BILLINGS — “It’s fireworks.”
That’s the phrase longtime Billings West wrestling coach Jeremy Hernandez has often compared the action and atmosphere to when his Bears and crosstown rival Billings Senior have competed the last few years.
Yes, when the No. 2 Broncs and No. 3 Golden Bears clash, the action on the mat is a relentless, back-and-forth show and the lively crowd is very energetic.
It’s fun to be in the Broncs gym or the Golden Dome on those nights.
And if you’ve been in the gym in any capacity when the Broncs and Bears tussle, you walk away pretty impressed.
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Get ready to multiply that excitement level by 100 this weekend as the All-Class State Wrestling Tournament comes to First Interstate Arena at MetraPark for the 32nd time.
There are some compelling storylines for fans to follow this year, which is why officials at the Montana High School Association believe the 2022 event could draw record-setting crowds.
In no particular order, here are some main event caliber reasons why wrestlers, fans and coaches are looking forward to the event:
• Last year’s boys state wrestling tournament was held at three different sites due to the coronavirus pandemic and the girls tourney made its debut at Lockwood High School. Thus, this is the first year since 2020 that the state’s best high school wrestlers and many of Montana’s biggest wrestling fans will gather under the Metra roof for the all-class extravaganza.
• Wrestlers have been competing all year for a chance to shine on the biggest stage in the sport and they’ll undoubtedly leave it all on the Metra floor in their efforts to accomplish, and possibly surpass, their individual goals.
• For the first time in the history of the event, a girls classification will be part of the all-class format. True, there have been girls who have wrestled at the state tournament at Metra before against the boys, but last year a girls classification was added as a pilot program. This year, the girls classification will also be included in the Metra mix bringing the number of classes contested to four — three boys classifications (AA, A and B-C) and the girls division.
• Sidney’s Aden Graves (160 pounds) is seeking to become the state’s 38th four-time state titlist and receive the thundering standing ovation others before him have received. If Graves wrestles to the feat, he’d become the third Sidney Eagle on the impressive list.
Large crowds are expected
Before the 2020 all-class meet, we reported 12,000 to 13,000 spectators, equaling roughly 6,000-plus a day, annually attended the yearly championships.
This year, with the girls competition starting at 4 p.m. Thursday for the seven weight classes that have more than 16 girls competing — and 242 total girls scheduled to wrestle at Metra — total attendance records, and the Saturday night championship round mark, could be challenged.
“I think, with the addition of 242 girls and the excitement of the event, we’ll have really big crowds,” said the MHSA’s Brian Michelotti, who has been the tournament manager since 2006, “especially as we get to championship night.”
Growth of girls wrestling
For the girls portion of the event, two rounds will be contested on Thursday night said Michelotti in weight classes 103, 113, 120, 126, 132, 145 and 170 pounds. Competition in weight classes 138, 152, 205 and 285 pounds for the girls will begin on Friday.
At last year’s inaugural girls state tourney at Lockwood, 148 girls competed. As a pilot program, divisionals aren’t held in the girls classification and any girl who wrestled during the regular season is eligible to wrestle at state.
Michelotti said having an additional 94 girls at this year’s state meet is impressive.
“Coming out of the 2020-21 season with COVID-19, we weren’t sure. We expected some growth and expect to see the numbers continue to climb next year,” he said. “We are excited about the growth of girls wrestling in Montana.”
As far as the number of boys competing in wrestling this year, Michelotti said participation is similar to past seasons.
“Our boys numbers are solid and about where they have always been,” he said.
Next year, there possibly could be a divisional for girls wrestling. Boys state tourney brackets are limited to 16 wrestlers per weight class in each of the three classifications. Classes AA, A and B-C each have two divisionals in boys wrestling, with the top eight in each weight class advancing to state.
“There’s a lot of discussion going on,” said Michelotti. “We are anticipating there will be a divisional girls tournament in some capacity next year.”
At the conclusion of the season, Michelotti explained a committee will meet during the off-season and discuss how this year’s season went overall, and also look at how the state tournament played out.
In future years, the length of the state tournament could be extended to three days for both the boys and girls.
While there is always the possibility of holding separate tournaments, Michelotti said that seems unlikely at this point.
“We are anticipating we will stay with the all-class with the boys and girls in Billings on this same weekend,” he said.
At some point in the future, the girls may still be wrestling in one classification and competing against each other individually, but there could be team trophies for Classes AA, A and B-C — similar to what is done in the B-C bracket at state for boys.
Keep an eye on the schedule
On Friday, the parade of athletes for the boys and girls is scheduled for 10 a.m. and wrestling for both genders begins at 10:20 a.m.
With the addition of the girls, each state tournament will now wrestle on three mats. Traditionally each classification wrestled on four mats. A schedule and floor plan showing the layout of the mats are both available on the MHSA website (mhsa.org).
By the time the 2:30 p.m. session begins on Friday, the boys and girls will both be in the same spots of the bracket with quarterfinals and third-round consolation matches said Michelotti.
With more matches, but the same amount of mats, Michelotti said “we’ve built in an additional hour on every round.”
And as in the past, “if any classification finishes earlier than the other, we will transition onto adjacent mats,” Michelotti added.
On Saturday, the semifinal and consolation quarterfinals begin at 9:30 a.m. and the parade of finalists is set for 4 p.m. The championship matches will be contested on four mats, one for each classification.
Michelotti said the message the MHSA has tried to spread to the teams competing is to be ready at state.
“At our (girls) seeding meeting we said to be ready. This event has had a similar schedule for many years and we’ve tweaked that,” he said. “Our goal is to make it a great experience for the girls and to continue the great experience for the boys. … Pay close attention to the announcements and who is wrestling next. We have a good plan and now we have to execute it.”
‘A lot of excitement’
While Hernandez talks glowingly of how the Golden Bears competing against the Broncs brings out the best in both teams and labels the duals and atmosphere as “fireworks,” he’s also always been one to look forward to the all-class meet and the opportunity for wrestlers to reach for their goals.
If the Broncs and Bears are “fireworks,” then the state tourney is the grand finale of the marathon that is a high school wrestling season.
“We are anticipating a tremendous amount of excitement in Billings next week,” Michelotti told The Billings Gazette and 406mtsports.com on Friday. “The buzz of incorporating the boys and girls tourneys together makes it a better event across the state.”
And the excitement isn’t just for boys wrestling, or girls wrestling, or for one team, or individual. It’s for the sport as a whole as it’s state tournament time.
“There is just a lot of excitement in regards to wrestling right now,” said Michelotti.
Email Gazette Sports Editor John Letasky at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @GazSportsJohnL