MISSOULA — All eyes will be on Billings West this Class AA boys wrestling season.
The Golden Bears broke through last season to claim the state championship and return nine state placers from that squad, including individual champions Makael Aguayo, Zach Morse and Keyan Hernandez.
“We celebrated the heck out of that state championship, but we put it behind us and now we’re focused on what’s in front of us,” said coach Jeremy Hernandez, who is in his 16th season leading the West wrestling program. “When state comes, we’ll worry about that, but that’s a ways away. We have a lot of work to do before that gets near us. … The practices are running really smooth because the kids are training like maniacs.”
Keyan Hernandez is one of those maniacs on the mat. The coach’s kid is the only Montanan gunning to become a four-time state champion this winter. Keyan, who has already committed to wrestle in college at Iowa, won the 120-pound title last year after winning the 113- and 103-pound championships as a sophomore and freshman, respectively.
“He’s a levelheaded kid,” Jeremy said of Keyan. “He focuses on the next thing in front of him, which is the first match of the (Mining City Duals in Butte). He does a really good job of putting that in the back of his mind, ‘I’ve got this match this weekend. When state comes, I’ll worry about that. One match at a time.’ He knows you can’t overlook anybody. He’s had teammates that were going for four, and they didn’t get it done, and he uses that as motivation to stay levelheaded.”
The Mining City Duals, Friday and Saturday in Butte, are a premier early season showcase to allow wrestlers to measure themselves against solid competition. All 16 Class AA teams will compete in Butte, including Kalispell Flathead and Great Falls High, who placed second and third at last year’s state meet, respectively, and are considered to be West’s biggest challengers this season.
“We kind of take Butte as a time to just kind of take notes on every kid, look at what they’re good at, what are some work-on areas,” said Flathead coach Jeff Thompson. “We’re bringing some extra guys, just kind of see where we’re at, try to get tough matches, try to find tough wrestlers and match up with them.”
Flathead figures to match up well with West this season. Like West, the Braves also return nine state placers — led by Oklahoma commit and nationally ranked senior Anders Thompson at 205 pounds — while bringing in a heralded freshman class that will help battle the Bears at the lighter weights.
For West last season, Aguayo, Morse and Hernandez claimed the state titles at 103, 113 and 120. This year, Aguayo has jumped up to 132, and Hernandez is as at 126, where he could potentially face stiff competition from Belgrade’s Mason Gutenberger, the reigning 126-pound champion and a two-time state champion. Anthony Garcia, ranked first at 182, and Cooper Freitag, ranked second behind Anders Thompson at 205, give West some punch at the upper weights, too.
Anders Thompson’s twin brother, Gunnar, should also be in the mix at 182 or 205 for Flathead, and Sawyer Troupe is the top-ranked heavyweight after a runner-up finish at 205 at state last year. Logan Stansberry at 160 is another two-time state placer for the Braves.
“We really like where we’re at,” Jeff Thompson said. “We’re really going to grow and improve throughout the season. Some of these young guys are already stepping up. We’re looking at the season as more of a marathon than a sprint, not worrying about each and every dual or tournament except that last one.”
Great Falls High, meanwhile, is stacked in the middle weights with Gage Clothier (138 pounds), Gavin Cotton (145), Kale Baumann (152) and Dylan Block (160) topping the preseason rankings.
Other top-ranked wrestlers in the preseason rankings are Cody Westlake and Nolan Brown of Belgrade at 103 and 120, respectively, and Logan Cole of Billings Senior at 170. Last year, Westlake placed third at 103, Brown placed second at 113 and Cole placed second at 160.
“Flathead’s got a squad on them. They’ve got a good core group of kids that are going to make some noise and push every other team. Great Falls High, they have some really solid kids,” Hernandez said. “It’s not just West is the favorite. We look at it as we've got work to do. It’s anybody’s shot to go win that team title. We’ve just go to make sure we do our job.”