It may be a new year, but everyone is still chasing the same team in Class A.
Havre ran away with the state team title last year, besting second-place Columbia Falls by a staggering 126.5 points, and the Blue Ponies have reloaded for a run at another state championship this season.
If anyone is to impede them, it just might be one of an especially strong pair of teams from the Northwest.
Coming off their runner-up finish a year ago, the Wildcats trailed only Polson in the season’s first Class A mat poll, and the Pirates seem most capable of taking the conference crown from the defending champs from Columbia Falls.
“Everybody’s kind of on the same page,” Polson coach Kevin Owen said. “Everybody’s been chasing Havre for quite a few years now, but we need to be projecting that we can be there, too.”
Polson thinks it can jump into the mix thanks to a large cast of returning state qualifiers.
Eleven of the 15 Pirates who contributed to a fifth-place finish at state last year return this season, including Polson’s two state finalists — Parker Adler and Hunter Fritsch.
Adler, the runner-up in the 138-pound class last season, is now competing at 152, and Fritsch has made the jump from 160 to 170.
Polson also has five returning wrestlers who placed at state in addition to Adler and Fritsch. “In general, we have a good core group of kids,” Owen said.
Columbia Falls will not be easy to topple, however. The Wildcats are led by five seniors in the lineup, three of whom placed at state a year ago. They will look to replace a talented, now-departed cast of seniors that included three state placers.
Ben Windauer, a runner-up finisher at 145 last year, has jumped all the way up to 170 and is expected to be among the competitors for an individual state title.
Kyler Koski (285) is among the top returning heavyweights in the state after finishing fourth in 2016-17. Colten McPhee (182) is another of Columbia Falls’ 11 returning state qualifiers who could make noise this season.
“Our top end of our lineup, they’re wrestling well for us right now,” Schaeffer said.
Brandon Thomas (132) and Nathan Hader (145) anchor the lower weights for the Wildcats, who have their sights set on another podium finish this season.
Perhaps the biggest wild card in the Northwest A conference is Libby/Troy, which returned to Class A this year after a stint in Class B.
The Greenchain finished seventh in Class B last season and has held its own on the Class A level so far this year, picking up several conference wins.
Buddy Doolin, the defending individual Class B state champion at 103, has dominated thus far despite moving up to 113. Dylan Yeadon (120), Laine Young (152/160), Tim Carvey (160) and Cyrus Sweedman (220/285) have also put forth impressive early performances. All qualified for state last season.
“Our depth has the potential to be the best it has been since my first few years with the program,” said Libby/Troy coach Kelly Morford, now in his eighth season with the Loggers.
Whitefish faces an uphill climb this season after losing its two state qualifiers (Anwar Mirza at 103 and Travis Catina at 205) to graduation. Nathan Buckley (126) and Dakota Flannery (138) are the leaders among the cast that’s stepped up in their absence.