BILLINGS — Drama, excitement, suspense and awe will be packed into one at this weekend’s Montana High School Association State All-Class Wrestling Tournament at Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark.
One of the highlights of the 29th version of the event will be Billings Senior standout Charlie Klepps’ pursuit of his fourth individual state title. If Klepps (38-3, 20 pins) is standing atop the 132-pound Class AA podium on Saturday night, he would become the 32nd Montana wrestler to win four state titles.
Klepps put himself in good position to earn title No. 4 by winning the Eastern AA seeding meet.
“He’s as ready as he’s going to be,” Broncs coach Josh Beeman said when asked if Klepps is prepared for his chance at history.
First-round matches begin at 10:20 a.m. Friday and wrestling continues throughout the day with the second-round consolation matches slated to go off at approximately 5 p.m. in the day’s last round. On Saturday, the semifinals kick-start the competition at 9:30 a.m. and the parade of finalists is set for 3:15 p.m.
The following is a sampling of what to watch as the two-day tournament unfolds:
Defending champion Kalispell Flathead qualified 24 wrestlers, including nine returning state placers.
However, last year’s state runner-up Bozeman won the Class AA Duals with a 34-29 triumph over the Braves. Bozeman also claimed the Jug Beck Rocky Mountain Classic title. Both Flathead coach Jeff Thompson and Bozeman coach Nate Laslovich agreed their teams will be in the hunt for the state title. But, each pointed at the other as the favorite.
Thompson said entering the seeding meet his squad knew the team’s “Killer B’s”, Flathead’s nickname for its junior varsity, would need to perform well enough to qualify for state to have a chance at the title. He said all 24 of the Braves’ qualifiers have the ability to score points at the meet.
“We had six champions and 10 finalists and five third and three fourths, so that put us in good shape,” Thompson said of the Western AA seeding tournament. “Those, typically your top four guys will score your majority of points at state. We are very happy. If we will compete with Bozeman, their frontrunners are so tough, we have to qualify a lot of kids and our JVs have to step up at divisionals. It will be a total team effort for us to upset them. They have beaten us at our last two competitions.”
The Hawks will have 16 wrestlers, including five returning state placers, take to the mats. In addition to the AA Duals and Jug Beck titles, Bozeman also won the CMR Holiday Classic and its own tourney. While Laslovich is “super excited” for his team’s opportunity, he said Flathead’s strength is in its numbers.
“Based on the way it is, they got 24 guys through and a lot of pretty high seeds,” Laslovich said. “I would say they are a clear-cut favorite, but you have to wrestle. All of our guys are pretty competitive and have high goals.
“On paper stuff doesn’t matter. A lot of teams want to compete. … I don’t know where we’ll end up, but it will be a lot of fun.”
While it appears Flathead and Bozeman have the inside track to the team title, Thompson and Laslovich both said Billings Skyview, last year’s third-place team, Billings Senior and Great Falls are also in the hunt.
“The favorites are whoever shows up. There are four or five teams,” Beeman said. “There are a couple of teams who have a few more kids, but Friday or Saturday at the state tournament at any given moment, one team can get momentum and take it the rest of the tournament. Kalispell and Bozeman will be tough to beat, but there are four or five of us in the hunt.”
• The Broncs qualified 14 wrestlers for state. Winning the seeding tournament were Alejandro Madrid (103, 22-1 in AA with 20 pins), Klepps (132) and Jarret Leinwand (205, 15-2 AA).Other top marks for the Broncs are Matthew DeWitt (14-4 AA at 120), Caden Benboe (16-6 AA, 152), Jayden Ramirez (126, 12-6 AA) and Jacob Fritzler (15-5 AA at 170).
“Senior High has high expectations and the drive to compete to the best of their ability this weekend,” Beeman said. “We have 14 tough and hard-nosed wrestlers ready to give it their all this weekend to make Bronc Nation proud.”
• The Falcons will have 18 wrestlers competing this weekend. Included in that group is senior Brock Bushfield, who won the 170-pound title at the seeding meet. Bushfield won state his first two seasons and was runner-up last year. Both Brock and his younger brother Brenner Bushfield (182) have reached the 30-win plateau this season. Another pair of Skyview brothers, Bridger (120) and Gentry (103) Lamb, also have amassed 30 or more wins. Overall, there are five Falcons with 30-plus wins and the fifth is senior Cade Kay (152), who leads the team with 20 pins.
