Class AA wrestling coaches have spent the past week crunching numbers and trying to project outcomes at the state tournament to determine which team might hoist the championship trophy on Saturday in Kalispell.
If they’re stressing now, it’s likely only going to get worse this weekend as a tight team race is expected to unfold over the two-day tournament.
“I think this is probably going to be one of the closer state tournaments that we’ve had in a really long time,” said Luis Carranza, the head coach at reigning state champion Great Falls High.
“It’ll be a dogfight,” added Billings West coach Jeremy Hernandez.
Kalispell Flathead coach Jeff Thompson echoed: “It’s going to be a war. … It’s going to be an absolute battle.”
Great Falls High, West and Flathead figure to be among the teams contending for that team title, but Billings Senior might be “the front runner on paper,” according to Thompson, and Butte qualified 25 wrestlers, the most of any team at the state tournament.
It’s an unusually wide-open team race. Typically, coaches can predict which team or two will contend for the title. Last year, champion Great Falls High scored 242.5 points to second-place Flathead’s 197. The 45.5-point difference was the closest team race since 2016 when Billings Senior claimed the title by the same margin.
“It could go one of four different ways. We could end up fourth, we could end up first. It just depends, and that’s what’s exciting about it, is nobody knows, so you just got to go in prepared and trust your training and be ready to wrestle,” said Hernandez, who is bringing in arguably the best Billings West team in his 13 years as the program’s head coach.
The Golden Bears are bringing 23 wrestlers to the state tournament, including five kids seeded No. 1 in the Eastern AA and two seeded No. 2. Jase Van Pelt, Jesse Aarness and Drake Rhodes are the state’s top-ranked wrestlers at 113, 126 and 152 pounds, respectively. Aarness was a 2020 state champion at 120 pounds, while Van Pelt and Rhodes both wrestled to runner-up finishes last year.
Keyan Hernandez, the coach’s son, is also an East top seed at 103 pounds, and RJ Lowdog is the East’s No. 1 wrestler at 138. Chris Garcia is seeded second at 182 pounds and Jadyn Hoff is second at 285 for the Golden Bears.
“We just expect them to show up and do what they’ve been training to do all season and perform and just wrestle,” Hernandez said. “They’ve been working their butts off, all 23 of them have, the whole team has. We’ve had over 50-some kids in the room all season long. They all work hard at trying to achieve those goals of being a state champ, some of them placing at state."
Rhodes, who won the 113-pound title as a freshman in 2019 before placing second at 126 last year, seems destined for a bout with Flathead’s Fin Nadeau in the 152 final. Nadeau finished runner-up each of the past two seasons and, like Rhodes, brings an undefeated record into this year’s 152-pound bracket.
Nadeau is one of 23 Braves qualified for the state tournament and one of six to receive a No. 1 seed out of the Western AA. Flathead’s other No. 1-seeded wrestlers are Ethan Freund (126 pounds), Asher Kemppainen (132), Cade Troupe (145), Chase Youso (170) and Ryan Nelson (182).
“We’re really excited about the Brave brawlers that made it in the state,” Thompson said. “Having six No. 1 seeds really helps out and eight in the top two, we had nine in the top three. Typically those are the guys that are going to score you a lot of points and possibly place at state. We’re hoping to get a few other wild cards in there.”
As the West’s second seed at 160 pounds, Noah Poe-Hatten doesn’t qualify as a wild card, but he’s come on strong late. In the final match of the regular season, Poe-Hatten defeated Hunter Meinzen, a two-time state champion from Missoula Big Sky.
Meinzen and the previously mentioned Aarness are among the nine returning state champions in the bracket. Billings Skyview’s Hunter Ketchem and Kalispell Glacier’s Teegan Vasquez both won titles last year and are slotted in this year’s 120-pound bracket, which also includes East No. 1 seed Jalen Vladic of Billings Senior. Vladic placed third at 113 pounds last year.
Another Bronc, Thomas Klepps, is a returning state champion. Klepps won the 160-pound title last year and is in the 170-pound bracket this year as a senior. Avery Allen, a 145-pound sophomore from Bozeman High, will be looking for another state title, as well.
Then there’s the big guys, where Great Falls High figures to make hay. The Bison ended the regular season with Liam Swanson, Elijah Davis and Ethan DeRoche the top-ranked guys at 182, 205 and 285 pounds, respectively.
“They just push each other. They’re so competitive,” Carranza said. “We try to split them up every once in a while in the room, and then there’s days that we just say, ‘Hey, go have fun and beat each other up.’ And that’s exactly what they do. I mean, they’ll go 10, 15, 20 minutes without scoring a takedown or any points on each other, because they’re so competitive.”
While they might enter as the favorites, it won’t be smooth sailing for any of the Bison standouts. Swanson has to deal with Flathead’s Nelson, West’s Garcia and Butte’s Mason Christian at 182, and Davis has Noah Kovick of Helena Capital, Xaden Cunningham of Belgrade and Zac Crews of Missoula Sentinel in the 205 bracket. Kovick won a state title for the Bruins at 182 pounds last year.
The heavyweight bracket includes Zack Tierney of Butte, West’s Hoff and Capital’s Talon Marsh in addition to DeRoche.
“Our lighter weights have gotten better and we’ve seen some improvement there,” Carranza said, mentioning guys like Cooper Samson at 103 pounds and Mason Huber and Dylan Block at 138. “But if they don’t get things going for us, even with all that horsepower up top, it’s going to make things a little difficult. We’re counting on our young kids, those lighter weights to step up.”
The lighter weights, which will wrestle in the early session on Friday, could benefit Billings Senior. The Broncs have No. 1 seeds Vladic (120 pounds) and Peak (132) and No. 2 seed Junior Madrid (103 pounds).
Butte, meanwhile, will have more wrestlers than anybody in Kalispell. Of the 25 Bulldogs to qualify, Trey Whitlock (103 pounds), Maverick McEwen (113) and Tierney (285) earned No. 1 seeds in the West.
“Butte’s right in there. They’re very, very solid,” Thompson said, also pointing to the strengths of Great Falls High, Senior, West and his own squad at Flathead.
“The coaches, even the athletes, that are really looking at that scoreboard, the stress is going to be a little bit higher,” Thompson added, “because you really don’t know exactly where you’re at until the end of the day.”
The Class AA state tournament gets started Friday morning in Kalispell. For brackets and more information, click here.