BILLINGS — It was a day of mixed emotions in Belgrade on Friday.
The Panthers, who joined Class AA this season, will be hosting the Eastern AA seeding tournament on Saturday beginning at 11 a.m. at the Belgrade Special Events Center.
But they'll be without star wrestler John Mears, whose bid for a fourth consecutive state championship has been ended by concussions.
Mears was the 152-pound State A champion last year. He captured the 132-pound state bracket in 2018 and the 120-pound division in 2017. He was a candidate to join the four-time state champions club, which numbers 35.
“We were holding out hope until the last minute,” Belgrade coach Sean Dellwo said.
At the Mining City Duals in December, Mears suffered his latest concussion. He also battled concussions in football in the fall.
“It is one of the toughest experiences I’ve had in my life as a coach and even as a wrestler I never experienced anything like this,” Dellwo said. “He (Mears) is one of those kids you root for. Ask anybody around the state, they all root for John Mears. He is a 4.0 student and does things in the community. To have it end the way it did is kind of tough.”
Dellwo explained that Mears’ future and health were too important to risk.
“It was one of those things, John will do some awesome things in his lifetime,” Dellwo said, adding that Mears wants to become a teacher.
This season, Mears was 6-0 with three pins, two technical falls and a major decision.
Dellwo said Mears is handling the situation well.
"Actually we just had a conversation not that long ago. He said he doesn't feel like it hit him yet. He's in a good position and a good state of mind," Dellwo said. "He's had to deal with it since December. We all knew when it happened there was a chance this could be the case. As the time went on and he wasn't cleared, we had an inkling this would be the situation."
Since suffering his latest concussion, Mears has still strived to be an active member of the team. Dellwo said he will be at the state tournament helping out and encouraging his teammates.
“He hasn’t missed a single practice and he is there and like another coach,” Dellwo said. “The cool thing about that is he knows a lot about the sport of wrestling, and so he has been able to help kids quite a bit. The kids still respect him and look at him like a leader. It’s been nice to have him around.”
Transition to Class AA
Many people associated with the school and Panthers wrestling program are excited about hosting the seven-team Eastern division meet, which serves as a state tournament qualifier. The top eight in each weight class advance to the state tournament Feb. 14-15 at First Interstate Arena at MetraPark.
The Eastern AA division consists of Belgrade, Billings Senior, Billings Skyview, Billings West, Bozeman, Great Falls and Great Falls CMR. Bozeman won the State AA title last year, Great Falls was second and Senior was third.
“Absolutely, it’s a great opportunity for our community to see what Eastern AA wrestling looks like,” Dellwo said. “I would argue it’s probably the toughest in the state as far as divisions go. It’s really good for our community and a nice entryway for AA as an upcoming program.”
Dellwo said the Panthers, who finished eighth at the State A tourney last year, have worked hard in their first year in Class AA.
Belgrade finished 7-12 in duals with a victory over Helena and two over Missoula Hellgate.
The schedule didn’t change much as Belgrade still wrestled at the annual tourneys at which it has always competed in Polson, Butte, Great Falls, Bozeman and Missoula.
Belgrade did add duals with Class AA teams, which replaced duals with Class A teams. The Panthers also competed at the Class AA Duals instead of the Class A Duals.
“Wrestling is an individual sport,” Dellwo said. “Tough kids are tough kids. They will wrestle in the same tournaments and see those kids all the time anyways. There is not the awe factor of being in AA, we’ve been there and done that.”
Overall, Dellwo is pleased with his team’s progress.
“They are working their tails off,” he said. “We have a fair amount of seniors. But we are freshmen and sophomore heavy on our team. … I have been real proud of the way they worked and I think we’ll have some good things happen in the next week and a half.
“We always set pretty lofty goals, so meeting them or whatever is a tall order, but we’ve done pretty well as far as being competitive. We have been more competitive in matches this year than we have since I took over the program six years ago.”