By George Ferguson
The Havre High wrestling team is used to being the favorite when it arrives at the All-Class State Wrestling Tournament, and in the past it has usually delivered on those high expectations.
But this year is a different story. The youthful 2002-2003 Blue Pony wrestling team isn't considered the favorite in Class A. Instead, most prognosticators would consider the Ponies an underdog.
Being labeled an underdog is just fine with Havre High wrestling coach Scott Filius and his young team.
"In years past, we have had a lot of pressure on us at the state tournament," Filius said. "And we have liked that pressure because we felt like we earned it. But this season, I don't think anybody is expecting much out of us, which I think will be good for some of these kids."
Only a handful of wrestlers returned from last season's team, which finished second in the state tournament.
"I think that not having a lot of pressure will be especially good for the kids who have been on our really good teams in the past," Filius said. "They can go out and relax knowing that they have nothing to lose. And obviously it is good to relieve some of the pressure on the kids that haven't been in this situation before."
If some people aren't giving Havre much of a shot at a Class A team title, they cannot afford to overlook the Ponies either. Havre scored a Central A divisional best 259 points last weekend in Butte while qualifying a team-high 15 wrestlers for this weekend's state tourney.
The Ponies' performance at divisionals moved them up to sixth in the latest Class A power poll while six wrestlers earned rankings in the top five of their respective weight classes.
Filius has always been honest and realistic when it comes to his team. He believes they can make some noise and score some points in Billings.
"I don't think we have a realistic chance at winning a state championship," Filius said. "But we do have 15 kids in the tournament and we are wrestling well right now. I think we do have a real good opportunity to score a lot of points."
Leading the way for the Ponies is junior Jeff Hedges, who is seeking a second-straight state championship in the 112-pound weight class. Hedges has just four losses on the season and three of those have come at the hands of Great Falls High freshman sensation Kody Tolliver, who will only be watching Hedges this weekend. Tolliver is the heavy favorite to capture the 112-pound title in the AA meet. Hedges' only other loss this season came in Miles City to Sidney's Ryan Hecker, who is ranked second in Class A just ahead of Hedges.
Junior Daine Solomon has probably been Havre's hottest wrestler as of late. He is coming into the Billings Metra ranked fourth at 152 pounds and is Havre's only other divisional champion. Filius believes that Hedges and Solomon have great opportunities to bring individual state titles to Havre. The Ponies also boast ranked wrestlers at 171 and 189 pounds. Sophomore Chad Seely is ranked fourth at 171 pounds while senior Nick Johnson is fifth at 189 pounds. Filius also believes those two wrestlers have great chances at placing this weekend.
"I think, along with Jeff and Daine, Nick Johnson and Chad Seely should definitely be favored to place," Filius said. "Where they end up we'll just have to wait and see. I also think Chad Zuelke has a good shot to place as well. He has been wrestling really tough lately."
Zuelke and Gray Chagnon are Havre's other two wrestlers who bring a ranking to Billings. Zuelke is ranked sixth at 140 pounds while Chagnon is ranked fifth at 98 pounds.
The rest of the large Havre contingent going to Billings includes Greg Leyba at 135 pounds, Scott Sheppard at 119, Matt Springer at 152, Mike Sutherland at 125, Rick Griffis at 145, Bill Zuelke at 275, Kevin Velk at 112, Guy Seely at 160 and Colby Mader at 189.
If Havre is to sneak into one of the top three spots, it will have to get by a strong group of teams from the Western A. The Libby Loggers, who are coached by Havre native Jay Graham, are the top-ranked team in Class A. However, Sidney, Polson, Columbia Falls and Corvallis all have teams that are loaded enough to win a state championship.
"I think that we definitely have a shot at getting in the top five spots and we could sneak in there for a trophy," Filius said. "It will all depend on how we wrestle as a team."
"Right now, we are wrestling the best we have all season and we're having a lot of fun," Filius added. "I think we are finally peaking as a team and this is the right time for that to happen."
The action was to get under way at 10 a.m. this morning. The tournament will continue all day Saturday, with the final round scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. Saturday night.