BILLINGS — As Flathead paraded into Rimrock Auto Arena before Friday’s Class AA state wrestling tournament began, the athletes donned burnt orange shirts with the names of each of the school’s 24 qualifiers for the state wrestling tournament emblazoned across the back.
One word was printed above the names in bold, impossible-to-miss black letters — “UNSTOPPABLE.”
When matches began, however, the Braves looked anything but.
Flathead dropped six of its first seven matches to begin its state title defense.
Its fortunes changed when junior Jaden MacNeil stepped onto the mat for his first-round matchup at 132 pounds.
MacNeil dominated Butte’s Anthony Liva to earn a technical fall in four minutes flat, sparking a series of wins through the upper weights that have Flathead in first place with 133 points heading into Day 2 of the all-class event.
Bozeman, Flathead’s primary competition in Class AA, is second with 107 points, and Billings Skyview is close behind with 100.5.
“We lost a few matches that are just kind of eating at us a little bit,” Flathead head coach Jeff Thompson said. “Some of those matches, maybe we were expected to win, but that’s the state tournament.
“Jaden has been getting the ball rolling the last few weeks here. He’s just on fire. Fun to watch, just an exciting wrestler. He’s constantly on the attack.”
MacNeil went on to win a 15-5 major decision in the quarterfinals against an opponent from Bozeman. He is one of eight Braves who advanced to today’s semifinals, a number equal to Bozeman’s.
Flathead fared well in head-to-head matchups with the Hawks on Friday, going 5-2 with pins from Kenyon Fretwell, Payton Hume and Alex Paull.
As has been the case all season, the upper weights carried the water for the Braves.
Five of Flathead’s semifinalists — Garrett Rieke (160), Payton Hume (170), Tucker Nadeau (182), Michael Lee (285) and Alex Paull (285) — came from the top five weight classes.
Tilynne Vasquez and Brendan Barnes, who finished first and second, respectively, at 103 in last weekend’s Western seeding tournament, round out Flathead’s semifinalists.
“They’re our staples,” Thompson said of the upper weights.
Nadeau, the top-ranked wrestler at 182, is one of several Braves with eyes on an individual state championship after his third-place finish a year ago.
“It’d just be super cool,” Nadeau said. “I’ve worked really hard at wrestling. Never been in the finals at state or anything. I’ve just kind of progressively gotten better, so it’d be really awesome.”
Flathead also has a chance of taking the 285 title, but it will have to dethrone the king to do so.
Defending heavyweight champion Jeff Queer of Butte swept through the first two rounds with ease and will face Paull in today’s semifinals. The winner of that match could face Lee in the finals if he can get past Levi Malcolm of Billings West in the semis.
Paull’s quarterfinal victory came against Glacier’s Tre Krause, one of four Wolfpack grapplers to advance to the second round.
No Glacier athletes moved on to the semifinals, but four of its 12 state qualifiers are still alive in the consolation bracket. The Wolfpack is 10th in the team standings with 45 points.
Though Flathead has a sizable edge heading into today’s mat action, Thompson was quick to note Bozeman’s ability to put up points in a hurry. Seven of the Hawks’ eight semifinalists are favored to advance to the finals, potentially setting up fateful matches with Flathead wrestlers with individual championships — and the team state title — on the line.
“We need to finish matches,” Thompson said.
“We need to win the ones we’re supposed to win and get a few upsets and just battle, especially in those head-to-head matches with Bozeman.”