BILLINGS — As the seconds ticked down to near zero during the 126-pound championship match on the Class AA mat of the state wrestling tournament Saturday night, Billings West coach Jeremy Hernandez turned to the Golden Bears cheering section with both fists raised in the air. A big beaming smile was splashed across his face.
Moments later, son Keyan did the same, soaking up the adulation from the First Interstate Arena at MetraPark championship crowd. By dispatching Belgrade’s Mason Gutenberger with a 4-1 decision in the finals, Keyan Hernandez became the 41st Montanan to win four state championships, and the first wrestler from West to accomplish the feat.
Jeremy Hernandez, a three-time state champion at West himself, said he first put Keyan on a wrestling mat when the boy was 3 years old.
“I just let him do whatever he wanted to do at that age,” Jeremy said. “You can’t really coach him. You just let him learn his body, and he’s been a little monkey since then.”
Just prior to his history-making match, Keyan was more focused on the match going on ahead of his, a double-overtime victory by teammate Zach Morse. Once Morse’s match was over, though, Keyan gathered himself and took care of business.
“You know, I’ve always looked up to my dad,” Keyan said. “I just did it for my dad. His freshman year he should have won (a state championship). He didn’t, so this is for him. I mean, all the hard work he put into me, all the hard work I put in. My mom, both my sisters … my family, I do it for them and I’m finally happy to accomplish that goal.”
The Bears accomplished quite a few goals over the course of the two-day tournament.
They entered Saturday tied for third place and trailing leader Kalispell Flathead by 13.5 points. But a good semifinal round — the Bears went 4-2 in those matches — and solid work in the consolation bracket put them in first place by 15.5 points.
Championship wins by Hernandez, Morse (120 pounds) and Makeal Aguayo (132 pounds) then helped seal a 16.5-point victory. West finished with 237.5 points, Flathead was second with 221 and Billings Senior took home third with 219 points.
The Bears became Billings’ first back-to-back AA champions since Skyview in 2001-02, and the title is the fourth overall for the school. West also won championships in 1974 and 1994.
“These kids just feed off each other,” Jeremy Hernandez said.
Senior’s Logan Cole got the night started with a pin of Great Falls’ Ryder English in 3:15 at 170 pounds. Helena Capital’s Cole Graham then became a state champ at 182 with a 5-3 decision of Gunnar Thompson of Flathead. Thompson’s brother Anders followed on the mat with a 13-4 major decision of West’s Cooper Freitag at 205 pounds for his first title.
Sawyer Troupe picked up Flathead’s second consecutive championship win by pinning Hudson Wiens of Bozeman at 285 pounds. Troupe also earned the quick pin award with four pins in 7:36.
Things then got hectic when the lineup switched to the smaller weights.
Skyview freshman Danny Green edged Belgrade’s Cody Westlake 1-0 at 103 pounds, and Great Falls’ Cael Floerchinger, another freshman, won a 6-5 decision over Belgrade freshman Nolan Brown at 113.
Morse then outlasted Skyview freshman Chris Grossman at 120 pounds 4-3 in double overtime. After watching Hernandez win, Aguayo made it three straight title wins for West with a 4-0 decision of Senior’s Tristan Vladic. That marked the second state title for Aguayo, a sophomore.
At 138, Senior’s Chris Acuna topped Great Falls’ Gage Clothier 5-2. Senior’s Kyle Ard recorded a dramatic 2-1decision over Jace Komac of Great Falls with a takedown just before the buzzer. The two mat referees had to confer to confirm that Ard’s move came just in time.
Nikola Coles of Kalispell Glacier recorded a pin in 4:13 of Kale Baumann of Great Falls at 152. Butte’s Maverick McEwen earned a slim 5-4 win over Dylan Block of Great Falls at 160 to close the night.
The majority of the state champions won for the first time in their careers, but the night’s results put West’s Morse next on the clock. A junior, he also has titles at 103 and 113 pounds, so next season will be his chance to become No. 42 on the list of Montana four-timers.
Morse said he almost cried before he got on the mat for Saturday’s championship match — “It’s like a weight on your chest,” he said — and knows next season that weight will be even heavier.
But he said he’s learned a lot in just watching how his teammate Hernandez handled it all.
“Keyan is one of the most humble people I know,” Morse said. “His working hard in the (wrestling) room? It motivates me, because I want to wrestle like him, I want to be good like him.”