By George Ferguson
The 2004 Class A state wrestling tournament didn't go anything like Havre High senior Jeff Hedges planned.
Hedges came into the tournament with a 31-0 record, was a two-time defending state champion and considered by media, coaches and fans as one of the top wrestlers in the state of Montana at any weight class.
As everyone knows by now, Hedges was upset in the 125-pound semifinal on Saturday morning, ending his bid for a third-straight state championship. Hedges was on his way to the finals when, with a mere 11 seconds remaining in his match with Sidney standout Byron Kuylen, he got caught in an inescapable cradle and was pinned with just seconds left in the match.
End of story, career over, right? Not even close.
There was an extraordinary amount of memorable moments at this year's all-class state wrestling tournament, as is the case every year. But of all the moments that stood out for me, the five or six hours following Hedge's loss to Kuylen are ones I won't soon forget.
That is because in the moments following the loss to Kuylen, and in his final two matches of high school career, Hedges showed me more about what kind of a wrestler he is, and even more importantly, what kind of person he is.
After the semifinal loss, I thought that there was no possible way Hedges could find the motivation or desire to come back and wrestle. He disappeared for some time after the match and although I never asked him, I know he went to one of those places where an individual goes after a heartbreaking defeat. It is a place that isn't discussed, isn't preplanned and it isn't even thought about because you never think you'll lose in that situation. But you know what I mean if you have ever been there before.
Somewhere in that lonely place, Hedges managed to gather himself together and returned to the mat to destroy two opponents and take home a third-place medal. Which is what impressed me most about Jeff this weekend.
Jeff didn't just beat his two opponents, he tried to earn extra team points by earning a pin or technical fall because his team was still fighting for a trophy at that point in the tournament.
Hedges' summed up his final two matches in very simple and very mature (for an 18-year-old) terms.
"It was hard to want to wrestle after the semifinal match," Hedges said. "But you don't quit on your team. We were still in this tournament and we needed points. You don't ever quit wrestling until the tournament is over."
That statement was all I needed to hear to know what kind of person Jeff Hedges is. And his head coach Scott Filius agreed.
"There isn't a finer person in this building than Jeff," Filius said on Saturday night. "I know coming back and wrestling after the loss to Kuylen was really difficult for him, but it just shows what a mature person Jeff is and what a real champion he is.
"Some wrestlers might have packed up and went home after a loss like that," Filius added. "When your at that level it's sort of natural, but Jeff is a competitor and he wasn't going to quit."
I was thinking the same thing as Filius at the time of Hedges' loss to Kuylen. One thing is certain at the state wrestling tournament, you see a lot of very poor sportsmanship. Some of it can even be justifiable. Wrestling is one of the most mentally challenging sports on earth. The conditioning, dieting, blood and sweat builds and builds to a boiling point some high school student athletes can't handle.
Any time you lose in high school it feels like the end of the world. And when you're a two-time defending state champion and you lose in stunning fashion, the disappointment is even greater. But Hedges remained composed, even in the first few moments after the match was over. He didn't throw a temper tantrum, he didn't scream or shout. Instead, he shook hands with Kuylen and Sidney head coach Guy Melby and then left the mat, just as he has done a thousand times before. True sportsmanship was shown in those moments.
But Hedges' demeanor after the match didn't mean he did not care or was not heart broken, because it was easy to see that he was. But again, his maturity won out over his bitterness.
"I learned that losing a wrestling match is not the worst thing in the world," Hedges said. "I was very disappointed, but there are a lot bigger things in life than losing one match."
And this season, Jeff really did only lose one match. Some people who were in Billings for that loss might believe Jeff's legacy as a high school wrestler had been tarnished. But people who have been around HHS wrestling know his imprint on Havre High wrestling is lasting.
"I know I have had a great career," Hedges said. "I don't think that this loss changes that. My high school career has been a great experience and I have really enjoyed it."
Pretty humble words from a remarkable young man. But this story won't end in Billings and it won't end in disappointment. Jeff has aspirations to wrestle in college and he was even able to turn the setback in Billings into a positive for his future.
"I wasn't completely sure about wrestling in college until I lost this match," Hedges said. "But after this, there is no question. I have to go to college and wrestle because this really motivated me."
In the world of spoiled athletes and negativity surrounding sports, Jeff showed this weekend how special an athlete can still be. Even in times of adversity, there are still kids out there who exemplify sportsmanship and maturity. For aspiring young athletes, Jeff's example is a good one to follow.
Wherever he goes and whatever he does after high school, this weekend showed that Jeff Hedges is a winner. One loss in high school isn't the end of the world because Jeff is one of those people that will end up winning in life.