BILLINGS — As the postseason approaches, the Laurel wrestling team is in a pretty good spot.
With the Eastern A Divisional Feb. 8 in Lewistown and the state tournament Feb. 14-15 at First Interstate Arena at MetraPark, the Locomotives are finally near full-strength.
That was apparent when the then ninth-ranked Locomotives placed second at the Class A Duals at Lewistown on Jan. 25. Top-ranked and two-time defending state champion Sidney defeated Laurel 57-9 for their third-straight Class A duals title.
Laurel wrestled well in Lewistown, defeating Libby 62-12, topping Dillon 64-9, shutting out Whitefish 74-0, thumping Browning 63-12, prevailing over Corvallis 57-15 in the quarterfinals and beating Livingston 46-21 in the semifinals. Sidney and Laurel did meet twice in the event, with Sidney also winning the first encounter 57-9.
The Locomotives, now ranked second, were 13-5 in duals prior to scheduled matches on Friday versus Hardin and Lewistown at Huntley Project.
Longtime Locomotives coach Ted Hill said after a tough beginning where wrestlers missed time due to injuries, sickness and grades, the Locomotives can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“We were finally together on one weekend,” he said. “I’m hoping that carries us to divisionals and state. If we can get everybody healthy, we have a pretty good team.”
This past fall, Laurel also had a pretty good football team that finished as the State A runner-up to Miles City.
While the run to the football championship game was great for the players, school and community, it made the start of wrestling season difficult. Nine of this year’s roster of 21 wrestlers were on the football team.
Wrestling practice began on Nov. 21, and the state championship game was two days later in Miles City. As the football players readied for the title game, numbers in the wrestling room were thin.
“The first two practices we had, it was a skeleton crew,” Hill said. “My outlook as a coach wasn’t all that hopeful.”
Hill was happy the Laurel football team had such a great season, but said the transition to wrestling season was hard on the players after playing in three playoff football games.
“That took a big toll and drained those kids mentally and physically,” Hill said. “It took a couple weeks for the kids to get their wrestling face on in terms of grind and injuries.”
Some of the Locomotives top wrestlers this season include senior Keagan Campbell, 138 pounds, 16-0 record; senior Cameron Younger, 182, 11-2; senior Ivan Lee, 113, 25-15 and junior Gabriel Hernandez, 285, 8-4.
Campbell was third at state at 138 last year and Younger was third at state last year at 182. Lee was sixth at state last year at 113 and Hernandez was sixth at state last year at 285.
Laurel also has several ranked wrestlers, according to the most recent Class A Coaches poll. Ranked Locomotives include: 113, Lee, 6th; 138, Campbell, 3rd; 145, Keagan Thompson, 4th; 160, Cole Younger, 6th; 182, Cameron Younger, 2nd and Donald Maurer, 5th; 285, Hernandez, 6th.
While top-ranked Sidney is the odds-on favorite to win its third straight state title, Hill believes the Locomotives are in the fight for postseason hardware, starting with divisionals in Lewistown.
“We are looking for trophies and chasing trophies. That’s our goal,” he said. “There are four other teams in the hunt.
“Sidney is the hands-down favorite, nobody will touch them but we’re chasing second or third. Wrestling coaches are competitive, everybody likes to battle for second or third.”
Laurel will be at the Battle on the Bighorn tournament in Hardin on Saturday beginning at 10 a.m. Other invited teams include the host Bulldogs, Billings Central, Colstrip, Columbus-Absarokee-Park City, Miles City, Glendive, Lewistown, Forsyth, Huntley Project, Lame Deer, Lockwood, Livingston, Broadus, Red Lodge, Shepherd and Tongue River (Wyoming).
It will be a good tournament to help Laurel pick its divisional team and so the Locomotives wrestlers can observe and wrestle against some unfamiliar opponents.
“This is kind of for us to polish up,” Hill said. “We are going to see some good head-to-heads with a lot of guys in our division.”
It’s all part of the Locomotives' hopes to be peaking at the state tournament.