ANACONDA — Nate Blodnick smiled as he described the scene at MetraPark Arena in Billings.
“It was insane, it was packed,” Blodnick said. “My parents came over. I went down and saw my mom after and she was shaking. It was kind of funny looking at her because she couldn’t stop moving. My dad was just really proud of me and came over and told me how proud he was.”
The Anaconda freshman had just won a state title in his first visit to the Class B-C state wrestling meet, defeating Huntley Project’s Gavin Nedens 2-0 in the 103-pound final.
Along with fellow Copperhead freshman Tommy Sawyer and Ethan Goldberg, the trio had already accomplished an impressive feat by just making the tournament in their first attempts.
And Blodnick won’t lie to you: there was pressure each time he stepped on the mat.
“You definitely feel pressure,” Blodnick said. “You go out there and you have all these different expectations from different people, you don’t want to let them down… I always want to win when I go out there.”
As part of a relatively small and young team, Blodnick has had to grow into a leadership role quickly.
Copperheads wrestling coach Joe Casey said that the way his freshman champ has stepped into the role has been mostly by setting the bar on how to be a member of the program.
“I think that he’s a kid that really leads by example,” Casey said. “He’s a kid that’s able to communicate, but he does things so that kids can see how you operate as a wrestler. Managing his weight, getting to practice on time, doing things right academically, not really complaining a whole lot.”
What drives Blodnick to do things the right way and lead by example is his love of competition and the group he wrestles alongside, as well as spending time with friends on the football field, baseball diamond and track, all of which have been constants in his life since a young age.
When Blodnick was first starting to get interested in wrestling, the presence of friends was the initial invitation.
“I saw [wrestling] when I was little, and I signed up for it,” Blodnick said. “I really liked it because most of my friends did it.”
Fast forward to last weekend’s state tournament, and the friends are still a major part.
“Tommy Sawyer and Ethan Goldberg,” Blodnick said. “Those are the two that went to state and they are two of my best friends, and everyone else on the team, I like them all… We always try to get down to the side of the edge of the mat whenever we were wrestling. We sneaked past people to get down there because we always want to be supporting each other.”
When last Saturday’s 103-pound final began, however, Blodnick had locked in, focusing in on what he’s been working towards the entire season, both metaphorically and literally.
By his own admission, Blodnick had struggled with wrestling from the bottom. Escaping and transitioning from a bottom reset was not his strongest suit, and was something he and Casey worked on throughout the year.
“He worked really hard on his positioning and technique,” Casey said. “But the main thing he focused on this last month was getting away. There were some ups and downs with that, but when it came crunch time to go do it when he needed to, he made that decision and it shows how competitive he is.”
By “decision,” Casey is talking about when Blodnick made the gutsy decision to disagree with his coach.
Tied up at 0-0 in the third period of the state championship match on Saturday night, Casey believed that the 103-pound Copperhead could outlast his opponent in the third round. Blodnick was looking to score before the final seconds.
“There’s a mental edge you carry with you if you’re going to pick the bottom position,” Casey said. “During the match, I looked at Nate and signaled to go neutral. He looked straight back at me and said, ‘No, I’m going on bottom.’”
So the freshman took a risk by putting himself in a situation that he had struggled in, but one he worked on all season. Casey and Blodnick both agreed that he had a good feel for where the match was at.
“[Nedens] looked tired,” Blodnick said. “It was a close match, and I just needed that point to win it and get away. So, I just wanted to get that.”
Blodnick succeeded, culminating all the work done over the season to take the slight advantage that would make him a state champion in his first visit to the tournament.
Casey mentioned that the third round in Billings accurately sums up why his freshman has found success as quickly as he has.
“That’s the special thing about him,” Casey said. “He had the confidence and knew what he was going through in the match and he went for it to win the state title.”
Less than a week removed, Blodnick is still enjoying the victory, but has a wrestler’s reward waiting for him: he’s heading to the 2020 NCAA D-I Men's Wrestling Championships in March.
The Copperhead said that it will be enjoyable to watch, but he’s already planning on learning what he can from the NCAA’s best.
“We’re going to the national championships this year,” Blodnick said. “Those are the best wrestlers in the nation and I’m definitely going to learn from those guys… I just enjoy watching all of it. It’s so much fun to watch because it is so action-packed in such a short time.”
Blodnick will also prepare for the upcoming baseball season and potentially track and field season, although the freshman says he’s not completely sure on his participation in the latter.
What he does know is that he’s a defending state champion. In a town steeped with rich sports history like Anaconda, Blodnick said that adding hardware to the Copperheads’ long line of success is satisfying, but that there’s still more to come.
“We always hear about older [Anaconda athletes] that were so good,” Blodnick said. “But there’s not as many people from the more recent decades. It’s pretty cool to be a part of the future of Anaconda sports."