Columbia Falls isn’t favored to win the Class A wrestling crown, but after an upset win at the Northwestern A divisional tournament, the Mat Cats shouldn’t be counted out.
Frenchtown entered Northwestern A divisionals a heavy favorite, but Columbia Falls won six individual titles and outpointed the Broncs 255 to 218.5 in the team race.
Despite that victory, the Mat Cats are still considered underdogs at the Class A state tournament today and Saturday at Rimrock Auto Arena in Billings.
Columbia Falls coach Jessie Schaeffer and Libby coach Kelly Morford each pointed to Eastern A’s Sidney and Glendive as favorites along with Havre and Belgrade from Central A, but Columbia Falls could be in the mix for fifth place along with Frenchtown.
“I think fifth and sixth are up for grabs right now,” Schaeffer said.
Columbia Falls and Libby are each sending a returning individual champion to the state tournament.
Columbia Falls’ Shonn Roberts won last year’s 98-pound title and is currently the top-ranked wrestler at 112. Libby’s Mitch Haugen won the 130-pound title last season and is currently ranked third at 135.
Whitefish also has a state title hopeful in heavyweight Wolf Zinke, who lost in last year’s championship match, and Polson is led by state tournament veterans Craig Feistner, 140, and Carlos Quinones, 119.
Columbia Falls leads area Class A schools with 18 state qualifiers, Libby and Polson each have 10 and Whitefish has eight.
“This last weekend a good group of the kids really stepped it up,” Schaeffer said. “We turned around six different matches we had lost previously in the year. Right now everything just kind of starts over.
“This weekend all 18 of those kids better be ready to step on that mat and get some big wins for us.”
Schaeffer said he has no doubt Roberts will answer the bell.
“He looks great right now,” Schaeffer said.
“He’s healthy, his weight management has been phenomenal, his work ethic has been great. He has a true passion for the sport and there’s no doubt he’s one of the best 112-pounders in the state.”
Also winning divisional titles for Columbia Falls were Cameron Linstead, 105, Josiah Osborne, 130, Bryan Schaffer, 145, and Jacob Burgess, 160.
Schaeffer said the state tournament will be a success if six of his wrestlers reach the podium by finishing in the top six of their weight classes.
“We would love to have more than that, absolutely, but right now I think six would be a good thing,” he said.
Libby placed third at divisionals and had three individual champions in Haugen, Zach Crace, 125, and Zach Dolezal, 215.
“Honestly, we were hoping to wrestle a little better, but we had 10 guys make it through and hopefully they can make the best of it at state,” Morford said.
The tallest hurdle between Haugen and a second state title is likely Belgrade’s Bryce Weatherston, a three-time state finalist and the No. 1-ranked wrestler at 135. Morford said Haugen will have to follow the same formula that worked last year if he wants to add more hardware to his trophy case.
“When he got into tight situations, he was able to stick with the gameplan and wrestle solid,” Morford said of Haugen.
“Not all kids have the ability to do that in a pressure situation.”
Crace placed sixth at 119 a year ago and ranks third at 125 this season.
“I think he’s got as good a shot as anybody on our team to go in there and wrestle for a state title,” Morford said.
Polson took fourth out of five teams at divisionals and had two individual champions in Feistner and Quinones. Feistner is a three-time state placer who took third at 98 as a freshman, second at 112 as a sophomore and third at 125 last year. Quinones is a two-time state placer, taking fifth at 112 last year and third at 98 in 2011.
In Class B-C, Eureka is sending five wrestlers to the state tournament. While that’s not enough to make a splash in the team standings, coach Dan Lemer hopes to see some individual success from his wrestlers.
“Obviously we have a small team, but individually we have a lot of high goals that are very reachable,” Lemer said. “Bringing home a state medal for each of these guys is a realistic goal. There could be a couple state champions on this team as well.”
Eureka has two Western B divisional champions in Garrett White (30-5, 20 pins) and Zach Durden (34-3, 20 pins), who are ranked third at 112 and 119, respectively. White placed second at 105 at last year’s state tournament while Durden was fifth at 112.
White’s biggest competition will likely come from Kylan Berkram of Cut Bank, who has defeated White both times they’ve wrestled.
“For Garrett to win a state title, he’s going to need to win matches on his feet,” Lemer said. “He’s going to need to get that initial takedown. He’s not going to want to get behind and have to battle back.”
Durden might be a good model on that front.
“His takedowns are absolutely amazing,” Lemer said of Durden. “Throughout the season he’s been a beast on his feet. I think he can take down anybody he wants when he’s on fire.”
Josh Schmidt (27-11, 15 pins), 112, and Nikko Bakkila (34-10, 26 pins), 135, were runners-up at divisionals while Jarrett Pecora (14-12, 12 pins), 130, was third.
The Class A and B-C state tournaments both begin today at 10 a.m.