BILLINGS — It's a new beginning for the wrestling team at Custer County District High School in Miles City.
The Cowboys of first-year head coach Mike Etchemendy claimed first place at the nine-team 47th Annual Forsyth Matador wrestling tournament on Saturday, edging Laurel by eight points. For the Cowboys, the victory is a step in the right direction after finishing last at the 2017 State A tournament with 18.5 points. Etchemendy said his team knows it was a small tournament in the second week of the season, but strong performances lead to a solid foundation. He also said the tourney featured quality competition.
"We took last at state last year. The boys are really stepping up this year. And we won the Sidney tournament's C Pool, the Toilet Bowl," he said. "It's like, 'Guys, you have to start somewhere.' We are digging out of a hole. Can you dig out of a hole? We are climbing out of a hole. We are 4-0 in duals and we beat Glendive in Glendive 30-29 on Tuesday and Glendive is a good team. They are a scrappy bunch."
The Cowboys had four individuals win their brackets in Forsyth in Braxton Scheeler (113), Damian Leidholt (120), Brenan Hager (126) and Tyler Harms (205). At 126 and 205 pounds it was Cowboy vs. Cowboy as Jake Murnion and Hayes Meged, respectively, both finished second. Miles City's Kon Speelmon (152) was also second, losing to Forsyth star Michael Weber by technical fall.
Scheeler, a sophomore, is the only returning state placer as he was fifth last year at 103. Meged was sixth at the Sidney tourney.
Speelmon had one of the tournament's critical matches, Etchemendy said. Speelmon was losing before rallying for the semifinal win.
"He was losing to the Laurel kid 5-0 and just flipped a switch and took the kid down and put him on his back and stuck him," recalled Etchemendy. "We looked like we were losing four points and ended up gaining four points. It was an eight-point swing. We won by eight. It was like a pick-6 in football. He changed the whole outlook. Laurel was about to get four points from us, but we took four points away from them and put it on our tally. It changed the whole thing. The Laurel kid was dominating us. Something switched and he figured out he could get it done and did it."
For Etchemendy, taking the Miles City coaching position has been a homecoming. Before coaching the Cowboys this year, he guided the Sacred Heart Parish School middle school wrestling team in Miles City for three years. Etchemendy wrestled for the Cowboys under Jack Raymond and graduated high school in 1985. He was a three-time state champion. The Cowboys were second in the State A team race Etchemendy's sophomore year, won the title his junior season and shared the crown during his senior year in 1985 with Laurel. While Etchemendy was off to college, the Cowboys were once again State A champions in 1986.
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Now 50, Etchemendy is a high school head coach for the first time. When he is not working with his team, Etchemendy is a pharmacist at his own company, Big Sky Pharmacy.
"We've been kind of down the last few years in the program and we started building it back up through the feeder program, AAU and junior high, and when there was a vacancy open, I was like, 'I don't want anybody to just come in,' " Etchemendy, who redshirted as a wrestler at Oklahoma before transferring to Wyoming to finish his career, said. "I figured I had the responsibility to do it. I didn't want to see all the work we had put in the last three or four years turning this around (go to waste). I wanted somebody to follow this through, so I figured I had to do it."
The Cowboys have 22 kids in the wrestling room and their coach says it is a hard-working and accountable group. "We may not be better than our opponents, but we are going to outwork them," Etchemendy said.
For any squad, the dates of the divisional and state tournaments are the ones always circled on the calendar. And while the Cowboys know those tourneys are the ultimate goal, they also have the 60th Annual Cowboy Invitational Jan. 12-13 marked as a special event. So far, 24 teams are entered. Etchemendy was a three-time Cowboy champion.
"I don't really sleep. I'm just so excited about the whole season," he said. "Honestly, I can't wait until it's over. I'm having a blast, but not getting any rest. At 50, it keeps you young."
On the coaching staff this year are former Chinook standout Robert Stroh, former Billings West wrestler Kyle Pryor and Dan Fox of Miles City.
Etchemendy jokes that with the Cowboys' start this year he has about "35 years of being undefeated" as a Miles City Cowboy, admitting there were defeats as a Wyoming Cowboy. And while he knows setbacks will come, he said the life lessons wrestling teaches will have his team prepared for it. The team's motto this year is "Better people make better Cowboy wrestlers and so we focus on character."
"We don't worry about the results," he said. "The results will take care of themselves."