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State wrestling: Fast facts and storylines as athletes get ready to rumble in Billings

West's Keyan Hernandez.jpg
Posted at 1:31 PM, Feb 08, 2024

BILLINGS — The 2024 state wrestling tournament gets started Friday, ringing in two days of competition that will culminate with the crowning of individual and team champions Saturday evening.

The tournament could feature another standout wrestler joining the vaunted four-timers' club, as well as some hotly contested team races. But the tourney will also include a new wrinkle as three overall team champions will be crowned in the girls division for the first time.

Following is a primer with facts and storylines to follow as teams descend on First Interstate Arena at MetraPark for a full weekend of wrestling:

The list of four-time state champions could grow by one

Billings West 126 pounder Keyan Hernandez is in pursuit of a fourth consecutive state championship this weekend. If he completes the feat, he will become the 41st wrestler in state history to join the four-timers' club.

After relatively slow growth to the club in the 1990s and early 2000s, the list has exploded since 2004 when Billings Skyview teammates Beau Malia and Joe Lauer became the 12th and 13th members, respectively. In the past two decades, 29 wrestlers have become four-time champions. Compare that to the 38 years between 1963 and 2001 when only 11 wrestlers turned the trick.

If Hernandez finishes the feat on Saturday it will mark 10 straight seasons in which at least one wrestler has become a four-time champion. Two pulled it off last year — Kalispell Glacier's Teegan Vasquez and Bozeman High's Avery Allen. The last time it didn't happen altogether? 2014.

Will West, Flathead lead the charge in Class AA?

Kalispell Flathead has been one of the most dominant programs in the state over the course of the past two decades. Coach Jeff Thompson's Braves have won 11 titles in their history, including a run of five straight from 2006-10.

But, after winning in both 2021 and 2022 they lost their grip on Class AA supremacy last year when coach Jeremy Hernandez and Billings West took home the team title.

RELATED: Thompson trio, Kalispell Flathead wrestling grinds forward with state on horizon

Both Flathead and West nabbed their respective divisional team championships last weekend with big-time points and are both bringing deep rosters to Metra this weekend. Flathead has 22 qualifiers and West has 23. Last season, the Golden Bears won state over the Braves by a rather slim margin of 220.5 points to 211, capturing the third team title in program history.

Up for grabs

After a record-tying run of five consecutive state titles from 2018-22, Sidney was dethroned last season by Columbia Falls, which captured its first wrestling championship since 1990.

Sidney and Columbia Falls each took third at their divisional tournaments last weekend. With 278 points, Laurel captured the Eastern A while Ronan, with 268.5 points, took the West.

RELATED: Libby 'superhero' Jace DeShazer bringing joy, undefeated record to state wrestling tournament

This year's Class A title appears up for grabs, with depth expected to decide things as it usually does. Laurel and Ronan have strength in numbers heading in with 17 qualifiers each. Frenchtown has 16, upstart Lockwood has 13, Sidney has 12 and Columbia Falls has 10.

Laurel hasn't won a title since 2011 while Ronan is seeking its first since 1991. Frenchtown and Lockwood are both looking for their first. Will another long drought come to an end just as it did for Columbia Falls last year?

Once-dormant Dogies search for return to podium

During its glory years, Forsyth won won three straight Class B-C championships from 2011-13 propped up largely by the four-timer efforts of brothers Matt and Luke Weber. A third brother, Michael, eventually became a four-time champion later in the decade.

But the Dogies haven't claimed a team title since. That could change this weekend, as Forsyth, which has since moved down from Class B, wants to make a run at the Class C team trophy at Metra (not to be confused with the overall B-C championship).

The Dogies scored 86 team points at the Eastern B-C divisional last week.

Poplar's Escarcega pushes toward history

When girls wrestling became sanctioned by the Montana High School Association four years ago, there was a blank canvas upon which history could be etched. Poplar 107 pounder Angelina Escarcega hopes to keep pushing toward a big piece of that history this weekend.

RELATED: Huntley Project wrestler Gretchen Donally focused on enjoying journey for 3-peat

A junior, Escarcega is in search of her third consecutive state title, which would put her on track to become a four-time champion in 2025. We don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves, but Escarcega is on pace to become the first girls four-time champ — and the first girl to join a four-timer list that, as mentioned above, currently exists as a boys-only group of 40.

Also of note, Huntley Project's Gretchen Donally (145 pounds) and Billings Senior's Kendal Tucker (185) are seniors seeking their third individual state titles.

Trophies all around

This season marks the first year in which championship trophies will be doled out for every classification for both boys and girls. This is new in the girls division.

RELATED: Girls wrestling thriving at Missoula Big Sky ahead of state tournament

In 2021 and 2022, just one overall team championship trophy was awarded to the girls team with the most points, and both were claimed by Kalispell Flathead. Last season, trophies were split between Class AA (Billings Senior won) and classes A and B-C (won by Ronan).
With the continued surge in girls participation, the MHSA will this year award title trophies for Class AA, Class A and Class B-C for both the boys and girls team competitions, a first in tourney history.