By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sportsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Since the beginning of December, Havre High wrestling coach Scott Filius has said that his young Blue Pony team is a much-improved squad from top to bottom compared to the team had last season.
So far, the Ponies have lived up to Filius' expectations. Havre's regular season strides culminated last weekend with its second-straight Central A divisional championship, as the Ponies dominated the field in Browning.
Now Havre will set its sights on a much loftier goal - bringing home a trophy from this weekend's Class A state wrestling tournament in Billings.
After a rare finish out of the top 10 last season, Filius believes that his team will be in the mix for a trophy Saturday night in Billings.
He contributes much of that possible success to the development of some very talented freshman. But the fact that HHS qualified 18 wrestlers for the state meet won't hurt one bit either.
"I wasn't sure how deep of a team we would be when the season started," Filius said. "But some of our freshman and sophomores have progressed nicely, and as a result we are a pretty deep and competitive team. I think that shows in how many kids we are taking to state this year."
Of course Filius knows quantity doesn't always translate into trophies. Last season, the Ponies took a large number of wrestlers to the state meet but placed just three.
Two of those wrestlers are gone in graduated seniors Nick Johnson and Greg Leyba. With the talent in Class A this season, Filius cautions that it will still take his team's best effort of the season in order to bring some hardware back to Havre High.
"There are some very good teams out there right now and Sidney looks like the best of all of us," Filius said. "They just have too many kids who should make the finals. It will be pretty tough for someone to catch them if they wrestle well.
"Libby and Corvallis are also very strong," Filius added. "After those three teams, I think you have to say that us and Hardin will be right there too."
Sidney is ranked first in the final Class A power poll heading into this weekend, and like Havre, the Eagles are coming off a dominant performance at their respective divisional tournaments.
Western A champion Libby is ranked second this week, and Hardin is ranked third, followed by the Ponies at fourth. Whitefish and Corvallis are fifth and sixth, respectively, with Anaconda, Polson, Columbia Falls and Laurel rounding out the Class A top 10.
Individually, heading the list of Havre's 18 qualifiers is senior Jeff Hedges at 125 pounds. Hedges will be looking to cap a storybook career at Havre High with a third-straight state championship.
Hedges captured the 105-pound title as a sophomore and the 112-pound championship as a junior. He is currently ranked No. 1 at 125 pounds and is also trying to complete a rare feat in wrestling - a perfect season. Hedges brings a 30-0 record to the Metra this weekend.
This could be one of the toughest draws Hedges has seen as a high school wrestler.
Cole Myers of Laurel, who Hedges defeated in the 112-pound final last year, is currently ranked second and could potentially be Hedges' final opponent for the second straight year.
Sidney's Byron Kuylen is ranked third and has been ranked ahead of Hedges for some portions of the season, despite Hedges' domination across the state.
And while Hedges is excited about the last state tournament of his career, he admits that the Class A ranking system will serve as motivation heading into this weekend.
"It made me a little upset when they had (Kuylen) ranked higher than me," Hedges said. "It has just made me want to wrestle him even more. For them to put him over me, I just don't see how they could even consider it. I know rankings don't matter much, but it has given me some good motivation.
"I'm not really nervous," Hedges added. "I'm more anxious than anything. I just want to get there, get on the mat and start wrestling."
Hedges has plenty of reason to be supremely confident this weekend, and his coach is feeling equally confident about his star wrestler.
"Jeff has been dominant all season," Filius said. "There are going to be a couple of tough kids in his way in (Cole) Myers and (Byron) Kuylen, but Jeff is wrestling so well right now that I just don't see anyone beating him. He is that good. He is so well prepared both mentally and physically."
Besides Hedges, Filius is also hoping several other Havre standouts will step up and make a push towards the finals as well.
Junior Chad Seely (23-2), ranked third at 189 pounds, is one of the kids that Filius expects big things from in Billings.
At 160 pounds, Brett Michels (22-10) and Guy Seely (25-13) will hopefully combine to give Havre some much-needed extra team points. Michels defeated Seely for the Central A divisional championship, and are currently ranked No. 4 and No. 5, respectively. Sophomore Gray Chagnon (9-10) will also be looked upon to carry some of the load at 105 pounds as well.
"I think that Chad Seely has a real good shot to reach the finals," Filius said. "And both Brett Michels and Guy Seely are peaking right now. Those guys all have a real good shot at going very deep in this tournament."
Another wrestler who has a very good chance of making a run at a state championship is freshman Matt Schnittgen (38-4).
Schnittgen has been one of the most consistent point-earners for the Ponies all season long. He comes into the tourney ranked second at 275 pounds and will likely have to battle defending state champion Kevin Bertelsen of Libby.
Schnittgen is just one of five freshman who will have an impact this weekend for Havre High.
Clint Bradbury (20-8) and Billy Wagner (17-9) are both ranked at 98 pounds and finished first and second, respectively at the divisional. Beau LaSalle has had a solid rookie season at 112 pounds going 19-12 on the year. Nate Harada (15-4) is fresh off of a Central A divisional title at 119 pounds. Logan Reichelt (10-20) will also compete at 135 pounds this weekend.
While their first state tournament experience may be a bit overwhelming, Hedges has offered some solid advice for his young teammates.
"It can be a little intimidating. I know it was for me," Hedges said of the state tournament. "They just have to remember it's the same as every match this season. There are a lot of people and it gets pretty loud, but they have to treat it as any other match."
The Ponies will also have some seasoned experience in this tournament from the likes of senior Scott Sheppard (17-15) and juniors Colby Mader (3-1) and Bill Zuelke (21-9).
Zuelke has come on strong of late and is another wrestler who could go deep in the new 215-pound draw. Sophomore Michael Sutherland (23-15) is making his second-straight state tournament appearance at 130 pounds.
Rounding out the Blue Pony roster will be Adam Burrington (5-10) at 140 pounds, Dallas Thompson (9-7) at 171 pounds and Cody Seely (10-17) at 152 pounds.
Saturday night might seem like a month from Friday morning, when the wrestling actually begins, both Filius and Hedges are confident that good things are within the Ponies' reach this weekend.
"We definitely should have more kids wrestling on Saturday than last year," Hedges said. "Our freshman are looking good, Chad Seely has a good bracket and a couple of our seniors should be right there."
Said Filius: "It is really tough to predict where we could end up. We pretty much know what Sidney will do, and maybe Libby. But after that, things are really wide open. If our kids wrestle like they have been, we have a really good chance to do something special at this tournament."
The Class A state tournament is part of the Montana All-Class wrestling tournament. Wrestling will get under way Friday morning and continue with the finals on Saturday night. All of the action will take place at the Metra Park in Billings.