HELENA -- Four years ago, the Jefferson High wrestling team consisted of just six members and consistently had to forfeit over half their bouts during a dual match.
Earlier this month, with 30 grapplers on the roster, Jefferson placed third at the annual Cascade Badger Classic Invitational Wrestling Tournament, collecting the Panthers’ first trophy at the tourney since 2002.
JHS put nine wrestlers on the podium in Cascade, led by runners-up Jacob Travis at 138 pounds, Nate Brunett at 170, and 205-pounder Nick Workman. Also placing were Emma Brown, third at 103; Cody St. Clair, fourth at 120; Derek Nygaard, fourth at 182; Michael Mitchell, fifth at 113; Nathan Rasch, fifth at 205; and Brett Hale, sixth at 170.
And this weekend in Great Falls, Jefferson attended the prestigious CMR Holiday Classic for the first time in 20 years, and placed 21st in the 54-team tourney.
So, what is JHS coach Troy Humphrey’s secret?
Well, it’s a combination of things, actually: part Dick Vermeil, part Joe Spieker (though unbeknownst to Humphrey), part rock and roll, and part popularity contest. Also throw in community support, a larger pool of athletes, the cyclical nature of sports, and of course, Humphrey's coaching skills.
“While at the Montana Coaches Association clinic a couple of years ago, I attended a motivational presentation given by former NFL coach Dick Vermeil,” related Humphrey of his encounter with the St. Louis Rams’ 2000 Super Bowl champion coach. “Coach Vermeil started out his presentation by saying ‘Your athletes don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.’
“This statement really reflects the attitude that I bring to my wrestling program and I constantly refer to my team as a family. Wrestling doesn’t have to be a grind day in and day out. I was losing close to half my athletes each year because of this push, push, push mentality.”
Humphrey said that most wrestling coaches “would be shocked” if they attended one of Jefferson’s practices, where the kids “rock out” to music blaring over the speakers.
And this is where the legacy of Joe Spieker enters the picture, although Humphrey does not know the former Capital High cross country coach.
Spieker guided the Bruins to four state championships in eight years in the 1970s with a “less is more” philosophy. The CHS harriers’ weekly training sessions logged about half the miles of their competitors, and Spieker's coaching style focused equal amounts on philosophy and physical exercise.
Humphrey has incorporated his own easy-going atmosphere during practices, but turns the music down during “teachable moments” and expects full attention from his athletes. And fortunately, he has enough talent in the room that during live wrestling “the intensity cranks up so it isn’t just a goof-off (session)."
“Our number one goal these past few years is to have fun,” explained Humphrey. “If my wrestlers are having fun then I’m having fun, and I’ll want to come back and do it again next year, just like they will want to do.”
It helps that Humphrey "knows” of what he speaks, on the mats.
A North Dakota high school state champion, he went on to garner a Big Sky Conference title at Montana State and qualify for NCAA nationals, before the Bobcats dropped their wrestling program. Humphrey then transferred to Western Montana, where he became an NAIA national champion under coach TJ Nelson.
Regarding community support, at last year’s All-Class Tournament in Billings -- with the team up to 16 grapplers -- JHS’ superintendent, principal, athletic director, and three school board members cheered on the Panthers from the stands in Rimrock Arena’s MetraPark.
“The (whole) community has gotten excited about wrestling, our fan support at competitions is refreshing,” recounted the Panthers’ skipper. “Something that can’t be really overlooked is the student body is excited and behind wrestling. I have a bunch of the ‘cool’ or popular students on my team, and that helps build an atmosphere that’s fun to be part of.”
Humphrey related that school enrollment is up about 25 percent, to 270 students. Many of those new students are from the Montana City and Clancy area, and many are football players who the JHS football coaches have “steered towards” wrestling.
Thirteen of the current 27 grapplers on the squad are over 170 pounds, a majority of which are football players, and most of those with no prior wrestling experience.
“It’s pretty rare for me to have a wrestler that came up through Little Guy and USAW Freestyle programs, but that trend is improving,” Humphrey related. “These freshmen and sophomores that don’t have a wrestling background really need a fun environment to stay involved in the sport.”
A prime example is senior standout Nate Brunett. When Brunett went out as a freshman, he had zero experience on the mat, and actually missed the first half of the season with an injury.
But in less than a year, he captured the 2016 Divisional 160-pound championship, and placed fourth at the All-Class State tourney. He finished his sophomore campaign with a fine 37-16 mark, and a school record 34 pins.
Last year, Brunett successfully retained his Southern B/C title and finished at 30-7. He is presently 77-40 for his career, with 69 staples.
Among Humphrey’s new recruits are freshman Emma Brown, who also did not wrestle before high school. JHS’ first female grappler in “about 10-12 years,” she owns a winning record of 8-5 to date, and qualified for the second day at the recent CMR Holiday.
“I realize that enrollment and my team size will be cyclical,” Humphrey said. “In my 20 years of coaching at Jefferson, I’ve certainly seen my ups and downs. Fortunately we are in an up cycle now, and hopefully this will continue into the foreseeable future.”