BILLINGS — Martin Wilkie doesn’t lose many wrestling matches. In fact, his TrackWrestling.com profile shows first-place finishes throughout the 2018-19 season, including a Jan. 26 win at the Malta Invitational — a pinfall victory in a mere 59 seconds.
But Wilkie could tell something was wrong with his left knee.
“I noticed last summer, I tore my meniscus and I kind of gave it a few weeks to heal, not necessarily heal, but take some rest on it. Throughout the season it’s been kind of popping in and out, but (Jan. 26) it finally popped out and was staying out, my knee was locked up,” Wilkie said.
Fearing his senior season — the season where he was chasing a fourth-consecutive individual state championship — may be finished, Wilkie and his family sought immediate action.
“That following Monday (Jan. 28), Dr. (Steven) Klepps down here in Billings got us in, got it fixed up. Right there I have to be thankful to him, such a short period of time to get me in like that, I appreciate it quite a bit,” said Wilkie. “We got it scoped, recovery went faster than they thought, faster than I thought, we were on the mat the next Saturday and I ended up winning divisionals. Our plan was to just win the first (match), make it to state and just default out, but we were feeling good and the ball was rolling, so we just kept it going. I won it there and the following day I felt amazing. I was ready for it to swell up a bit, but it felt amazing and so far this week has been the best week of practice I’ve had, the best I’ve felt overall. I’ve been a little timid on it all season, people getting shots on it and stuff, I’m scared it’s going to pop out, but now we don’t have to deal with it anymore, so I have a lot of confidence.”
It’s a sigh of relief for Wilkie and his father, Martin Sr., who admitted he “thought his season was over” less than two weeks ago. But the younger Wilkie insists he feels better than before, not protecting the knee, while owning the strength in the leg to attack at full power.
But perhaps the best thing to come of the surgery, with the accompanying Eastern A divisional title, is squashing the rumors that had begun swirling in late January.
“A lot of people were saying I was out, even when I was wrestling in divisionals,” he said. “I had a lot of people asking me what happened and stuff, I just kind of told them, ‘My knee is fine. I’ll be good.'”
Every one of the thousands of eyes will be on Wilkie at some point through the weekend’s state tournament at Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark in Billings, watching the future Division I Minnesota Gopher seek his fourth title, while great friends on each side of his weight class will do the same.
“I’m so excited. Tons of confidence, nothing really (I’m) worrying about. The other two that are about to do it with me (Colstrip’s Jackson Currier and Forsyth’s Michael Weber) are good buddies of mine, so I’m just excited to make history with those guys,” Wilkie said. “Depending on how the finals go, it changes who gets the bragging rights to say who is the 33rd, 34th and 35th (wrestlers to win four consecutive titles), it will be exciting.”
The Montana High School Association website lists Saturday’s finals starting at 160 pounds, meaning Colstrip’s Currier would potentially get the first opportunity at No. 4 at 138 pounds, while Wilkie would follow at 145. Weber would be in the final weight class of the evening at 152 pounds.
Equally as important as his individual success is returning Havre High to the top of the Class A team race. Defending state champion Sidney is again favored, having defeated the Blue Ponies by 116 points at the Eastern A divisional in Miles City last weekend, but Wilkie knows state brings a new opportunity.
“I would say that, ‘Going into Metra, the records are 0-0. Our guys that have lost to Sidney guys, or lost to any other guys, just go out there and wrestle, give it all you’ve got for six minutes. That’s all we’re asking of you,'” he said. “Everybody is thinking it’s Sidney’s to take and right now we have a lot of guys on our team that believe we can get it done.”
While the heavyweights Havre and Sidney are expected to clash for trophies, teams like Frenchtown and Polson may have something to say about which hardware leaves on which bus Saturday. The Pirates edged the Broncs by a single point at the Western A divisional in Butte last Saturday, one of the most exciting finishes in program history.
“It was a lot of fun. It made it more exciting, made the more divisional tournament more memorable, definitely, for all of us, because I had never won the divisional championship, too, so that was really awesome, especially to do it my senior year. That was really cool,” said Polson 152-pound senior Bridger Wenzel.
The top seed from the Western A, Wenzel and fellow senior Hunter Fritsch are hoping to bring individual titles to the Polson program, while also securing one of those three team trophies for the Pirates. Teammates like Rene Pierre and Logan Adler will join the team’s captains in accomplishing that goal.
“I guess the mindset is to go in there and scrap through every match, whether you’re on the championship side (of the bracket) or in the wrestlebacks trying to get to the third- and fourth-place match,” Wenzel said. “Every match counts, so every pin we get, anything like that, any bonus points, just wrestling through the whole tournament is our mindset.
“What has to go right, we have to beat those teams,” he continued. “If any of us are wrestling a Havre, Sidney, Frenchtown kid, we have to win those matches. Those are the matches you really have to win, just to knock them a little farther down so we can get those bonus points.”
The 2019 state wrestling tournaments begin Friday morning at 10 a.m. with the parade of athletes, with first-round matches scheduled to begin around 10:20 a.m.
For a link to updated brackets and team scores, please click here.