State wrestling tourney feels like very large family reunion

Stumbling into the All-Class State Wrestling Tournament for the first time, the uninitiated might think they were not at a sporting event but at a family reunion.

In a nearly full Rimrock Arena at MetraPark on Saturday, everybody seemed to know everybody. Wrestlers shook hands before and after each match. They practiced amiable fake moves on their coaches and on other athletes. In some championship bouts, they even wrestled members of their own team. At times, the arena looked like a giant stage filled with kids just horsing around.

In the stands, what looked like open spaces were often filled with wrestling gear carefully watched over by family members. Fans shouted encouragement at their favorites, even when they were 25 rows and couple of competing matches away:

“Go get ’em, Mason.”

“Keep it up, Chance.”

“Stay on the offense!”

“Hey, you all right?”

Or sometimes, more quietly, “He just didn’t seem like he had any fire in there.”

One fan wears a T-shirt that offers this definition of grit: “1. Hard work, determination and mental toughness. 2. Informal. Wrestling.”

“The wrestling community is such a family,” said Conrad Duffy, a referee from Great Falls.

To capture the sweep of the event, head to the top rows of the arena and look down upon 12 mats nearly filling the arena floor—12 mats with 12 matches going on all at once, each followed almost immediately by another.

The tournament starts with some 700 athletes, competing in three divisions and a baker’s dozen of weight classes, all the way from 103 pounds – just a couple of hamburger plates bigger than the proverbial 97-pound weakling—all the way up to 285 pounds.

That’s part of why Josh Beeman, first-year head coach at Billings Senior High School, calls the tournament the most exciting sporting event in Montana.

“When you’ve got 24 kids on 12 mats,” he said, “all going as hard as they possibly can, it’s impossible to keep up.”

Easy for him to say. He kept up well enough that the Senior Broncs won the AA championship at Saturday’s tournament, scoring 236 points.

But for the novice, trying to follow even a fraction of 12 simultaneous matches is an invitation to sensory overload. Whistles on various mats go off virtually nonstop. Just as a viewer’s eyes focus on one wrestler grappling for a pin, a shout goes up elsewhere in the arena and dozens of fans leap to their feet, clapping and cheering.

Look away to see what’s going on, and the match you are watching is suddenly over, with two more wrestlers already going at it.

“You need to stay focused,” said Cindy Rapstad of Great Falls. She and her husband, Larry, were keeping time and score through early rounds at mat No. 10.


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

With 12 matches going on simultaneously for much of the day, it’s hard to know where to look.

They were taking on those official jobs for the first time, but their affection for wrestling goes back to 2001, when their daughter became the manager for the Great Falls High School team.

“This event is fantastic,” said Larry Rapstad, who said he was the public address announcer for the tournament when it was held in Great Falls in 2011—the year Billings missed out because of tornado damage.

At one event, he said, the person scheduled to sing the National Anthem failed to show, and as public address announcer he gamely filled the gap by leading the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance. But he inadvertently omitted “under God” from the Pledge, and about 1,300 of the 3,000 fans were ready to attack him after he finished, he said.

The referees, however, were grateful. They told him they were glad to get the booing out of the way before the matches started.

Like his wife, Larry Rapstad is much more than just a fan. He keeps detailed statistical charts of team points and works up projections of which teams are likely winners.

Cindy Rapstad is the official scorekeeper, feeding results to the wildly detailed website. In addition, another official keeps the score manually just in case of technical glitches.

Good idea. Twice on Saturday evening, the electronic scoreboards went out on all mats, and technicians hustled to get them going again, trailing out a long extension cord to get one scoreboard connected back to the grid.

At mat level, the sport is an entirely different experience than high in the stands. Wrestling is the most intimate of sports, with nothing but a thin singlet, ear protection and socks and shoes between a wrestler and his opponent.

A referee guides the action and awards points. Coaches for each wrestler, some in dress shirts and ties, shout out instructions from a triangle at the edge of the mat.

“It’s a great sport,” said Larry Rapstad. “It’s determined on the mat who’s the best.”

Coach Beeman agrees.

“It’s you and him, plain and simple,” he said. “Whoever has the biggest heart is going to win almost every time.”

Matches are short, just six minutes in the championship bracket, with scarcely a break between two-minute rounds. But the physical exertion is immense; losers come out looking exhausted, frustrated and wrung out.

