MISSOULA — Missoula Big Sky wrestler Izzy Moreno has taken down opponent after opponent this season, but the freshman has refused to stay down in a pin attempt that changed his life four years ago.
Moreno was experiencing unusual fatigue during his football season in fifth grade. He was feeling drowsy and had to ask his coach to take him out of the game.
It wasn’t just sports that led to his lethargic appearance for the regularly active Moreno. He would fall asleep on a couch at home with his head resting on his hands or in the car on what was a short ride to school.
His parents’ concern about him skyrocketed, so Moreno was taken to the hospital. The doctors performed multiple tests, discovering the culprit when they found his blood sugar level was 765 milligrams per deciliter, dangerously above the average of 80-120.
Moreno, at 11 years old, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, a condition in which the pancreas doesn't produce enough insulin to allow cells to be able to absorb and use sugar. There’s no cure, and it requires lifelong treatment.
“I was definitely emotional about it, but people have it way worse in this world, so you can’t think you have it worse and think everything’s going against you,” Moreno said prior to the state tournament this week. “I wasn’t really too worried about wrestling at the time, but I knew if I just keep working hard, everything will stay the same.”
Moreno’s father, Rick Moreno, who’s also the Big Sky wrestling coach, was in South Africa at the time to teach lessons about working in the U.S. Forest Service. He was in shock when he heard the news from his wife and tried to keep his composure when he talked with Izzy while she went to the pharmacy to pick up the insulin.
Their conversation went back and forth and centered around how they were happy to have found out what was wrong. Then Izzy, a typically quiet and humble kid, said something that impressed Rick.
“He goes, ‘If people think I was good when I was this way, they only knew me at half speed. Now when they know I’m taking insulin, wait ‘til they see what’s coming,’” Rick recalled. “You want to talk about getting slapped in the face as a parent because I’m supposed to lift him up and say these things, and he has a life-changing diagnosis and picked me up and taught me a life lesson. It was one of the most moving things that’s ever happened in my life.”
Those wrestlers have seen just how good Izzy could be as a freshman. He won the 120-pound weight class at divisionals to earn the top seed at state, is 30-4 against Class AA wrestlers this year and was ranked third in the state for his weight class in the latest coaches poll.
Moreno heads to state having beaten most of the wrestlers he could see in the loaded weight class. He’s gone 10-4 against the others who were in the top six of the statewide poll for 120 pounds.
Of those wrestlers in the poll that Moreno has faced more than once, he’s won the most recent matchup. He’s also finally healthy after spending early January getting over an illness.
“This is probably the best I’ve felt all year these past two weeks,” Moreno said.
Moreno’s two days at state will be like many of his other ones in terms of wrestling while managing his diabetes, starting his day by checking his blood sugar levels when he wakes up.
Moreno used to inject himself with insulin shots in his arm, stomach or thigh but recently got an insulin pump and a glucose monitor that he wears on his hips 24/7. The pump and monitor, which are visible underneath his wrestling singlet, connect to his phone via Bluetooth, so he can check his blood sugar levels and inject insulin by using an app.
No two days are the same though. Sometimes exercising raises his blood sugar, sometimes it lowers it. When the levels get too high, he feels tired. When the levels get too low, he feels a different type of tired, mainly with his legs feeling heavy. Other factors like stress, too much heat, too much cold or even hormones could affect his levels.
When Moreno needs to get his blood sugar levels up, he can go for a granola bar, a cookie or often his favorite drink: Cool Blue Gatorade.
“It’s a silent disease that you would never know just looking at him, but the struggle is real,” Rick said. “He’s out there and he’s doing those things, he’s wrestling a whole nother match inside from what everybody else goes through. Just the resiliency that he has, it’s amazing.”
Izzy had tried wrestling at 113 pounds earlier this year but cutting even a few pounds was too much to balance with his condition, leaving him feeling weak. So, he stayed at the 120-pound weight class, drinking a protein shake every night to try to put on weight while wrestling kids who had a few pounds on him.
Moreno prides himself on his dedication to technique and his conditioning to aid his scrambling ability, the latter of which helps because he's undersized. He's worked on those aspects since he started wrestling at 6 years old, soon after his family moved to Missoula from Iowa and Rick started the Sudden Victory Wrestling Academy.
“People get tired if you keep on going after them and going after them,” Moreno said. “If you have good cardio, you can break anyone.”
Fellow Big Sky wrestler Hunter Meinzen knows somewhat what Moreno is going through as a freshman, having placed second in state his first year. The junior, though, has been even more impressed with how Moreno has put himself in this position while balancing Type 1 diabetes.
“Coming in freshman year is always tough because you’re wrestling bigger kids and kind of get the s--- beat out of you,” Meinzen said. “With his Type 1 diabetes, he’s definitely overcome a lot and he’s doing really well. I’m proud of him. I can’t wait to see what he does at state.”
Moreno’s performances this year have also impressed Missoula Sentinel coach Jeremy LaPorte.
“Being a freshman at 120, which is in my opinion one of the toughest weight classes in AA, is cool to see a kid with that poise to beat those older kids,” LaPorte said. “He’s got good body position. He’s good on his feet. He’s good on bottom. He’s good on top. He doesn’t make many mistakes. He’s a tough kid.”
Moreno will kick off the state tournament on Friday and hopes to stay in the championship bracket on Saturday as he chases his first state title.
