Matt Dillon was the picture of calm early Saturday evening as he waited for his Class AA 182-pound championship bout to begin in the state wrestling tournament at Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark.
As Dillon was waiting near Billings Skyview coach Rich Malia, assistant coach Shane Salminen was grabbing Dillon’s arm, shaking it and loosening him up.
Dillon battled Great Falls’ Randy Keesler to a 2-1, double-overtime victory to conclude a perfect season at 47-0. Afterward, Dillon said he didn’t spend time fretting about if he finished the season undefeated.
“I didn’t let it get to my head,” he said. “Everyone was talking about it.”
Dillon was ranked No. 1 and Keesler No. 2 in the final Class AA coaches poll of the season. In the three previous polls, their rankings were reversed. Dillon said after Saturday’s finals that Keesler was the toughest opponent he faced all season.
It was the fitting end to a prep career that saw Dillon overcome the injuries he battled in prior seasons and capture his first state championship. Last year, Dillon was second at state at 160 pounds and as a freshman, he finished sixth at 145. As a sophomore, Dillon missed the state tournament with a shoulder injury.
Dillon said he’s often asked about that “other” Matt Dillon, the marshal character portrayed by actor James Arness in TV’s “Gunsmoke.”
“I get asked that a lot actually when people hear my name ... they ask ‘Did your mom name you after Matt Dillon from Gunsmoke?’,” Dillon said. “I don’t know how to reply to it. It’s a very common thing, actually. ... But no, I don’t think she did, actually.”
It would be safe to say after Saturday there was a new marshal in town. You can also catch him playing baseball this summer for the Billings Royals Legion team.
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Great Falls coach Steve Komac said that “from JV to varsity the effort was outstanding,” after his Bison repeated as Class AA state champions Saturday night with 353.5 points. Great Falls had six first-place finishers and two runners-up. Overall, the Bison had 17 state placers.
When asked what his formula for success this season was, Komac cracked a smile and said, “We’ll try to figure that out, so we can try to make it happen again.”
The 353.5 points were the second-most in Class AA history behind the 410 points that Kalispell Flathead tallied in 2008. That Braves team featured 19 state placers, 10 finalists and five champions.
The six state champions could quite possibly be a Class AA record. Skyview placed eight in the finals and had five champions in both 2001 and 2002. Butte also produced five state champs in 2003. As for comparable Great Falls High teams, the Bison had four champions in 2007.
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Saturday marked a farewell for Dave Bennetts of Butte, who retired from the Montana Officials Association after 35 state tournaments. Overall, the 64-year-old Bennetts has been a referee for 38 years.
Blake Love of Missoula, a 25-year official with the MOA, said of Bennetts: “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Dave. He’s been my mentor for a lot of years.”
Love said Bennetts showed consistency as a ref, cared for the wrestlers and had a passion for the sport. AAU Wrestling national chairman Bob Johnson was in attendance in support of Bennetts, who has been the AAU national head folkstyle official for 18 years.
Bennetts, a Butte native who has lived in Billings, Helena and Miles City, was a two-time state placer in wrestling for the Butte Bulldogs, played football at Montana Tech and Western Montana College and wrestled for Western as a senior.
He said he respects the values and hard work that wrestling represents and appreciates the fact that wrestlers are not dependent on others to get the job done in their sport. This year marked a milestone for him as he has now officiated at every divisional tourney.
“I had worked all the divisionals but the Western B-C, and this year I worked that,” he said.
Another longtime tourney worker put down the microphone for the last time Saturday night. Lew Morris, a public address announcer since the tourney began in 1989 at Metra, retired from announcing wrestling, but said he will still do basketball games.
“It was great. I have a lot of memories out of this,” Morris said. “It is great for our community.”
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After Skyview’s Tim Garcia won a 3-2 decision over Billings Senior’s Brendon Vladic for the 106-pound title, he said he won the title in classic Garcia fashion.
“I like to keep my matches close,” Garcia said. “I always come out and win by one.”
While Dillon said he he remained calm before his match, 220-pound Class AA champion Matt Welch of Skyview said music from AC/DC, Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones relaxed his nerves. The championship round started at 220 pounds, meaning Welch was up first after the parade of finalists and national anthem.
“I was so nervous,” he said. “It was heart-pounding through everything that led up to it.”
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Skyview finished third in the Class AA team standings. The Falcons have now claimed nine state trophies (top-three finishes) in the past 10 years.
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Billings Central senior Zach Wall joined a select group of Rams wrestlers on Saturday by becoming a four-time state placer.
Wall is believed to be only the third four-time state placer in Central history, joining Zach Zimmerer, who graduated in 1995, and Parker Aldrich, who graduated in 1997.
Wall finished fifth at 120 pounds, to go along with second-place finishes the previous two seasons and a fourth-place campaign as a freshman.
Zimmerer capped a brilliant career with three straight titles to go with a third-place finish. Aldrich won titles as a junior and senior and was second his first two seasons.
According to the Central coaching staff, Wall is also second on the all-time wins list at the school behind Zimmerer.