“Right now we are just looking ahead and working on putting it all together for state,” Falcons coach Joe Malchuski said. “Our goal is for all 18 to place at state.”
• The Billings West Golden Bears will be represented by 12 wrestlers this weekend. Leading the pack is defending state champion Jace Rhodes (37-5, 24 pins), who won the 152-pound Eastern AA seeding tourney bracket. Levi Malcolm (285, 30-5, 24 pins) was a state runner-up last season. Seth Boyd (145, 26-19, 23 pins) is another one of the Bears’ top wrestlers.
“We qualified 12 good kids that have a good shot at placing high at the state tournament this weekend,” Bears coach Jeremy Hernandez said. “Anything is possible at this tourney. Whatever happened last week, last month, is irrelevant. So, we are looking to just compete and see what we can do.”
• Flathead sophomore Tilynne Vasquez (12-2) won the Western AA seeding meet at 103 pounds. Last year, she placed sixth at 103 to become the first girl to place in the State AA tourney and only the second ever to achieve top-six status at a Montana High School Association state wrestling meet.
“She is tough. She will be battling in there,” Thompson said. “That’s for sure.
“I don’t think she feels any pressure. She is just trying to enjoy the high school boys season. She puts the pressure more on herself for Fargo and international competition competing against other women.”
• Returning state champions from last year, and their current weight class, include: Isaac Romero, Helena, 113; Leif Schroeder, Bozeman, 126; Klepps, Senior, 132; Rhodes, West, 152; Jordan Komac, Great Falls, 160; Bryar Newbary, Missoula Sentinel, 205; and Jeff Queer, Butte, 285.
Havre is the five-time defending team champion, but Sidney won the Class A Duals with a 54-15 victory over Lewistown. In the semifinals, Sidney beat Havre 30-22 for its second dual victory over the Blue Ponies in 2017-18.
Then, at the Eastern A meet, Sidney won with 328 points, Havre was second at 244.5 and Lewistown third at 231.
Longtime Havre coach Scott Filius said that after the Eastern A meet the state favorite is Sidney.
“The one I saw was Sidney was thumping everybody,” Filius said.
So, is Sidney the favorite?
“It sure looked that way to me,” Filius concluded.
Guy Melby’s Eagles qualified 17 wrestlers, including four state placers from last season and five overall. Christian Dean (126) was a state champion two years ago, but was hurt last season, Melby said.
“I do like where we are at,” Melby said. “Again, divisionals there are only 10 teams. Now you throw 22 in there. The competition is now a little steeper. We are happy with where we are at. Now we start over. We patted ourselves on the back for a couple hours, but now it is nose to the grindstone. We were happy we were divisional champs, but our main goal is now this weekend.”
Melby said Lewistown is solid and also said Western A champion Frenchtown is capable, along with Columbia Falls and Polson.
“Point-wise it is probably a six-team race,” Melby said. “Those teams in the West above 200 (points) and us, Havre and Fergus (Lewistown) are the ones you have to look at that have a shot at winning it. You throw all those tough teams together, you better be ready. You better be ready every round.”
Fourth-year Lewistown coach Brendon DeCock said the Golden Eagles qualified 15 for state, including five state placers.
“Our outlook is to be top three at state,” he said. “It is definitely doable. We’ll see what the team race looks like. I think it will be pretty close between us, Havre and Sidney, but we’ll see. You have Frenchtown and Columbia Falls in there, too. We’ll just show up and wrestle and see what happens.”
• The Blue Ponies qualified 14 for state, including eight state placers from last year. Junior Martin Wilkie (145, 40-1) is a two-time titlist, sophomore Quin Reno (120) was the 103-pound champ last year and senior Tyler Schaub (205, 40-3) was the 205-pound champion in 2016. He suffered an ACL injury in football last year and missed the wrestling season.
“We’d like to go down there and do as well as we can,” Filius said. “Every year you want your kids to do as well as they can. Hopefully that gets it done. Some years it does and some years it doesn’t.”
• Sidney is in search of its first state title since 2006. Melby has guided the Eagles to eight state titles, nine second-place finishes and four third-place finishes in his 32 seasons as coach. Despite the team’s success at the Eastern A, Melby said his team has concentrated on improving in the final week of practice.
