t be more proud of them," Big Sky' coach Rick Moreno said. "We took a shot, we came up short, but that’s what it’s about we put it out there."

Just like the plucky rebellion.

***

For Missoula Hellgate to even compete on Friday showed the strength of the Knights. A flu outbreak hit the Hellgate wrestling program hard, according to coach Josh Sessums, and a day before the Duals, Hellgate had planned to not send any grapplers.

"I’ve never seen something happen like this before," Sessums said before the meet. "We’ve had a ton of confirmed cases of the flu running rampant; this has been going for a little over a week right now and our main concern right now is the health of the kids."

Still, four Knights competed to make it an official Garden City Dual. Jordan Tack earned a win by forfeiture for Hellgate at 103 pounds against Big Sky, but both the Eagles and Spartans topped the Knights to move on to the title dual.

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Kyle Houghtaling can be reached by email at kyle.houghtaling@missoulian.com or on Twitter @khotel.

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