Troy Humphrey didn’t know what to expect out of his Jefferson wrestling team at last week’s Western B/C divisional tournament. He admitted, though, that he “had a goal of having an outside shot of getting a trophy from this competition.”
Mission: accomplished. And then some.
The Panthers totaled 175 points to edge Whitehall for the team trophy. Eight guys are now set to compete at the State B/C tournament this weekend in Shelby.
“We certainly have a goal of bringing home some hardware, going down there and keeping it going,” Humphrey said of the increased expectations for state after last week’s showing.
“What really did it for us (at the divisional tournament) is, I had 12 out of my 16 wrestlers won matches at the divisional tournament,” he continued. “Team-wide, when you have that kind of scoring and that kind of output, it really helps you out quite a bit. Going into the state tournament … us, Whitehall and Cut Bank, our top three teams (out of the West) all qualified eight. We have a little bit of work ahead of us with Huntley Project and Glasgow each bringing 14 qualifiers. Team size is really relevant.”
In that regard, Huntley Project and Glasgow have the advantage heading into state. The Red Devils captured the Eastern B/C title last week, scoring 260 points to edge past the Scotties, who scored 255.5. Project crowned three individual state champions — Gavin Nedens at 113 pounds, Cooper Lane at 120 and Wylee Lindeen at 160 — and all three figure to contend again this week.
But Red Devils coach Tim Kaczmarek knows his team’s success this season has come from more guys than just those three, and he expects that to continue this week. William Loveridge (170 pounds), Stran Selman (182) and Cade Buchanan (205) also wrestled in the finals at the Eastern B/C divisional meet for Project.
Nedens, Lane, Lindeen, Loveridge and Selman are returning state placers for the Red Devils.
“Our big goal is to have every guy score points,” Kaczmarek said. “That first round Saturday morning is always the big round of getting guys into finals and getting guys into placing rounds. You can close the gap in that round or you can jump way ahead in that round. That’s kind of our big round right there. But obviously the big key is to get everybody to score points and bonus points, trying to get pins and major decisions and tech falls. Every point matters.”
While it does figure to be a competitive team race, it also figures to be somewhat unpredictable. Due to COVID-19 protocols, last week was the first time wrestlers had competed in tournament formats this season, as opposed to the duals or mixers where they were allowed a maximum of two matches per day.
Come tournament time, kids are potentially wrestling three or four matches in a single day. Glasgow and Huntley Project likely knew they had strong squads after last year’s 1-2 finish at the state tournament, but there was still an element of the unknown.
“You always kind of worry about that conditioning aspect of it,” Kaczmarek said. “How are you going to respond? We did some things during the year to try to compensate for that, but it definitely makes you think, what’s our conditioning like? How are we sitting?”
There will be even more unknowns this week, as teams from the East and West didn’t see much of each other during the regular season. Duals were often limited to teams in close proximity of each other, so the lack of big regular-season tournaments resulted in a lack of familiarity among the teams.
Even if teams did face each other during the season, it wasn’t always on a level playing field. Humphrey’s Panthers struggled in the early going but found success later in the season.
“I competed the majority of the season with 9-12 athletes on my roster, and it really turned into a revolving door of who was representing me that week at our duals. It got a bit frustrating, and that was due to injuries, it was due to close contacts. … You never really knew week to week who you were going to have on varsity, and you had some holes in your lineup,” Humphrey said. “It wasn’t until the last week of the regular season when we actually put out a full team of 15, 16 athletes out there and competed in duals. It was quite an eye-opener for us.”
Late in the regular season, Jefferson battled well against Whitehall, Three Forks and Cut Bank in duals. That gave the Panthers confidence going into the divisional tournament, and they’re hoping to carry it over to state. Leo Anderson (103 pounds) and Dylan Mikesell (113) both recorded second-place finishes at the divisional meet for the Panthers, while Christian Davis (113) and Braeden Jones (182) each placed third. Anderson finished third at the 2020 state meet, as well.
Glasgow, the reigning state champion, features returning state placers Jake Kuka, Colten Fast, Kyler Hallock, Dylan Nieskens, Cooper Larson and Mayson Phipps, as well as Damien Nesbitt, who wrestled at Baker last season. Fast, Nieskens and Larson are returning state champs.
Other returning state champs in this year’s brackets include: Anaconda’s Nate Blodnick at 113 pounds, Circle’s Krayle Stormer at 126, Eureka’s Gunnar Smith at 132, Thompson Falls’ Trae Thilmony at 132, Circle’s Cole Becker at 152 and Colstrip’s Rylin Burns at 182.
Smith is aiming to become a four-time state champion but faces a difficult bracket that includes Thilmony, who defeated Smith in the 132-pound final at the Western B/C divisional meet.
Circle, meanwhile, is well-positioned to claim its fourth consecutive Class C team title. The Wildcats qualified seven wrestlers for the state meet, which begins Friday morning at Shelby. Brackets, the tournament schedule and more details can be found here.
“It’s a new week and everybody heads into the state tournament and they’re 0-0. It doesn’t matter who you’ve wrestled or who we’ve seen,” said Kaczmarek. “We got to take it six minutes at a time and one match at a time.”