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State AA wrestling: Billings West's Keyan Hernandez remains on pace for fourth title

State wrestling
Posted at 9:06 PM, Feb 09, 2024

BILLINGS — Keyan Hernandez keeps a list of long-term goals attached to his bedroom mirror.

As each goal is achieved, the Billings West senior strikes a line through or completely erases the accomplishment from the list.

One state championship … two state championships … three state championships.

Four?

Hernandez is working on that. Seeking to become the 41st Montana wrestler to win four individual career titles — and the only wrestler with a chance to do so this season — Hernandez reached the semifinals of the Class AA state wrestling tournament Friday at First Interstate Arena at MetraPark with two pins totaling less than three minutes.

For the second of those wins, Hernandez had William Barnes of Kalispell Flathead wrapped up when the West wrestler looked patiently at the referee, waiting for the palm slap on the mat to signal another victory.

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Despite the written evidence of Hernandez’s goals, he said he gets to those by not focusing on them daily.

“I just like to worry about what’s going on right now,” Hernandez said after his second win of the day and before he went to weigh in for Saturday’s semifinals. “The long-term goals, obviously I have them on my mirror, but I’ve just got to focus on my goals right now and that’s winning tomorrow’s match in the morning.”

Hernandez and his Bears teammates have some work to do if they want to hold on to the team title they won last season.

Following Friday’s action, Kalispell Flathead led the way with 118.5 points. The Braves are no strangers to state-tournament success: They have won 11 titles overall, the two most recent coming with back-to-back victories in 2021 and ’22.

Flathead entered the tournament with 22 state qualifiers, second only to West’s 23, and 10 of those reached Saturday’s semifinals.

One of Friday’s highlights for the Braves was at 205 pounds, where teammates Anders Thompson and Conor Leduc are set to square off in the semis Saturday, ensuring one Flathead wrestler to the finals.

Thompson, who is bound for the University of Oklahoma, stayed unbeaten with falls of 24 seconds and 57 seconds. Leduc, meanwhile, came to Billings as the Western AA’s third seed in the weight class but dispatched the East’s No. 6 in Isaiah Matosich of Great Falls and the East’s second seed in Daniel Mann of Great Falls.

Great Falls closed the day in second place with 108 points and seven semifinalists.

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Billings Senior and West stood tied for third with 105 points, with 10 Broncs and six Golden Bears going to the semifinals. And, like Flathead, the Broncs have teammates squaring off in one of the weight classifications: Chris Acuna, who won last week’s Eastern AA divisional, cruised into the semis while Corven Marquardson held off Jack Ryan of West 5-4 in the quarterfinals.

Besides West’s Hernandez and Belgrade’s Mason Gutenberger, two other title-holders kept their championship hopes alive. West’s Zach Morse, last season’s 113-pound champ, reached the 120-pound semifinals, while teammate Makael Aguayo is in the 132-pound semis. Aguayo made a big jump after winning last season’s title at 103 pounds.

Hernandez, whose father Jeremy is the Golden Bears wrestling coach and a three-time state champion himself, said he started writing down his career goals when he was a freshman.

And one by one he’s been able to check them off. If he escapes Saturday's semifinals and final unscathed, Hernandez can erase another long-term goal. But, again, he emphasized he won’t get there unless he concentrates on the moment at hand, especially with Gutenberger still alive in the semi bracket.

Gutenberger is the lone wrestler to hand Hernandez a loss during his stellar career. Gutenberger is also the defending 126-pound state champ; Hernandez won his title last season at 120 pounds.

“I just need to have fun, you know,” said Hernandez, who has committed to wrestle at the University of Iowa. “I mean, win or lose, just have fun this last year. It went super fast. It took a long time to get to high school, and now I’m already (almost) done. So that’s kind of crazy.”

Saturday’s championship semifinals and consolation quarterfinals begin at 9:30 a.m. The parade of finalists is scheduled to start at 4 p.m. with the title matches to follow.