PABLO — Avery Meinzen moved around the wrestling mat with ease, effortlessly putting his opponents in whatever position he wanted at this weekend’s season opener.
The Florence junior, who was back to full health after having been slowed by two fractured vertebrae, won all four of his matches by pin to capture the 160-pound title at the 20-team Owen Invitational on Saturday at Salish Kootenai College.
“I just have more confidence and energy and am able to move better,” Meinzen said while wearing his championship medal.
Meinzen has been wrestling since fourth grade but had to stop late in his freshman season because of a football injury. During a game that fall, he jumped up for an interception and got hit from behind by a wide receiver leading with his helmet, resulting in pain in his lower back.
Two X-rays came back negative, and Meinzen was told it was likely just a muscle injury, so he played the rest of the season and wrestled until divisionals, when an MRI showed he had fractured his L3 and L4 vertebrae. The injury didn’t require surgery, but he had to stay off the mat for six months to do physical therapy and heal up, missing out on the state tournament.
Meinzen returned for his sophomore season and needed close to a month to feel comfortable and re-establish his stance. He battled to a fourth-place finish at state but didn’t feel much like he had in the past, thinking in the back of his mind about re-injuring his spine.
“That messed me up mentally,” Meinzen said. “But I didn’t even think about it today. I think I’ve moved past it.”
Meinzen had also regularly felt tired since he had to cut weight, so he decided to move up from the 138-pound division to 160 this year. Over the offseason, he did weight training with bench presses, curls and squats, did cardio by running on a treadmill and drank protein shakes.
Meinzen is continuing to work on his hip movement after doing some Greco-Roman wrestling, which doesn’t allow the use of the lower body for attacks.
“He’s such a creative wrestler,” Florence head coach Brian Volkmann said. “Nobody does what Avery does. He has a natural feel all the time. Even when it looks like he’s in a bad position, he turns it into something great.”
Meinzen’s goal this season is to win a state title, hopefully in undefeated fashion. He’s started 4-0, needing only five minutes and 58 seconds to pin four opponents on Friday and Saturday. Teammate Spencer Jones won the 205-pound title, pinning three of four opponents
The performance is a solid start for Meinzen, and Volkmann thinks the best is yet to come.
“When we’re old, we’re still going to be talking about him,” Volkmann said. “This isn’t something that’s going to stop at high school. Barring injuries or anything, he’s going to be on a big stage one day.”
Frenchtown sophomore gaining ground
Frenchtown won three individual titles at the meet, more than any other team, on its way to a third-place finish.
Broncs sophomore Landen Stewart came through with the individual title that most impressed head coach Jesse Long. An undersized wrestler, Stewart has been gaining weight naturally to reach the 103-pound threshold after wrestling at 94 pounds last year, when he took sixth at state.
“He’s grown up and looks aggressive,” Long said of his wrestler who’s sprouted up nearly six inches since starting high school and stands close to 5-foot-6.
Stewart, now more than 100 pounds, topped the 103-pound weight class over the weekend, going 4-0 with pins in 29 and 23 seconds. He won the title bout with a come-from-behind 4-3 victory by decision against Polson’s Rene Pierre, who placed fifth at state in the 113-pound division last year.
“I’ve always been undersized,” said Stewart, whose dad, Josh Stewart, won the 98-pound title as a senior at Sentinel in 1991. “I lost some weight last year at divisionals when I got strep (throat) and flu, but I’ve gained it back and I’m feeling good out there.”
Teammate Jake Bibler, a two-time state champion, won the 126-pound title with four pins in five matches. Walker Dyer, Frenchtown’s 113-pound wrestler, moved up to 120 pounds for the tournament in hopes of getting a shot at Libby’s Buddy Doolin, the 2017 Class B/C 103-pound champion and 2018 Class A 113-pound runner-up. Dyer came through with a 7-2 win over Doolin in the championship match.
Polson takes team title
Polson edged out Lake City (Idaho) by a single point, 202-201, to win the team title.
The Pirates advanced four wrestlers to the final round, and Hunter Fritsch at 170 pounds was the lone one to come out with a win. Pierre (103), Bridger Wenzel (152) and Logan Adler (182) all took second, with Wenzel losing to Belgrade’s John Mears in a rematch of last season’s 132-pound state title match.
“Hunter’s been working at staying calm, and that’s when he’s at his best,” Polson head coach Matt Owen said. “We had some real positives from other kids, too. I see nothing but positives coming from them.”
Other area winners include Thompson Falls’ Trae Thilmony (113), Hamilton’s Michael Golden (138) and Sentinel’s Luke Joy (145).
Also capturing titles were Eureka’s Nathan Schmidt (132), Columbia Falls’ Colten McPhee (182) and Lake City’s Owen Hughes (285).