“We won’t worry about any other team but ourselves. The only team we have control over is the Sidney Eagles,” he said. “It doesn’t do us any good to worry about any other team we don’t have any control over and that is what we have been doing all week is worrying about ourselves.”
• Lewistown freshman Cooper Birdwell is undefeated this year at 113 pounds at 30-0. His brother, senior Caleb Birdwell (126), also won the Eastern A. He is a three-time state runner-up.
“We are looking to get him a state title this year,” DeCock said.
DeCock added his team is “confident in their abilities and what we have the chance to do. They know they need to act on it and go out and get it. It won’t just be handed to them. They are definitely excited for the opportunity they have right now.”
• Billings Central qualified six. At 132 pounds, Ethan Boyce is 24-10 with 19 pins and at 138, Jacob Morgan is 36-15 with 27 falls. At 160, Rob Gunderson is 29-26 with 18 pins. Also qualifying were Alex Derbyshire (120), Thomas Cooper (182) and Bo Hakert (205).
“We are excited for a chance to compete and close out this season with a spot on the podium,” Rams coach Barry Morgan said.
• Laurel is sending seven to state. Keagan Campbell (126) is 20-5 with nine falls and finished third at state last year. Mason Fend (152) is 40-15 with 29 falls and had a school-record 59 3-point near-falls. Levi Nunberg (103), Jestin Molnar (132), Kayne Johnson (145), Tyler Emineth (145) and BJ Hatcher (205) also will compete.
“It is a great opportunity for all the wrestlers to show how hard they have worked throughout the season,” Laurel coach Ted Hill said. “Our aim is always to peak this weekend. It will be a great experience for our younger wrestlers and we hope that we can get as many placers on the podium as possible.”
• Dillon wrestler Brent Tezak will be going for his third-straight state title, which would set the school record reports 406mtsports.com and Montana Standard reporter Jordan Hansen. The 160-pounder has been dominant this year, boasting a 33-2 record and pinned his way through the semifinals of the Western A Divisional before winning the championship via injury forfeit.
Tezak — whose only two losses this season have come against Great Falls’ Jordan Komac — hasn’t lost a match against Class A competition in over two years.
Even so, the Beaver wrestler is being pretty humble about the whole thing.
“I think it would be pretty cool,” Tezak said. “It would be big for the town, for the promotion of the sport in Dillon. Kinda only have a few kids on the team right now, maybe it’ll light a fire under some of the younger kids.”
• Returning state champions from last year, and their current weight class, include: Reno, Havre, 120; Jake Bibler, Frenchtown, 120; John Mears, Belgrade, 132; Wilkie, Havre, 145; Riley Gurr, Frenchtown, 138; Brent Tezak, Dillon, 160. Note: Buddy Doolin of Libby won the 103-pound Class B-C crown last year. Doolin (113) competes in Class A this year as Libby moved up.
Winning is contagious in Eureka. The Lions have the potential to capture a second straight Class B-C state title after winning their first last season.
The Lions football team has won back-to-back Class B titles.
No. 1 Eureka cruised to the Western B-C title with 209 points. En route to the divisional title, 11 Eureka wrestlers punched their ticket to state.
“We are sitting pretty solid,” coach Danny Lemer said. “For the most part we are pretty pleased.”
Glasgow scored an upset at the Eastern B-C when the then fourth-ranked Scotties won with 180 points. No. 2 Colstrip scored 154 and No. 3 Huntley Project 139. Malta, ranked fifth entering the weekend, easily won the Northern B-C and then-unranked Jefferson toppled the Southern B-C field.
“This year every match is going to count,” said Lemer, noting the Lions qualified 13 for state a year ago. “We don’t have the depth we had last year.”
Glasgow advanced 12 to state.
“We wrestled well. Going into divisionals, I knew we were a trophy team, I just didn’t know which trophy,” Scotties coach Jory Casterline said.
“At a small tournament like that, we had the numbers to really overtake Colstrip with our guys. This weekend, Colstrip will put guys in the finals. We have to put guys in the finals. We need points coming through the consolation brackets and continue to do what we have been doing.”
For Colstrip, which won championships in 2014 and ’16, eighth-year coach Codey Currier said his eight state qualifiers are still confident they can bring home hardware.
“If my guys wrestle as good as we can, if we do that we can win,” Currier said. “We only have eight guys, so everybody has to perform.”
Huntley Project is taking seven to state and had four divisional champions.
