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George Ferguson Column: It's state week and I'm finally back in Billings

From the Fringe...

 

February 11, 2020

Havre Daily News/Colin Thompson

The Havre Blue Ponies march in the Parade of Athletes during the 2019 All-Class State Tournament last February in Billings.

For any high school wrestler, Friday morning is as special as it gets. Walking into the Metro in Billings for the Parade of Athletes is the culmination of an ultimate goal, and a goal achieved through hard work, dedication and sacrifice.

Yes, just getting to the All-Class State Wrestling Tournament is special, and for wrestlers in the Treasure State, it's a dream come true.

However, this weekend in the Metra, now named First Interstate Bank Arena, won't just be special for the more than 600 grapplers from all across Montana, it will be a big weekend for everybody who walks through the Metra doors, in whatever capacity.

Of course, it's a big week for the kids and coaches, and it's about them, but the fans make the event what it is too - and that is, the biggest high school sporting event Montana has to offer each year.

From parents and grandparents to friends and family, to Montana's rich tradition of just having so many wrestling enthusiasts, the atmosphere at the state tournament is what it is because of the throngs of fans who will flock to Billings this weekend from every corner of the state, and all points in between.

Back on the mat, you can't have a tournament of this magnitude without the officials either. And as I mentioned above, for high school wrestlers, the Metra is the Mecca, and an ultimate goal. It's no different for the referees around the state. Being selected to officiate the state tournament is one that officials consider a true honor, and many referees go back to Billings year-after-year. This year's event will include a host of area officials including former Havre Blue Ponies Eli Hinebauch and Garrett Hanson, as well as former Northern star wrestler Mike Leinwand, among others. Yes, just like the kids love to wrestle at state, the officials feel much the same way about it.

The state tournament is also a super-big media event. Those of us who have been covering sports in Montana for a long time, we know. There is no event in sports in Montana that attracts more media attention than the state tournament does. Not even the annual Cat-Griz game hands out the amount of media credentials that will be handed out for this weekend's show in Billings.

For younger members of the media, and first-time reporters, this week will be something they'll always remember. I remember my first state tournament like it was yesterday, and it took just one trip to Billings for state wrestling to become my favorite thing to cover.

And that is, perhaps why I am so excited as this week dawned. I'm excited because I'm going back to state for the first time in nearly a decade. As the sports editor at the Havre Daily News, I don't cover high school wrestling full time anymore, and so for the last decade, my reporter and photographer have made their way to Billings without me. In that time, I've missed a lot of pretty spectacular things, from the Blue Ponies to Chinook and beyond. And each year, it's felt as though I was the only member of the media in Montana who wasn't down there.

However, for the 2020 state tournament anyway, I'm going back. In all honesty, some of my favorite stories I've written and some of the best moments I've ever covered have come on this weekend in Billings. I went down there for the first 10 years of my journalism career, and I've truly missed it.

So, to the wrestlers and coaches, to the officials and MHSA workers, the volunteers, the cheerleaders, managers and all the fans, have a great state wrestling weekend. After a long time away from it, I know I plan, too.

 

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