MHSA State AA Wrestling finals

Missoula Big Sky’s Izzy Moreno celebrates his first-place victory during the State AA wrestling championships on March 6 at Flathead High School in Kalispell. Moreno is the lone returning state champ from Missoula.

MISSOULA — Izzy Moreno needed only 40 seconds to record a pin in his final match of the first portion of the wrestling season on Tuesday.

The Missoula Big Sky junior takes an 11-3 record into the pause as he tries to repeat as a state champion. He’s the lone returning champ among the Missoula city wrestlers, has moved up two weight classes from 132 pounds to 145 and placed fourth at 145 in the Brian Keck Memorial Preseason National tournament in October to earn All-American status.

“He bulked up, and it’s not just fat, not just growth but because he’s lifting three times a day in the offseason,” Big Sky coach Rick Moreno said. “He wasn’t waiting for next year to come around. He was chasing next year down.

“You can see the night-and-day different in how he wrestles. Bumping up two weight classes, the hand fighting, the physical aspects are different, but he’s adapting and figuring that out. The good thing is his technique didn’t go away, his speed didn’t go away, he added strength.”

Moreno’s toughest competition at 145 seems to be Kalispell Flathead’s Fin Nadeau and Great Falls High’s Irish Furthmyre. Bozeman’s Avery Allen, the 145 champ last year, moved up to 152.

Nadeau is a three-time state runner-up at 132, 145 and 152, was second at 145 at the National High School Coaches Association tournament last year and took third at 145 at the Tri-State tournament this month. Furthmyre was second at 145 last year and fifth at 126 two years ago.

“We talk about taking you Vitamin C daily, and that ‘C’ is consistency,” Rick Moreno said. “It doesn’t matter who you wrestle, you wrestle your style. If you adjust, you’re doing something that you’re not used to doing. If you impose your will and tactics, you’ll be fine. We’ll make adjustments along the way but be certain in who you are.”

Moreno is 0-2 against Nadeau this year. The first loss was by decision, after which he made some adjustments and lost in sudden victory in their rematch. He’s 1-1 against Furthmyre, with a loss by pin and a win by tiebreaker in the rematch in the CMR Holiday Classic semifinals.

Moreno won the CMR Holiday Classic with a pin of Thompson Falls’ Trae Thilmony, who won the State B/C 132-pound title last year by upsetting three-time champ Gunnar Smith of Eureka. Thilmony won the 120-pound crown two years ago and was third at 113 as a freshman.

“Izzy is a fantastic kid,” Butte High coach Cory Johnston said. “What he did last weekend was great. Watching him work, he’s the real deal.”

Izzy Moreno is Big Sky’s lone returning state placer — he also was fifth at 120 as a freshman — following the graduation of three-time state champ Hunter Meinzen, who’s at Oregon State. He and senior Isaac Ayers, a returning state qualifier who’s signed with Division III Lutheran College in Iowa, have been looked to, to fill the leadership void.

“Isaac and Izzy are starting to pick it up,” Rick Moreno said. “Was it natural? No, because they’re quiet kids. But these guys are starting to find their voice of talking to the team, which has way more power than I can ever desire or want. You’ve got to be influenced by your peers, not a coach.”

Big Sky’s other returning state qualifiers are Ladence Running Crane (132), Daniel Petersen (138), Shaun Billingsley (152) and Cole Sandberg. The Eagles are also looking to send some girls to state in the second year of there being a girls wrestling state tournament.

Moreno is hoping to have 13 or 14 girls wrestling once the season resumes on Jan. 7. They had just one girl wrestler last year, he noted.

“We just need to pick it up with our intensity and how we drill,” he said. “How we drill in that room is going to be a direct correlation to how we perform. The good thing is those kids are hungry and read to do it. We’ll see come February.”

Sentinel surprise

Sentinel coach Jeremy LaPorte is well aware that this is a rebuilding season for the Spartans.

Their starting lineup includes nine freshmen or sophomores in the 12 weight classes; they’re unable to fill the heavyweight spot. Of the 30 wrestlers in the program, 14 are freshmen.

Sentinel has back one of its five state placers: senior Kristopher Musick, who placed fifth at 182, is wrestling again at that weight and took sixth at the CMR Holiday Classic. The Spartans have back five of their 14 state qualifiers, with the other four being sophomore Bryton Lenz (113), sophomore Evan Hafliger (126), junior Trevor Tucker (160) and junior Xander Sarbacher (205).

Tucker is the lone Spartan ranked in the most recent AA rankings, slotting in at No. 6 at 160 with a 9-3 record. At the CMR Holiday Classic, he set the MHSA record for fastest pin regardless of classification, taking down Shelby’s Ayden Davis in three seconds. That came two matches after he opened the tournament with a six-second pin of Harlem’s Hawken Haakanson.

Sentinel will be hosting the Jug Beck Rocky Mountain Classic once again this year after it was canceled by the pandemic last season. LaPorte said 33 teams, including some from outside Montana, have signed up for the Jan. 14-15 tournament.

Of note, senior Zac Crews decided to not come out for wrestling because of “an array of reasons,” LaPorte said. He was the Spartans’ highest state placer last year, taking third at 205, and he would’ve seemingly been the favorite this year as the state champ and runner-up graduated.

Hellgate hopeful

Hellgate doesn’t have any returning state placers under third-year coach John Smith.

The Knights did send seven wrestlers to the state tournament last year. Three of them are listed on the roster this season: sophomore Dillon Gunlock, junior Conor Fitzpatrick and senior Layne Cooney.

Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at frank.gogola@missoulian.com.

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