SIDNEY — Jace Winter has matured immensely over the past three years.
As a freshman at Sidney High School, Winter placed sixth in the Class A state wrestling tournament, then earned a fourth-place finish as a sophomore the following season. Back in February, Winter competed for his first state championship, but fell to Frenchtown standout Riley Gurr by pinfall.
Motivated and determined after stepping off the podium in Billings’ MetraPark at Rimrock Auto Arena, Winter was quickly back to work, training for his final prep season.
“I’m just trying to sharpen everything now. Over the years I’ve learned the things that work for me, so now I’m just trying to get better and better at those things,” he said.
Right around the time Winter was born, Sidney was building a wrestling dynasty in the 2000s, winning five State A titles in seven years. While Winter was growing up in the Eagles’ youth wrestling program, it was rival Havre High that took the reins, snapping Sidney’s four-peat in 2007, and winning nine team championships, including five straight entering the 2017-2018 season.
But Winter and his teammates unseated the Blue Ponies last winter, running away with the Class A championship and defeating runner-up Havre by 62 points. It was a result years in the making, according to Sidney coach Guy Melby, and led by Winter.
“He’s the first sophomore I’ve ever had as a captain and he just grasped that role completely,” Melby said. “He was a hard-nosed kid, a hard worker who did everything you asked him. He’s a great student, never in trouble, everybody in our school system loves him and it’s easy to tell why. I’m sure by talking to him you realized he’s a fine young man.”
“I had no clue (I was the first sophomore captain.) I didn’t know how team captain really worked, I just kept working my butt off,” said Winter. “We were kind of in a special situation because we had no seniors my sophomore year, so we were all younger guys having to figure things out. One day Melby pulled me in and said, ‘You’re going to walk out, shake hands and do the coin toss,’ and after that I realized I really had to be a team leader. As a sophomore, you can get that privilege taken away really fast, so I had to keep working really hard.”
Winter’s efforts paid off with the fourth-place finish, but he and the Eagles certainly took their lumps. Sidney finished 11th at the state tournament in 2015, while no athlete earned a top-three finish, both rare occurrences under Melby.
“It was a building year, for sure. We had no senior leadership, we had to start from scratch basically,” said Winter. “That probably helped us even more because we knew what it was like to be at the bottom.”
Melby can recall seeing something click inside Winter after that season, a refusal to lose and a drive to lead the rest of the Eagles, characteristics that culminated in Sidney’s ninth Class A title.
“He just works hard, he lifts hard and wrestles hard. He makes sure he holds everybody accountable. He makes sure they’re at weight training at 6 a.m. and makes sure they’re at practices. He makes sure those younger kids know how to work hard,” said Melby. “We’re going to miss that dude (after next season), he’s just been fun.”
For the next eight months, Winter will be focused on capturing two championships — his first individual title and Sidney’s second straight as a team — but it’s admittedly not all about wrestling. Winter has found some success as a jackpot team roper, a hobby that fits him well.
“We live on a ranch and my dad loves it, so I keep doing it every summer. He has to work quite a bit, so just around home we rope,” he said.
“Around here? Yeah, absolutely (it’s common to see wrestlers in rodeo). A lot of these boys are farmers and cowboys, and one thing about those guys, they know how to work. They fit right in,” Melby said. “I couldn’t tell you what a horse even looks like.”