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Whitefish wrestlers end season with strong showing at state

by BRANDON HANSEN For the Pilot
| February 14, 2024 12:00 AM

Whitefish ended its season at the MHSA State Wrestling Tournament at Metra Park in Billings on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 9-10.

While they didn’t get a state medal, several Bulldogs performed strongly against the best grapplers in Class A.

At 132-pounds, Landree Aurand picked up a first-round pin over Miles City’s Maddox Malloy in 1:12.

“He won his first match pretty handily, but ran into a tough kid from Laurel,” Whitefish Head Coach Danny Neff said. “He ended up having a pretty bad injury, and we had to use injury default. It’s something I’ve had to do in my career. The big thing we told Landree is it’s not the end of the world. It’s just the sport we love. We have to focus on the health of the athlete, and we moved on from that.”

Senior Henry Bennetts won his first round in the 160-pound bracket, pinning Sidney’s Ty Schepens in 5:03. After a setback in the quarterfinals, he posted a 46-second win over Billings Central’s Liam Aldrich. Bennets fell in the next match, getting a serious head injury.

“Henry has been incredible and an inspiration,” Neff said. “He has been a great team leader and captain for three years. He does everything on and off the mat. I want to thank him for what he’s done for this program, and we will miss him.”

At 285 pounds, Sam Akey wrestled two matches and bowed out of the tournament.

“Akey came out with a lot of heart and faced the No. 1 seed and the defending state champion,” Neff said. “He faced off against a Stevensville kid, and while he was out in two, it was great to see him come out and battle.”

Samantha Bennetts scored two wins at state, pinning Lewiston’s Grace Hicks and Havre’s Brooklyn Wilting but not placing.

“It’s incredible to see girls wrestling in Montana and how quickly it's taking hold,” Neff said. “It seems like it is doubling every year. It’s cool to see the sport grow.”

Whitefish had battled injuries all year and the state tournament was no different. The Bulldogs, however, had a young roster this year and should have a more experienced team next year, with Bennetts being the only wrestler graduating.

“It also comes with the sport,” Neff said. “It’s tough when you start out the season with not a full squad, so we’re already behind. The injuries come with all organizations and teams, and it beats us up more. That is the theme this year, and every program will get a bit of luck once in a while. The main goal moving into next year will be getting some kids out in the district so we don’t have to worry about filling a roster.”

Neff said the team will rest for a few weeks and get some mat time during the offseason. He added his wrestlers also help out with the Little Guy wrestling program for Whitefish. Neff also wanted to thank his dad, Tim Neff, for helping out this year.

“I want to make a big shout-out to my dad, who has been my assistant for about four years,” Neff said. “I’ve always wanted him in my corner, and this guy brings so much stability to the program and so much knowledge, background and history. I wouldn’t be here without him.”