One big family reunion

This weekend’s State All-Class Wrestling tournament in Billings marks the 27th year the MHSA has combined three tournaments into one, and the event is quite an experience.

Even for someone not involved with wrestling, attending the All-Class Tourney is a thrill. For those whose lives heavily revolve around the sport, however, the annual meet is more like a family reunion.

With dozens of teams and coaches, hundreds of wrestlers and thousands of fans, the annual pilgrimage draws people from all corners of Montana. Many are related, but once they’ve all come together under the huge roof of Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark, they’re all a lot closer to being one big family.

One big wrestling family will be making the trip from Butte, Ronan and St. Ignatius. Along with his team, Butte High head coach Cory Johnston will bring his wife and sons, only to meet his Mother and Father, as well as Grandfather and Grandmother. Last week there were four generations of Johnstons at the Eastern AA Divisional meet in Bozeman, and they’ll all come together again for the State meet in Billings, along with Cory’s older brother who coaches in St. Ignatius.

Cory Johnston grew up and coached in Glasgow, so he’ll have plenty of old friends to reunite with from there, but he’s made friends across the state. He’s been coming to State meets since he was 4, and hasn’t missed any, even when he was going to school at Dickinson.

“There are hundreds of relationships,” he said. “This weekend I’ll be coaching against a lot of guys I wrestled against. It’s neat to see how the sport builds such tight friendships.”

Another regular at the State meets, whether as an athlete, coach or fan, is legendary Butte High coach Jim Street.

This meet will be like so many others, with many family members there, along with the extended “family” he’s gained over many years and events. One new twist for the Street family this February is also a first in the state of Montana.

Coach Street’s daughter Jackie McKenna will become the first female official at a Montana State Wrestling meet, as she was voted in by coaches from around the state.

McKenna, from the Missoula pool, will join Tom Bauer of Superior, Sean Cheff of Ronan, Conrad Duffy of Great Falls, Alex Giles of Fort Benton, Garrett Hanson of Havre, Travis Huntsinger of Bozeman, Michael Leinwand of Havre, Tom Linse of Ronan, Blake Love of Missoula, Dave Maier of Billings, Mike Owen of Missoula, Tim Schmidt of Butte, Joe Sol of Missoula, Kurt Spencer of Libby, Dean Thompson of Libby, Fred Trafelet of Valier and Terry Williams of Sidney.

Coach Street, who led Butte High to 13 straight Class AA State championships and 15 titles overall was recognized 14 times as the Montana Class AA Wrestling Coach of the Year and was twice selected the National High School Wrestling Coach of the Year. He is a member of the National Coaches Hall of Fame – the same one that already has the likes of Swede Dahlberg.

“In this state, nobody has done what Jim has done,” said longtime Butte High athletic department employee Pat Powers – who has a good idea what she’s talking about.

In 1989, Street transformed Butte High’s December wrestling tournament from a traditional individually bracketed event into something Montana hadn’t seen before that – a dual-format tourney. Street gave the new tournament its name: The Mining City Duals.

Twenty-eight years later, thanks to an effort spearheaded by former Butte High wrestler Rody Holman, the tournament gave back, and put the legendary coach’s name on the bill. It’s now officially known as the Mining City Duals Jim Street Classic Wrestling Tournament, but really, from here on out – as far as we’re concerned, anyway – it’s the Street Duals.

The name change was a no-brainer, as Street’s contributions to Butte and Montana wrestling are unquestioned. And after more than 55 years of being involved with the sport in one way or another, Street has formed hundreds of friendships. It’s nearly impossible for Street to go to a wrestling event and not run into people he knows, and he’s been to wrestling events all over the world.

He’s been to the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, the 1996 Games in Atlanta, the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2012 London Games. He attended the 2001 Worlds in Sofia, Bulgaria, the 2002 World Meet in New York City, 2006 in Guangzhou, China, 2010 in Moscow and 2015 in Las Vegas. He’s attended the NCAA National Tournament more than 30 times.

“The NCAA’s are like a reunion every year,” Street said.

But most wrestling meets are like reunions for Street, who has touched many lives over the years. During the most recent Street Duals, the meet’s namesake was watching a match when he was approached by a mother and son, looking for a picture of the young man with his former coach.

Later, Street explained that when the man was in high school he had expressed a desire to wrestle, but that his mother wouldn’t have it. Finally, when he was a senior, Street found that the woman didn’t want her son wrestling because he had diabetes.

Once he explained to her that the sport’s focus on diet and exercise would only help her son, she let him join the team his last year of school, where he got the chance to compete. It was a small reunion of sorts when she took the picture at the Duals.

“You know, he’s every bit as much a part of my wrestling family as any one of my four-time state champions, or anyone who wrestled since they could walk,” Street said. “All the families are still very much a part of my life.”

Street, who will certainly reconnect this weekend with dozens – if not hundreds – of “family” members, asked to recognize some of the people who were part of his success over the years.

“The renaming of the (Duals) in my honor is probably based on the 15 (of 17) flags – 13 in a row – hanging from the ceiling of the (Butte High) gym,” Street said. “But those accomplishments came about because of a lot of variables, not just one man.”

Street pointed to coaches Fred Jozovich, Gene Fogarty, Steve Stosich, Dan Liva, Bob Liva, John Connole, Ken Carver, Corey Bolton, Randy Walund, Randy Street, Jason Street, Eric Dunmire, Kevin Parvinen, Rick Carriger and Steve Schulte as some of those responsible. “All of my wrestlers,” he continued, “the Butte Wrestling Club and head mat maids Barb (his wife) and Jackie.”

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