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‘Explosive’ surge in Montana high school girls wrestling a pleasant surprise – though patience is preached

Girls wrestling
Posted at 11:00 AM, Jan 29, 2024

BILLINGS — Brenner Flaten considers himself a positive guy. If there’s a best-case scenario out there, for any situation, Flaten is going to shoot for that outcome. No matter how slight the odds might appear.

Mix in his hopeful attitude with a love and obsession for wrestling pretty much his entire life, and it’s interesting to note that Flaten admitted he didn’t foresee the full surge of Montana high school girls wrestling coming down the track.

“I think that I speak for pretty much everybody, especially those in athletic administration, that we’re pleasantly surprised and happy with where (high school girls wrestling) is at,” said Flaten, Glasgow’s athletic director for the past decade and who also serves on an ad-hoc girls wrestling committee that works with the Montana High School Association. “No one ever probably expected this explosion in just a short four-year window.”

As we head into this weekend’s divisional wrestling tournaments, explosion aptly describes the increase in participation numbers ever since the MHSA first sanctioned girls wrestling for the 2020-21 school year.

According to numbers provided by Scott Wilson, the MHSA’s wrestling representative, 169 female wrestlers were logged into Track Wrestling at the beginning of that first season. (Track Wrestling is a website used to track and record wrestling results).

That number increased in the second season to 245, and then nearly doubled in the third, getting to 471 female wrestlers. This season, coaches around the state logged 606 participants into Track Wrestling by the season’s start.

“It does surprise you on one end, you know, one side of it,” Wilson said about the numbers, “but when you look at it, what we've seen around the country in the other states that have added high school wrestling for girls, is it's similar in terms of seeing that steady increase from year to year.”

The timeline for girls wrestling isn’t just about numbers, though. Over the brief lifespan of the sport, the MHSA has made procedural changes, as well. This February will mark the first time three team championship trophies will be handed out: One for Class AA, one for A, and one for B-C, just like for the boys.

Just one championship trophy was awarded in 2020-21 and 2021-22 (both were won by Kalispell Flathead), while in 2022-23 Billings Senior was crowned the Class AA champion and Ronan was the Class A-B-C title winner.

Last season marked the first time that female wrestlers had to qualify for state through a divisional tournament; the previous two seasons all wrestlers were eligible.

Things are indeed going well for the sport. That doesn’t mean tough decisions aren’t upcoming. The MHSA's executive board will have to decide the right time to add a final weight class for girls (they have 12 compared to 13 for the boys) as well as when to break down the individual state tournament weight brackets from an all-class format (all the wrestlers for a particular weight lumped into one bracket, regardless of school) to separate brackets for each classification ( AA, A and B-C).

Flaten noted that wrestling administrators expect 10 of the 12 girls weight divisions will have full all-class brackets at this year’s state tournament, an increase over previous years.

Jason Frederick, who has been involved in coaching wrestling at Poplar since 1996, hopes patience is shown in moving the girls to the boys model.

“I believe we're still five years away from that,” Frederick said. “If they could prove me wrong and keep doubling (participants) every year, you know, maybe in three years we'll be ready for it. But right now, I agree with separating the team scores, but you can't come in there with a Class B bracket that has three or four girls. That does no good. Wrestling all-class right now is still the way to go.”

No worries there, Wilson said. While the end goal is to make the girls state tournament equal to the boys, the MHSA is in no rush to get there. Ensuring the sport is on a stable, consistent footing before making big format changes is key, Wilson said.

“I think people want to be very cautious,” he said. “We don't want to go backwards in anything. I think we have to make sure the numbers are there to support starting to make those divisions so that we don't take a step back.”

As for now, everything appears headed in a positive direction. That includes the talent on the mat.

Billings Senior coach Charlie Klepps, himself a four-time state champ during his high school days with the Broncs, said he expects the “exponential growth” to taper off and settle into the “steady growth” category.

With high school wrestling now a goal, girls are beginning to wrestle at a younger age. That means girls enter their prep programs with more experience as opposed to say, the first two years of sanctioned wrestling, when many girls were trying the sport for the first time in their lives at the high school level.

“I think the talent has totally improved,” said Klepps, who wrestled at Iowa State. “That's been my biggest eye opener, just in the year and a half that I've done this. Not just our team, but across the state, like, man, these girls are starting to learn how to wrestle, which is awesome. I mean, it's so exciting to see how much better they're getting.”

The ever-positive Flaten agreed.

“The overall talent is incredible in Montana right now,” said Flaten, a two-time Montana state champ who has coached wrestling for 18 years, including now to three of his four eldest daughters who range in age from 4 to 8 years old. (The youngest will be two years old in June).

“So, what you’re seeing now is only the tip of the iceberg of what the state’s going to be able to watch (at the state tournament) in a couple of years.”