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At morning wrestling practice Wednesday, one day before Thanksgiving, Hamilton coach Chad Williams had his team perform a few extra calisthenics before writing down their individual goals for the season.

"I had them doing all these push-ups and sit-ups and their arms were just burning," Williams said. "I said, ‘You’re going to need this workout because you’re going to be lifting those spoons and forks tomorrow.’"

After the tough workout, it'd be hard to blame the weary wrestlers for dreaming of Thursday's first bite of turkey or gravy-soaked stuffing and mashed potatoes. Most Americans can almost taste the quintessential supper associated with the fourth Thursday in November.

For Chad's son and Hamilton junior Bridger Williams, however, Wednesday's practice allowed for one more opportunity to reflect on last season and the sensory moment that fuels his appetite on the mat.

"I’ve been so close that I’ve smelled the state championship before," said Bridger, who lost in the semifinals last year at the Class A state wrestling tournament in Billings. "It’s crazy, there’s nothing I want more in the world and my family knows it, my dad knows it, everyone knows it."

Accomplishing that goal, however, can mean adopting a few unique Thanksgiving traditions.

***

Before sitting down at the dinner table on Thursday, Bridger brings his food into the bathroom. There, he stands on a scale and weighs himself before and after loading his plate with the usual turkey-day fixin's. 

"It’s so funny when you watch him a grab a plate of food, though, and just step on the scale and realize, ‘Oh, I can put some more on,'" Bridger's dad said. "...He’s holding all this stuff. Then once he realizes he’ll make weight after eating this, it’s like Christmas morning."

The wrestler has it down to almost an exact science, and he makes sure to get precisely what he wants on the plate. Extra gravy might be off the table this year, as the Broncs are just eight days away from the Polson Invitational and Bridger tries to shed a few more pounds.

But he's still eating a hearty supper like the rest of us.

"You’ll pick out your favorite kinds of Thanksgiving meals and maybe scrape some mashed potatoes for some more meat," Bridger said. "I definitely save some room for pie, but only a little bit.

"There’s always lots of protein; you gotta eat a lot of chicken and lots of turkey. Mashed potatoes are great, you get a lot of carbs and some more protein."

In a way, Thanksgiving is just another day of training for wrestlers.

"That’s one of the aspects. I’ve always said that mentally wrestling is the toughest sport out there on any athlete," Chad said. "...For Bridger, I think he’s going to wrestle at 152 (pounds) this year, but for him to maintain that 152 he’s gotta think about it constantly. At school, when kids are snacking, he’s gotta grab a couple carrots or something. It is a constant reminder."

***

Wrestlers and food have always had a particularly interesting relationship. The sport has had a long history with cutting weight, and — largely now in the past — there were some scary strategies employed to get down to certain weight classes. 

"Back when I was a kid, we’d put on plastic suits and put those on underneath our sweat pants and then run and try to drain it all off on water and then you were dead." Chad said.

The things is, a wrestler needs to eat and stay properly hydrated to perform at a high level. Prep athletes in particular need to stay nourished — they're still growing, after all. Coaches understand that.

Chad explained nowadays it's about healthy nutrition and good exercise, truly a lesson just about everyone could hear — especially after a second piece of pie or another plate of food.

"I don’t even like using the word cutting weight," coach Williams said. "For the last ten years I’ve been coaching it’s about weight management. It’s proper diet ... I’ve kind of made up a wrestling diet (for the team). It’s high in protein, it’s got a lot of fiber in it and stuff like that. You stay away from processed foods, fatty foods."

That strategy doesn't stop just because the calendar says it's time for Thanksgiving dinner. In particular, Bridger — who spent Wednesday after practice chopping wood — simply doubles down on that focus.

It's what makes him one of the favorites for a state title this season.

***

For two years now, Bridger has placed at state. None were closer to a state title than his third-place finish last year in the 138-pound weight class. His lone loss in Billings came to eventual state champion Riley Gurr of Frenchtown. Gurr was a two-time state champion in Montana. He also won placed second in the Washington state tournament as a freshman and won it all in the Evergreen State as a sophomore before moving to Montana. 

"I knew last year was going to be a hard one because of Riley Gurr and there were a lot of people that were going to run away from him," Bridger said. "Me and my dad talked about it and we weren’t scared of him, so we went after it."

Gurr, however, scored a pin late in the second period to advance to the championship match. Bridger went on to win the third-place match with a pin in the first period.

That loss in the semi's renewed Bridger's focus, however, one that his father — and coach — said he's seen before.

It's a focus that you find in state champions.

"Honestly, when he gets to this level and we’ve seen it before: Brady Anderson, Manny Rivera, some of my other guys that were top wrestlers and even my son, Bridger’s older brother is the captain of the Dickinson State wrestling team," Chad said of his past wrestlers who have had success. "When they get so focused, that’s it.

"...(Bridger's) looking for (a state title). He’s hungry."

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