By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sportsfirstname.lastname@example.org
All of the dieting, all of the sweating, all of the early mornings and late nights will come to a culmination on Friday morning when the All-Class State wrestling tournament gets under way at the Billings Metra Park.
For the No. 2-ranked Havre High wrestling team, it is the final stop on what has been an exciting journey this season. A month ago the Ponies were looked at by many as the odd-on favorite to win the Class A state championship this season, after finishing sixth a year ago.
But as the 2005 state tournament draws nearer, it is the two-time defending state champion Sidney Eagles, who are the tourney favorites. The Eagles come into the state tournament locked, loaded and poised to defend their turf.
Still, HHS head coach Scott Filius said that while unseating the powerful Eagles will be a difficult task, he believes that his team is more than up to the challenge.
"I really think this tournament will come down to two teams," Filius said. "I would love to think that we could wrap it up by Saturday afternoon, but really I think it will come down to us and Sidney battling it out on Saturday night.
Don't get Filius wrong, he knows that there are a host of talented teams in this year's field. Polson has been ranked third most of this season after finishing second at the state meet a year ago. Hardin finished third last season and is once again in the hunt for a trophy this season. There is also former Central A member Anaconda, who might just be the sleeper in the field, just as it was a year ago.
Whitefish, Libby, Columbia Falls and Frenchtown are also bringing strong teams to Billings this year, but in Filius' mind, none of them have the depth that the Ponies and Eagles possess, which makes who will win the state championship this year even more complicated to figure out.
"I think for us it will come down to the wrestlebacks," Filius said. "I think we are a little deeper than Sidney from top-to-bottom. They will place quite a few kids in the finals, so we need to win the battle on the back end of the tournament in order to be there on Saturday night."
While Sidney will most likely send as many as five wrestlers into Saturday night's championship round, the Ponies have a few individual contenders themselves.
Sophomore Evan Hinebauch leads the way with only one loss this season. Hinebauch has been ranked first at 160 from the second weekend of the season and has had a fantastic first year after transferring to HHS.
At 171 pounds, Filius is hoping that senior Dustin Haukenberry can back up his two Washington state championships with a Montana one to finish his high school career. Chad Seely will also be a heavy favorite to capture the 189 pound title. But perhaps Havre's best shot at an individual title will come at heavyweight where sophomore Matt Schnittgen has been nothing short of dominant this season. Schnittgen finished fourth last season and has lost just once in 2005 to Kalispell standout Brandon Hoffenbacker.
"I think that we have a good chance to get four and maybe even a couple more than that into the finals," Filius said. "But it is easy to say that in the newspaper. The kids know they have to go out and wrestle and win on the mat. In this tournament, nothing is ever easy."
Indeed, the 2005 Class A state tournament will feature seven returning state champions and more than 30 individuals, who placed last season. Havre returns five individuals who placed last season. The total jumps to eight if you count Haukenberry's Washington state championship and Hinebauch, who placed at the 2004 B-C tournament as a freshman for Chinook, as well as Mike Hipple, who placed as a sophomore at the Washington state tourney a year ago.
If the Ponies are to win a state championship in 2005, which has been their ultimate goal since last February, they will have to get a better all-around individual performance this season from their entire lineup.
"We have a lot of sophomores who will really have to step up this weekend," Filius said. "Guys like Nate Harada, Beau LaSalle, Billy Wagner and Clint Bradbury may not be favorites to win the whole thing yet, but those are the guys who are going to have to score a lot of points for us to do well this weekend.
"It will be a tough task for some of them because every single weight class is very competitive this year," he added. "But they have all wrestled really well this season and I think if they are at their best this weekend you are going to see some good things out of this team."
The good news for the Ponies is that they qualified 19 wrestlers for the state tournament. Not only are they one of the favorites to win a state title, but they have more wrestlers competing than any other team in the field. Havre also had 11 divisional champions which has set them up for very good draws in most weight classes.
Here is look at the Blue Pony lineup for this weekend:
98 - Freshmen Chad Ranes and Ryan Shelstad will both compete in a wide-open 98-pound division. As usual, 98 pounds is loaded with freshman, which means the state title is always up for grabs. Ranes will have a less difficult draw, but Filius said that both competitors have a chance to place this weekend and Ranes may be one of the favorites to capture a state championship.