“It’s always nice going in to have that No. 1 spot in the bracket,” Project coach Tim Kaczmarek said. “Our focus is good. We had a snow day at school Monday, which means we can’t practice. I was worried about it, but on Tuesday it was a good thing to have a day of rest. They worked out hard. It helped rejuvenate us a little bit.”
• Eureka returns four state placers from last year. Topping the list is Garrett Graves, a University of Montana football signee who was undefeated last year at 182 and is 34-0 this season and looking for his second straight title at the weight.
“He just has the attitude he will win,” Lemer said. “He has that internal instinct that he’ll win no matter what.”
At 160 pounds, Jonathan Schmidt is 33-1 with his loss coming in the divisional finals. He is a three-time state placer. Sophomore Hank Dunn (132) is 21-5 and was a state placer last year. Jonathan’s younger brother Nathan Schmidt (120) is 36-5 and looks to stand on the podium again.
“Colstrip. They don’t have the numbers, but they have the talent,” Lemer said. “Glasgow has the numbers. I wouldn’t count out Huntley. Never count Huntley out; they are tough.”
• Colstrip does have plenty of talent. Junior Jackson Currier is 42-2 at 138 and is a two-time state titlist. Senior heavyweight Merlin Whitedirt is 42-3 and won state last year and was third as a sophomore. Nakoda Siegel is a junior who is 42-0 at 170 and a two-time state placer, finishing fourth the past two years. Junior Ty Bradley (152) is also a returning two-time state placer, finishing second in 2016 and fourth last year.
“We just need to open up and wrestle the best we can,” coach Currier said. “We need to focus on wrestling and nothing else.”
• Glasgow will try to capture its first state title since 2010, which capped a four-year run.
Winning divisional titles for the Scotties were freshman Colten Fast (120, 38-8, 20 pins) and junior Oden Hallock (126, 32-11, 17 pins). Senior Matt Reyling, who was second at divisionals at 132, is 38-9 with 23 pins and is a two-time state champion. Freshman Dylan Nieskens (170), was second at divisionals and is 32-17 with 17 pins.
It was the Scotties first divisional crown since 2011 and 23rd in school history.
“I definitely think we have a shot. Us, Colstrip and Eureka off of the results,” Casterline said. “But that is why we wrestle the tournament. I don’t like to make too many predictions. But, we are wrestling for a trophy. That is what we are planning on.”
• Clayton Donally (103, 45-7, 22 pins), Matthew Middleton (152, 42-11, 23 pins), Wyatt Selman (182, 30-6, 17 pins) and Blaine Buchanan (205, 43-0, 27 pins) were Project’s divisional winners.
“Pick up as many bonus points as you can to win a trophy,” Kaczmarek said. “It will be a tight race and you are going to need those bonus points.”
• Malta qualified 10 wrestlers for the tournament, with seven of them wrestling at state last year said veteran coach Ryan LaBrie. The Mustangs have two state placers back in seniors Trey Simanton (138, 38-2) and and Kaden Moore (145, 37-11). Simanton is a three-time state placer and Moore has stood atop the podium two times.
LaBrie said the Mustangs need to "wrestle to their potential" to be in the trophy hunt.
"They are a tough bunch of guys," he said. "It's a lot of the same team from a year ago. It's always in the back of our minds. When the smoke clears, I'd expect we are somewhere toward the top of the pile."
• Forsyth standout junior Michael Weber (145, 41-0, 31 pins) will be going for his third title. His brother, Montana State-Northern bound Nathan Weber (132, 29-8), will try to cap his career with his second title. Nathan Weber was the 113-pound State B-C champion as a freshman in 2015. Nathan Weber was the state runner-up at 120 in 2016 and 126 in 2017.
• Curt Synness of 406mtsports.com and the Helena Independent Record reports that four years ago the Jefferson wrestling team only had six members.
This year, longtime JHS coach Troy Humphrey boasted 27 grapplers, and last week the Panthers captured the Southern B-C championship in Columbus with 231 points.
Jefferson qualified 14 wrestlers — with three divisional titlists — for the tourney. It was the Panthers' first Southern crown since 1998, and the most state qualifiers in school history.
• Returning state champions from last year, and their current weight class, include: Reyling, Glasgow, 132; Currier, Colstrip, 138; Michael Weber, Forsyth, 145; Garrett Graves, Eureka, 182; Whitedirt, Colstrip, 285.