Flathead wrestling coach Jeff Thompson faces a pair of problems in the 2017-18 season, but both are good ones to have.
1.) As the defending state champion, Flathead must fight complacency and accept that it will be the top target in Class AA.
2.) With all of the talent and depth returning from the state title team, the Braves must find a way to fit all the pieces together in the way that best prepares them for divisionals and the state tournament at the end of the year.
Thompson believes his large core of seniors will maintain motivation and help mitigate the first problem. The second, he says, could be a bit trickier and might even lead to some bumps in the road.
“We’re bringing a lot of No. 2s to different dual meet tournaments, even taking our No. 2s to a major varsity AA tournament in Bozeman later in the season,” Thompson said. “We might lose a dual along here and there, but we know at that state tournament, our No. 2s are going to really, really help us.”
Flathead’s impressive depth, which allowed it to run away with the team state championship in 2016-17 despite not capturing an individual state title, is chief among reasons why it enters the season as the favorite in Class AA.
Only three of 13 wrestlers who placed at state last season were lost to graduation. A total of 19 state participants return for the Braves, led by three second-place finishers — Bryce Shaffer (120-pound), Trae Vasquez (132) and Payton Hume (152).
Vasquez, however, will miss the season after suffering a knee injury during football.
Two third-place finishers, Tucker Nadeau (182) and Michael Lee (285), also return for the Braves, who finished more than 60 points ahead of the second-place
team at state last season.
“We’re basically running a college program at the high school,” Thompson said. “(We have) a team with so much mat time, so much experience. These guys just can’t get enough wrestling. They want to work hard each and every day.
“They’re striving to get back on that podium and be state champions. They’re very self-motivated.”
Among the pack of teams chasing Flathead is Glacier, which finished 13th out of 14 teams at state last season.
The Wolfpack must replace the only individual state champion from either Kalispell school last season — Justin Gibson.
While that could prove to be a tough task, head coach Ross Dankers likes the experience and depth of his team.
“This year is the first time in a while we’ve been able to fill a team with guys that have experience and have been on the varsity mat and have some matches under their belt,” he said.
“It’s been a lot of fun to be able to start the season faster in the practice room and get the intensity rolling right away.”
Leading the charge for Glacier are the three team captains — Caden Willis (132), Adam Elerick (145) and Andrew Glynn (152). All three were among 14 wrestlers the Wolfpack sent to state last year, 12 of whom return.
“The challenge to make the varsity is definitely tougher,” Dankers said.
“We’ve had some really close wrestle-offs each week.”
Dankers hopes the increased competition within the wrestling room at Glacier will lead to improved results in the competitions that matter.
“It’s just a matter of each individual giving their best effort, and whatever happens, happens,” Dankers said.
“We have a lot of potential, and I think we’re going to see a lot of growth through the year. I think we’ve already seen a lot of growth from Day 1. I’m just excited. I hope we max out their potential.”