Actually, winners often come out looking that way, too. In the consolation semifinals, Matt Kale of Billings Central Catholic High School eked out a 6-5 win over Konrad Zinke of Whitefish on his way to a fourth-place finish overall.

Before the match was over, Kale was gasping for breath, and when the match ended, he doubled over in pain, holding onto an aching shoulder. You should have seen the guy who lost.


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Steve Klepps of Ortho Montana was one of several physicians on duty during the tournament.

Injuries are part of the sport, and matches are often paused to wipe blood and sweat off the mat or to stuff cotton into a bloody nose.

Over the course of hundreds of matches in the state tournament, two or three more serious injuries are likely to occur, said Steve Klepps of Ortho Montana, one of a handful of physicians always on duty at the tournament. On Friday, one wrestler had a dislocated elbow, he said.

Of particular concern are head and neck injuries that can result from the unnatural contortions that wrestling puts on the human body. An athletic trainer is stationed at each mat, and the referee can stop the match at any time an injury is suspected, such as when a wrestler screams or makes an illegal move.

Nine times out of 10, Klepps said, the trainer can handle whatever the problem is. But the clock is ticking: If the wrestler isn’t ready to continue in a minute or two, the match is halted.

“We just try to decide if it’s safe to wrestle or not,” Klepps said.

Physicians also are involved in checking the athletes for skin conditions at the weigh-in before the tournament, looking for communicable diseases such as impetigo, the MRSA bacteria, ringworm and herpes. In recent years, coaches have done such a good job of monitoring their athletes’ health that no one has been disqualified for skin problems, Klepps said.

Like so many others associated with the sport, Klepps got his start as a wrestler, and he will have kids making their way through the tournament for the next seven years.

“It’s a sport that fits every athlete,” Klepps said. “Whether small or large, fast or slow, there’s a place for you.”

Conrad Duffy, the Great Falls referee, is one of 18 referees at this year’s tournament. He grew up in Billings and got his start watching the wrestling tournament at MetraPark.

“It made me want to wrestle,” he said.

In the course of a match, referees can be nearly as active as the wrestlers, diving to the mat to see if a shoulder is pinned and circling to watch for points and infractions.

In a consolation semifinal match between Wyatt Vanburen of Sidney-Bainville and Tristan Slye of Belgrade, the Belgrade coaches kept shouting, “He’s stalling,” which can result in a penalty.

Duffy took time during the match to explain the call to the coaches, then went over to a Belgrade coach again after the match to clarify the rule.

He said afterward that he couldn’t talk to a reporter about the basis for any calls on the mat, but he said that part of being a referee is not only educating kids about the sport but sometimes coaches as well.

His job, he said, is just to watch closely and enforce the rules.

“It’s a political answer,” he said, “but that’s the way it is.”

The early rounds over, volunteers roll up nine of the 12 mats, leaving only three for the 78 wrestlers who make the championship round. The Skyview High School Pep Band warms up the crowd, and cheerleaders lead the finalists onto the arena floor.

After a few hours of practice, keeping track of three matches at once—one mat for each high school division, with B and C schools combined—seems almost trivially easy.

Larry Rapstad had warned about those “Weber boys” from Forsyth, and the warning was well taken. Luke Weber won his fourth straight state title, sending his season record to 54-0 and joining his brother Matt, who did the same thing last year.

Devan Maua of Senior High School fended off Jeff Queer of Butte, who kept coming after Maua but could never catch up to him before he was pinned in the second round.

In the 152-pound Class AA bracket, Skyview’s Brock Bushfield was down 9-1 to Noah Manibusan of Helena before getting a pin in the second round with a crossface cradle move to win his second straight title.

Bushfield said afterward that he knew that he had started “super slow” and that he wasn’t going to get back into the match without a big move.

“I wasn’t going to crawl my way back in,” he said.

Like so many others, Bushfield said the tournament has been on his mind since he was a child. He credited his father with taking him to tournaments around the country to help him develop his skills.

“I’ve been dreaming about this since the first time I came to Metra and saw this,” he said.

As the champions were determined, weight class by weight class and division by division, the winners stepped up to a platform to receive their medals. The height of the platform distinguished them, with the champion merely the first among equals.

As the last matches of the finals wound down, fans were already slipping out in a steady stream to the MetraPark parking lot. The annual reunion that is the Montana All-Class Wrestling Tournament was closing for another year.

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