BUTTE — There is a pillar in the middle of the Butte High wrestling room.
It’s certainly not an aesthetic choice, but a critical support beam that holds up the gym above. Each side of the pillar has a single word emblazoned on it, painted in purple over a stark white background.
By the smell of the room and the humidity that’s condensed on the track that surrounds the mats, that’s exactly what the 40-some members of the Butte wrestling team are doing on a late November evening.
Practice has already gone on 20 minutes longer than scheduled, but there aren’t any vocal complaints in this room. As another quote on the wall reads, “It isn’t the hours you put in, but what you put in the hours.”
Suddenly, head coach Cory Johnston sees a wrestler leaning against the wall.
“Don’t touch the wall,” he says loudly, over and over. “Don’t touch the wall.”
Weakness is not allowed in this room, by anyone. Weakness has never been allowed. Butte High, after all, is the winner of 17 state team wrestling titles. It’s a tradition to win here. That said, the Bulldogs haven’t taken a team state title since 2003. The hope is to change that soon.
There isn’t exactly impatience, but the walls outside the wrestling room are plastered with old news clippings, some going all the way back to the 1930s. That’s pressure in and of itself.
Johnston doesn’t seem to be paying attention to that. He’s young and energetic, with more than hint of fire in his eyes. In his two previous seasons at the helm of the program, he’s shown that he’s able to improve it. Last year the team finished ninth at state, but had its first individual champion since 2014 — heavyweight Jeff Queer.
“I always think about how far we’ve came from where we started,” Johnston said. “My first year here we had zero returning placers on the team. Two years ago we placed five kids, last year we placed six kids.
“We’re creating competition. We want a relentless style. The kids are gonna be in shape and they’re going to be like flies in your face.”
Just two of those placers — seniors Gabe Tierney (120) and Queer (285) — return to the mat this season for Butte.
The cupboard, however, is not bare. Nine total state qualifiers return to the mat for Butte, five of whom are underclassmen. The Bulldogs have just three seniors on their squad.
“We’re kind of flying under the radar, which is all right with us,” Johnston said. “We’re young, but we’re not inexperienced. I think we got some kids and as long as they go out there and scrap and fight, they’re going to give themselves chances.”
If all goes to plan, they’ll be able to give themselves more than just a simple chance. This is a team that wants to be in the mix at the state tournament.
Butte has to replace seniors at three weights (113, 126, 138) and didn’t have state qualifiers at two last season — 170 and 182. There’s confidence that Tye D’Arcy — a senior who didn’t go out last season — can help at 138.
Scout Allen seems to be in the mix at 126 while 113 seems to be a place where things will work themselves out.
Johnston said he had several wrestlers who he felt were very close to qualifying for the tournament last season, but weren’t quite able to make the cut. In order to help push the program forward, he convinced five wrestlers — Jeff Queer, Gabe Tierney, Kameron Moreno, Kobe Moreno and Wil Queer — to head to the cadet junior national training camp with team Montana.
Jeff Queer and both the Morenos actually went on to compete at the Fargo Junior Cadet Nationals, the biggest and baddest high school wrestling tournament in the country. These events, Johnston said, can do a lot for development.
Tierney, who finished in sixth place at state a year ago, said he got beat a lot by the best guys around, but was better off for it.
Johnston’s noticed the uptick in ferocity from Tierney.
“Gabe practices at the same pace he wrestles. He’s all 100-percent at practice, 100-percent when he wrestles,” Johnston said. “It’s really hard to teach a kid to do that. He’s brought up the level in the room from probably a 7 to a 9 or a 10. When he goes, he lifts everybody.”
“He’s kind of been the mold for ‘oh, here’s a guy that didn’t make it state two years ago, to placing at state, to this year he’s got really lofty goals.”’
Tierney has the potential to be a star for the Bulldogs this season and had the most takedowns of anyone on the team last season. But it won’t come easy. Things rarely do in Butte, Montana.
There’s an understanding that the program isn’t in the same place it was when it won 13-straight titles. They aren’t at the top of the Class AA heap.
But getting back to the top? Well, that’s part of what drives them.
“Those days have been gone for a long time,” Gabe Tierney said. “That’s in the past. Our goal is to start new and build to the top again. We can’t just say, ‘We were the best, so we’re still the best.’ That’s not the right attitude.
“We have to work hard to get what we want.”