MISSOULA — Hunter Meinzen had plenty of pressure on his shoulders coming into the high school wrestling season.
A two-time defending state champion at Missoula Big Sky, the senior knew there would be a target on his back, and adversity ultimately struck. After an undefeated start to the season, Meinzen suffered his first and only loss this year in his final match of the regular season, ending his bid for a perfect senior year.
Still, while a small setback, Meinzen is using that as an opportunity to grow.
"I'd rather have it be now than at state, for sure," Meinzen said. "It's just kind of like, 'Hey, you know, you took a loss, there's nothing you can change about it now.' The only thing you can do is work harder and improve on that and step it up."
That outlook will carry to the State AA tournament in Kalispell this weekend as Meinzen pursues a third state title before heading to Oregon State to continue his wrestling career. Currently wrestling at 160 pounds, Meinzen is 12-1 on the season and 90-13 overall in his career with the Eagles.
"Once you get beat, that pressure seems to get washed away, and it humbles you and you realize, 'Hey look, I need to kick it up to another notch,' and all of these kids are capable of doing that," Big Sky wrestling coach Rick Moreno explained about losing an undefeated season. "So it humbled him, but in my experience is usually when you get knocked down, especially these kids that I'm around, when they get back up, their opponents better be ready because now they're on their true mission.
"I know for a fact if you put Hunter Meinzen's back into a corner, he's going to come out throwing. I have full confidence that things are going to work out for him."
Obstacles have been a norm for Meinzen, and his career record and accolades didn't come without adversity along the way. As a freshman, Meinzen broke his leg in the last game of the football season which cost him more than half of his wrestling season. Still, he made it back in time to place second at 138 pounds.
He followed that up with state championships at 145 and 152, and Meinzen's career has turned into one of the most decorated in recent history in Missoula.
"I think that's pretty awesome," Meinzen said about his career. "But I wouldn't be able to do it without my coach, family and friends. They've helped me along the way so much. I guess I could say I'm proud of myself for what I've accomplished. All I want to do is just leave on a good note and be happy with my performance at the end of the season."
As all senior seasons tend to be, the ending of Meinzen's is bittersweet, as Meinzen and Moreno have worked together since Meinzen was in third grade beginning with club wrestling.
For Moreno, his star wrestler has proven himself tough in all aspects of the sport as he's risen to this point in his career.
"He's been a first for me in a lot of things," Moreno said. "My personal first state champion sitting in that coaches' (chair). With Hunter, it's pretty much been all the way there and so every one of these kids, it's just that emotional attachment. What most people see is you're there with them with their highs but everybody struggles at points and times, and that's where coaching really comes into it and you see them having to go through that adversity and them having to build that confidence back up. There's a lot of emotions with that.
"Hunter has always been that kid who knew this was his sport. He had his goals set at a young age and he did everything he could do to pursue and achieve those goals. It hasn't always been easy but most of the good things in life that you want never come easy."
Moreno added that Meinzen's freshman year set the tone for his high school career in overcoming the injury along with understanding the discipline of his diet and workouts going forward. In turn, other wrestlers saw that success, which has translated into success on the mats for the program as a whole.
Meinzen has used his final high school year to build himself up in preparation for wrestling in college on top of chasing a third title. In being one of the NCAA Division I-bound wrestlers from Montana, Meinzen hopes he can be used as an example for others.
"I hope people see that and younger kids can see some other guy did that, so I hope they stick with wrestling," he said. "Improve and get better so they can probably do the same thing later on."