His main competition will be Great Falls CMR sophomore Colton Martello, Butte junior Keagan Gransbery, Great Falls High senior Dre Coles, Billings West freshman Jesse Arness and Great Falls high senior Easton Shupe.
Moreno is 3-0 against Martello, the 2019 champ at 103 pounds, 3-1 against Gransbery, who was third at 103 last year, 3-1 against Arness and 1-1 against Shupe, who was fifth at 113 in 2019. Coles, who was fifth at 103 last year, is the only one Moreno hasn’t beat, going 0-1.
The 15-year-old has refused to be taken down by his condition and most of his opponents so far. A couple more takedowns on the mat this week could have him experiencing quite the rush.
“I wanted to come in and dominate and have a perfect high school career,” Moreno said. “It’s not something where I was like, ‘This is going to happen.’ It was just a goal coming in. But I’m definitely pretty proud of what I’m doing.”
Big Sky, big dreams
Moreno isn’t the only Big Sky wrestling with dreams of winning a state title.
The Eagles qualified 11 wrestlers for the tournament, three of whom won their weight class at the Western AA divisional and have a top seed at state. Those are junior Hunter Meinzen at 152 pounds, senior Dougie Swanson at 160 and senior Bridger Hall at 170.
Meinzen is the lone city wrestler among this year’s qualifiers who has a state championship. He won the 145-pound title in 2019 and placed second at 138 pounds in 2018.
Meinzen wanted to win a title with a perfect record this time around, but he lost recently and enters with a record of 21-1 against Class AA wrestlers.
“My main goal is to go in there and dominate completely,” Meinzen said. “I feel good. I’m ready to go. There’s no other expectations.”
Swanson has been motivated by the heartbreak of being so close to a title. He took third at 152 pounds in 2019 and finished third at 126 in 2017. This year, he enters with a 27-1 record against fellow AA wrestlers.
Hall is closing in on his goal of winning a state title, a desire that led him to transfer from Hellgate to wrestle for his club coach in his final season. He had placed fourth at 152 pounds in 2019 and sixth at 145 in 2018. He heads to state with a record of 23-3 against AA wrestlers.
Seven other Big Sky wrestlers qualified for state. Senior Trevin Welzien placed second in divisionals at 145 pounds, sophomore Issac Ayers was third at 120, senior Brody Skillicorn was fourth at 145, senior Tommy Leonard was fourth at 285, junior Casey Nuckolls was fifth at 138, sophomore Carter Johnson was sixth at 132 and senior Jacob Williams was seventh at 152.
Welzien is chasing an elusive title after placing second at 103 in 2017, third at 113 in 2018 and fourth at 132 in 2019.
“I definitely want that title 100%,” Welzien said. “I just need a big win in the semifinals and then the finals could be a repeat match of the divisional championship.”
Ayers took sixth at 113 in 2019, and Johnson was sixth at 120 that year. Williams didn’t place in his lone appearance, while Skillicorn Leonard and Nuckolls are making their first trip to state.
Sentinel is sending 11 wrestlers to state, highlighted by a quartet of wrestlers who placed third in their weight class at the Western AA divisional: senior Justin Kovalicky at 145 pounds, junior Blake Jolma at 138, junior Jackson Bakken at 132 and junior Novik Thomas at 126.
Kovalicky and Jolma are the lone Sentinel qualifiers who’ve placed at state in the past. Kovalicky finished sixth at 126 pounds in 2018, and Jolma took fifth at 145 in 2019. Bakken is trying to place for the first time in three trips.
Thomas, who’s 15-8 record against AA wrestlers is the best of the quartet, will try to place in his second trip. He could’ve been a top-two seed, leading his divisional semifinal match 12-4 to open the third period before getting pinned, putting a slight damper on his breakout season.
“From January to now, he’s a different kid,” LaPorte said. “He’s the most fun kid on our team to watch. He’s aggressive. He’s got really good hips and pulls stuff out I didn’t even know he had. He has confidence now. He’s always known how to execute moves and techniques, but now he can execute them in a match.”
Sentinel’s other qualifiers are senior Jace Mannix, who was fifth at 152, senior Josh Gunter, who was fifth at 205, sophomore Jesse Horner, who was fifth at 145, freshman Keagan Crosby, who was fifth at 103 pounds, junior Bryson Danzinger, who was sixth at 120, senior Gabe Riley, who was sixth at 152, and sophomore Kristopher Musick, who was seventh at 182.
Riley is a first-time qualifier in his final season. He had wrestled for LaPorte since sixth grade but didn’t come out to start the season. He asked to join around winter break, wrestled less than 10 matches before divisionals but was still able to qualify for state for the first time.
“He’s been so close before,” LaPorte said. “It’s cool to see it come to fruition.”
Hellgate qualified five wrestlers for state: junior Ethan Eppard at 182 pounds, senior Jase Lewis at 160, sophomore Layne Cooney at 205, Dakota Friesen at 285, Jake Sweatland at 182.
Ethan placed fourth in his weight class at the Western AA divisional, Lewis finished fifth, Cooney and Friesen took sixth, and Sweatland was eighth.
Each of Hellgate’s wrestlers will be trying to place at state for the first time. Eppard, Lewis and Friesen are the only ones who’ve competed at state in the past.