105 - Sophomore Billy Wagner came within a match of placing at the 2004 state tournament. He captured the 2005 divisional championship last Saturday and is a definite contender to place. However, fellow sophomore Jesse Obergfell of Sidney is in Wagner's draw and is a defending state champion. Frenchtown's Beau Nordahl is also a solid favorite this weekend.
112 - Sophomore Clint Bradbury finished sixth at 98 pounds as a freshman and is the Central A champ this season. Bradbury is in one of the deeper weights this season with Hardin's Brandon Uffelman and Anaconda's Kevin Fischer figuring to be the top two contenders.
119 - Sophomore Nate Harada is competing in perhaps the premier weight class of the Class A tournament. While Harada is considered a contender to place this weekend, the 119-pound division is loaded with talented wrestlers. Brandon Stedman of Frenchtown and Aric Tarr of Columbia Falls are both returning state champions and have already squared off once this season, with Stedman ending Tarr's two-year undefeated streak. Both are nursing injuries coming into state, which might give hope to the likes of Harada and Libby's Kyle Ames.
125 - Sophomore Beau LaSalle returns to the state tournament after placing fourth as a freshman. LaSalle will be a state title contender at 125 this weekend, but he will have to contend with Sidney's Ryan Hecker. Hecker is a defending state champion and rolls into the state tournament with just one loss on the season.
130 - Gray Chagnon is making his third straight trip to the state tourney, but he is competing in another loaded weight class. Sidney's Byron Kuylen is a two-time state champion and finished second at 125 pounds last season. Derek Sloan of Anaconda will also be a tough draw this weekend.
135 - Junior Mike Hipple is considered the favorite to capture a state title at 135 pounds this weekend. Hipple competed well for Havre at 130 for most of the season before moving up a weight three weeks ago. Hipple's main test should come from Sidney's Craig Dunn or Whitefish's Pete Starr.
140 - Mike Sutherland is making his third trip to the state tournament, having placed sixth last year at 130 pounds. Sutherland's weight class includes perhaps Class A's most dominant wrestler in Sidney's Doug Copeland, who is a returning state champion.
145 - Junior Adam Burrington is making his second straight trip to the state tourney. Burrington lost the Central A championship to Lewistown's Dustin Scotten a week ago. Scotten, although injured, is the heavy favorite to capture the 145-pound state championship this weekend.
152 - Dallas Thompson is also making a second straight trip to Billings. Thompson should contend to place this weekend after just missing out on placing a year ago. Hardin's Jeff Brokaw is the clear favorite to win a state title at 152 pounds, after finishing second at state the last two seasons.
160 - Sophomore Evan Hinebauch will be trying to cap off a tremendous first season at HHS with a 160-pound state championship. Hinebauch's only loss this season came at the hands of a wrestler from North Dakota a month ago in Miles City. If Hinebauch is to capture a state championship, he will have to defeat Sidney's Gresh Melby in the semifinals. Melby is the 145-pound defending state champion and Hinebauch narrowly defeated him at the Mining City Duals in Butte in December.
171 - Havre has two contenders to place this weekend at 171. Cody Seely should place this weekend and transfer Dustin Haukenberry is certainly a favorite to capture the state championship. Haukenberry won two Washington 5A state titles. Polson's Kevin Owen and Jake Spencer of Libby are also solid contenders.
189 - Senior Chad Seely is making his third straight trip to the state tournament and is once again a favorite to capture a state title. Seely finished a disappointing fifth last year at 189, but has been dominant all season. Libby's Jake Graham will also be in good shape to compete with Seely for the state championship.
215 - Last year the 215-pound weight class was one of the deepest at the state tournament. This season it could be wide open and Havre seniors Bill Zuelke and Tyler Wheeler will both have a shot at placing. Zuelke is still recovering from a knee injury, but could ultimately compete for a spot in the finals Saturday night if he wrestles well.
HWT - Sophomore Matt Schnittgen is at the head of this year's heavyweight class after finishing fourth a year ago. Schnittgen's main competition will come from Dustin Merrit of Sidney and Troy Parker of Whitefish. Senior Stephen Brown will also be expected to score points for the Ponies this weekend after finishing second at the Central A divisional in Havre.