Bulldog wrestlers ready for busy opening of season

Civic Center hosts Mining City Duals/Jim Street Classic

By Bruce Sayler 

Participation numbers and enthusiasm both seem to be up over last year’s pandemic-fractured season for Butte High wrestling.

Head coach Cory Johnston said he figures once this weekend is complete the Bulldogs will have experienced more mat time than in all of last year’s regular season, which saw tournaments canceled and the schedule starting a month late due to Covid-19 concerns and limits.

Among the canceled tournaments was Butte High’s own Mining City Duals/Jim Street Classic meet, which is on for this weekend with an expanded entry field and all competition taking place in the Butte Civic Center. (Day 1 pool schedule; Day 2 bracket)

Johnston dubbed this version of the Bulldogs young, but experienced with a lot of “new, but recognizable names” in the lineup. He greeted 60 prospects for a larger-than-usual turnout for the decade, of which seven are returning state place-winners from the 2021 Class AA tournament held in Kalispell. Fourteen more on the team qualified for the last state tourney. Plus, the girls’ roster has doubled to 14, including two returning state place-winners from the first-ever state girls’ tourney, which was held in Lockwood.

The varsity boys’ team will debut on Friday at 10 a.m. in the opening round of The Mining City Duals. Johnston said most, if not all, Bulldogs will wrestle this weekend with the varsity and second team both in The Mining City Duals, a third squad going to Whitehall for the Whitehall Duals and then the girls’ team competing in an all-girls’ tournament in Kalispell.

Returning state place-winners on the boys’ side are senior Trey Whitlock, runner-up at 103 pounds; Canyon Mullaney, fifth at 103; sophomore Maverick McEwen, fifth at 113; junior Kip Pumnea, fifth at 132; junior Mason Christian, third at 182; junior Zach Tierney, fourth in the 285-pound limit; and Kyler Raiha, who took sixth place in the 2019 state meet.

Other returnees from the state tourney team of last February are Reid Whitlock, Cohwen Houchin, Gunnar Yelenich, Cole Worley, Derek Averyt, Connor Konda, Gavin Vetter, Wiley Dallaserra, Bryton Hardesty, Aiden Cuchine, Riley Downey, Morgan McClernan, Cohen Grunhuvd and Kade Schleeman.

“It’s a heck of a starting point,” said Johnston, who is looking to move the Butte High team from last year’s fifth-place finish in the state AA standings. “We’re not jumping in with a full team, yet, but we want to be ready for February wrestling more than December.

“We have experience, but a lot of (the veterans) are young. We have some more kids, who didn’t qualify for State last year, who bring even more experience to the team and we’re not overly young.”

Kalispell Flathead is the reigning state AA team champion while Billings Senior placed second last year and Great Falls High was third. Billings West and Butte High filled out the top five.

“Practice has been great,” Johnston said. “We did a one-hour practice last Friday at midnight (to 1 a.m., Saturday) and there was more energy in the team than if we had done it at 8 in the morning, like we had originally planned. The kids responded really well.

“Competition this week in the wrestling room has been the best I’ve ever seen. It’s been really intense. There’s nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.”

Competition is even heavy for the front of the pack, the coach said.

“We have to iron out our leadership roles,” Johnston said. “There are so many (candidates), it’s hard to pick any out. We’ll let the kids decide it.”

The Butte High girls placed fourth in their state tournament, held last year at Lockwood High School. Flathead, Billings Senior and Cascade grabbed the top three spots with 41 teams scoring.

Junior Hayla Hoffman barely missed out on an individual state title, finishing in second place after being edged 11-10 by Sophia Dulin of Baker in their championship match at 170 pounds. Hoffman is back with the top step on the podium in her sights.

Butte High junior Ashlee Wilcox placed third in the 285-pound limit class and is also looking to contend for a crown.

Johnston said he was happy to see the girls’ program grow in numbers and said he hopes more will come out for the sport as the season proceeds.

The Mining City Duals/Street event is now a 28-team competition with hopes to add four more, perhaps, next year. Johnston said the plan was to go to 32 last year, but the pandemic measures canceled the tournament and caused uncertainty and a return, literally, to the drawing board. Some teams signed up became unable to come this year because of conflicts and travel difficulties, including some out-of-state hopefuls. Matches will be in seven pools all day Friday with the winners and runners-up in each pool advancing to the championship bracket on Saturday. Great Falls High won the 2019 Mining City Duals/Street Classic crown, the last year the tourney has been held. This year’s   championship dual meet is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Saturday.

Those failing to advance to the winners’ bracket will go into consolation pools for their Saturday bouts.

“The Butte Wrestling Club is playing a big part in it again,” Johnston said. “Combined with Butte High, there are a lot of smart wrestling minds combining to put on a good tournament.”

The tourney returned to the Civic Center in 2019 after several years at Butte High School.

Butte High is in Pool 6 this year with Hellgate, Bozeman High, and C.M. Russell of Great Falls in an all-AA pool. Butte High’s second team is pooled with three more varsities – Great Falls High, Helena High and Missoula Sentinel in Pool 4. The Butte High No. 2 team will start at noon on Friday against Great Falls High.

Pool assignments:

Pool 1 – Kalispell Flathead, Hamilton, Browning, Missoula Big Sky.

Pool 2 – Billings West, Columbia Falls, Lewistown, Kalispell Glacier.

Pool 3 – Billings Skyview, Great Falls High No. 2, Belgrade, Cut Bank.

Pool 4 – Great Falls High, Butte High No. 2, Helena High, Missoula Sentinel.

Pool 5 – Helena Capital, Bozeman Gallatin, Polson, Havre.

Pool 6 – Butte High, Missoula Hellgate, Bozeman High, Great Falls C.M. Russell.

Pool 7 – Billings Senior, Great Falls C.M. Russell No. 2, Frenchtown, Ronan.

Friday rounds are scheduled for on the hour, beginning at 10 a.m., through the 5 p.m. slot.

The larger Butte High turnout has meant longer hours already for the staff, which Johnston said, is eager and willing to put in the work. He is being assisted by his brother, Mark Johnston, along with Geno Liva, Dan Larsen, Craig Remsen, Jarret Rowling and Willy Anderson.

The boys’ team is practicing 3:30-5:30 p.m., and the girls’ squad goes 6-7 p.m., schooldays in the Butte High wrestling room, Johnston said.

“I ask a lot of our staff and they care enough about our kids that we’ve had a full staff every practice,” Johnston said. “It’s a great staff.”

The Western AA Seeding Tournament is scheduled for February 4-5 at Missoula Sentinel before the all-class state wrestling tournaments return to the Billings Metra February 11-12. The state tourneys weer split into three different locations for the three classes last year due to the Covid-19 policies. Johnston said the bounce-back year from the pandemic measures will be an interesting call fpr the contestants.

“Some understand what they missed, and others didn’t miss it enough,” he mused.