BILLINGS — Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark was a pretty busy place on Saturday.

How could it not be, with the 14th annual Montana Open wrestling tournament setting a participation record for the third consecutive year?

According to tourney officials, 2,115 wrestlers were registered for the meet. As of 11 a.m. on Saturday morning, there were 2,400 spectators watching the matches unfold over 14 mats. The tourney will continue on Sunday from 9 a.m. to approximately 3 p.m. 

Last year’s Montana Open had 1,945 wrestlers entered and in 2017 1,640 competed.

On Monday, there were 930 wrestlers registered and the list of entrants continued to grow over the week. Pre-registration online was available through noon on Friday. There was a 3.5-hour window of onsite sign ups on Friday evening.

“We were asking ourselves that same question and, oh my Lord, the numbers just kept exploding,” said tournament director Jason Wiers of Bozeman with a laugh when asked about this year’s record turnout. “It was unbelievable.”

Included in the tally of participants is 235 girls wrestlers. Last year was the first year a girls-only division was available and 171 girls entered. All the females entered were wrestling in the girls-only division and approximately 80 percent were double bracketing, according to tourney officials.

Angie Buckley of Bozeman has been the treasurer since the first tournament and said she remembers when the early planning discussions were held a couple of years before the tourney made its debut. She said her husband, Dan Buckley, was president of the Montana USAW at the time.

The tournament was in Bozeman the first two years, at the Valley Ice Garden and then Montana State University. Since, it has been held at Metra every year except 2011, when it was at the Butte Civic Center because of ongoing renovations and repairs at Metra due to the June 2010 tornado.

Buckley said organizers “are in total awe this weekend,” due to the large participation numbers.

“They started talking about how do we bring AAU, Little Guy and USAW wrestling into one arena and have one champion and good wrestling?” she said. “This was the concept that came out of that. … It’s just amazing. It’s really cool. We all felt like we were beating up on each other and this gave us one weekend to get together and do that.”

While wrestlers came from Montana, Wyoming, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Idaho, Arizona, Washington, Colorado, Utah, Oregon and California, there were also grapplers entered from the Canadian provinces of Manitoba and Alberta.

Siblings Landon (12), Paydon (10) and Madilyn de la Garza (5) of the North Montana Wrestling Club of Great Falls were treated when their grandparents traveled from San Antonio to take in the event.

“They planned a trip around coming to watch the kids all at the Montana Open,” said the children’s mother, Brittney de la Garza. “It’s their fourth year wrestling and they wanted to make the trip this time.

“The kids have been over the moon. We have been sending them videos for years and now they actually get to watch and film videos on their own.”

Brittney said the family enjoys the tournament, saying, “The kids have a blast and it’s a nice end-of-the-year celebration for them. Everyone in our family looks forward to the Montana Open every year.”

Nalani Miller’s two sons, Eli (8) and Austin (6) Miller, were competing with the Williston, North Dakota, Coyotes team. The two young wrestlers were being cheered on by their uncle, Kaulana Akina, who flew in to Billings from Hawaii.

Nalani said she didn’t tell her sons until they were on their way to Billings that their uncle would be in attendance.

“They are really excited,” Nalani said. “They are super excited to have their family here. We just wrestled in Alexander, North Dakota, this week and a friend of ours from Midland, Texas, came to watch. We have a lot of supportive friends and they are all big into wrestling.”

It is the first year Eli and Austin have wrestled, but Nalani said she has shared their matches with many members of the family.

“At other tournaments I’ve left my phone on video chat for my mom or sister to watch,” she said. “If we have really good reception or service, I’ll go on Facebook Live. My sons have had 40 to 100 people watching their matches.”

For his part, Austin was excited to try his favorite move, “a double-leg slam” and he also was hoping to use a cradle to get a pin.

Chris Nedens, a coach with the Hardin Wrestling Club, said his team had 30 wrestlers competing.

“It’s close and a great competition,” he said. “It’s 40 to 45 miles down the road and it’s really a premier tournament in the northwestern part of the United States.”

Nedens, a four-time state champ with the Bulldogs from 1998-2001, was a 141-pound NJCAA national champion at North Idaho College in 2003 and also wrestled at Nebraska. He said the young wrestlers on the Hardin team “look forward to this every year. They come to the high school state tournament and they see the high school kids win their state championships and want to compete here like the older kids.”

Nedens, who started wrestling at the age of 5, said the experience of wrestling at the Metra would be fun for a youth.

“I would have to think so,” he said. “Some don’t probably understand it; but for the kids who do, it’s pretty cool.”

The Glasgow Wrestling Club had 38 wrestlers competing said Jory Casterline, a coach with the club, and head coach of Glasgow High School. Overall, 90 are in the club. He said the club puts emphasis on the Montana Open since it’s held at Metra, home of the Montana High School Association state tournament.

“We preach that mentality, you have to get in the Metra each year so when you get to high school you want to have wrestled 20 or 30 matches before you get here,” he said.

One of the youth wrestlers at Glasgow, 8-year-old Aiden Aune, probably summed up many of the young wrestlers’ thoughts when he said he was happy to be spending a nice spring day inside the Metra.

“I love wrestling,” the smiling Aune said. “I like to wrestle. I love it.”

Email Gazette Deputy Sports Editor John Letasky at john.letasky@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @GazSportsJohnL

Deputy Sports Editor, Billings Gazette

Deputy Sports Editor at the Billings Gazette

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