One can only imagine the level of anxiety consuming Montana high school athletic directors right now. The “anniversary” of the coronavirus pandemic wiping out the state basketball tournaments is just weeks away.
Montana’s high schools have successfully, for the most part, navigated the 2020-21 sports seasons, crowning golf, soccer, volleyball and football champions in the fall. Despite the challenging odds, they’ve also made it to the winter sports postseasons and have hopes — and, more importantly, plans — of finishing those seasons with championship matchups.
Every school, let alone every classification, faces unique obstacles. The COVID landscape is much different at a school like Billings Senior High than it is for the programs at Winnett-Grass Range.
To that end, Class AA administrators have proposed different plans for their athletes than some of the smaller schools. One of the recent more contentious decisions: opting not to hold divisional meets to determine seeds for the state wrestling tournament, which has been moved from Billings to Kalispell Flathead.
“We all had to tell our basketball teams last year they couldn’t play in state championships and that was hard,” said Mark Wahl, the Billings Public Schools activities director. “So, we’re all disappointed. Unfortunately, as school representatives I think we had to find a balance, and I think our superintendents were very thoughtful in the process. Even though a lot of people don’t agree with it, I think it was the best thing to do.”
“As activities directors, we just did the best we could with what we had during COVID,” added Mark Dennehy, the activities director at Kalispell Glacier. “We’ve all had COVID challenges. We had kids out of our (wrestling) room, over 50 kids and coaches out of our room for over two weeks. A variety of other programs have had that as well.”
Because of those challenges, Dennehy admitted he’s gotten a “little gun shy” when trying to make postseason plans, but he believes Class AA’s new postseason wrestling format gives athletes the best chance to compete for state titles. The new format eliminates the divisional seeding tournaments but invites 20 wrestlers per weight class to the state tournament (instead of the traditional 16).
The wrestlers will be selected and seeded by coaches at an in-person seeding meeting in Bozeman on Feb. 25. The coaches will seed 10 wrestlers in each weight class in each conference.
“Each coach will put up the wrestlers that they want to be seeded within a weight bracket, two at the most,” Wahl explained. “And then we have it pretty well set how we’re going to go through that seeding criteria. We’ll probably pre-seed it and then work off that and let the coaches discuss some of the seeding criteria and then determine our goal. Our objective is to get the best 10 wrestlers into each weight bracket.”
“People just want to make sure that the best kids get in,” Dennehy said. “That will be our emphasis with our coaches to ensure that we are seeding the 10 best from each conference and doing the best that we can and providing that opportunity for a No. 2 kid to get into the state tournament.”
Per a memo from the Class AA superintendents, wrestlers will be seeded based on the established criteria:
- Each head coach must make available to the seeding tournament director and each of the other head coaches a complete record of all Class AA varsity matches for each wrestler entered in the tournament. This record must include the date, opponent’s name, opponent’s school, weight class, outcome of the bout (win, loss, draw) and score or time of fall.
- 10 wrestlers shall be seeded in each weight class provided that they meet the 10-match criteria.
- A wrestler must have weighed in at least 50% of his matches at the weight at which he will compete in at the seeding tournament.
- A No. 2 from a school could be seeded anywhere from No. 2 to No. 10 provided they meet criteria and/or a majority of coaches vote.
- Win/loss percentage against all AA opponents in AA varsity competition. Draws count as 1⁄2 win and 1⁄2 loss.
- Head-to-head results between the wrestlers.
There are contingencies if a wrestler does not meet the 10-match criteria:
- If no head-to-head, the greatest number of AA varsity wins.
- Win/loss percentage against common opponents.
- Highest returning state placer.
- No. 2 wrestlers from a school will also be considered for seeding based upon
- Varsity win/loss percentage
- Win/loss percentage against common opponents
- Highest returning state placer
- JV win/loss percentage
- Majority vote of the head coaches.
Once the seeds are determined, the 10 wrestlers from each conference will be placed in the state tournament bracket. Wrestlers seeded seventh, eighth, ninth and 10th will compete in pigtail matches, which serve as single-elimination bouts to determine the 16-man brackets traditionally used.
“There has been a lot of disappointment. There’s disappointment from all of us. Nobody wants to limit the kids, but we’ve said all along when we started this process that our goal is to provide a format that will help our kids get through it,” Wahl said.
Added Dennehy: “We did not want to see kids not have the opportunity to wrestle at state because of COVID. We think not having that divisional wrestling tournament is in the best interest of our kids and the best interest of the sport.”
The Class AA wrestling regular season concludes with its final duals on Feb. 23. Coaches must have their entries for seeding discussion submitted by Feb. 24, and the seeding meetings will take place Feb. 25.
The Class AA state wrestling tournament is March 5 and 6 at Kalispell Flathead.