On a Saturday afternoon in a humid gymnasium, Flathead High School wrestling coach Scot Davis puts a hand on the shoulder of his heavyweight wrestler and whispers some advice. The wrestler is junior Axel Bladholm, and to the surprise of his team (and maybe himself), he has wrestled his way into the semifinal match of Missoula's Jug Beck Rocky Mountain Classic.
Dimensionally, Bladholm is an oak tree, and he'd be menacing if it weren't for his dolefully slouched shoulders and wide-eyed gaze. Unseeded in round one, he will face Sentinel High's Jaydn Wilson in the tournament's penultimate match. Wilson has bulldoggish forearms and a back like a stack of bricks. A feature in that day's sports section predicted Wilson would win his second straight Jug Beck title. But coach Davis is unfazed. No coachliterallyhas more high school wins in wrestling history, and if anyone can bring glory back to the Flathead Braves, it's Davis. He pats Bladholm on the shoulder. The oak tree leans over and listens carefully to his coach.
For the better part of a decade, Flathead High dominated Montana wrestling, winning seven titles, including five straight from 2006-10. But then the program came unhinged, kids lost interest, and in 2012 the team finished 12th in the state tournament. After that season, the head coach left for crosstown rival Glacier High School.
As things were coming off the rails at FHS, Davis, 61, was dealing with his own tumble from the top. In 2011, he retired amid allegations of recruiting violations from Owatana High in south-central Minnesota, where he had been the head wrestling coach for 25 years. Davis dismissed the accusations as a group of parents "unhappy with the direction of the program." Rather than serve a forthcoming suspension, Davis retired.
"I was really planning on just being retired," he says. "But then I heard about Flathead...and I saw a challenge there." He was hired in summer 2012.
Alleged scandal aside, Davis' arrival in Kalispell was celebrated by Braves wrestling faithful. In 34 years of coaching at the high school level, Davis won two Minnesota state championships, twice was named National Coach of the Year, and in 2009 was named coach of the Wrestling USA Magazine Dream Team. He arrived in Montana with a dual-meet record of 984-149-4.
When Davis got to Flathead, he set out to reinvigorate a withered wrestling scene. "In order to have a successful program," Davis says, "you need ... to establish a culture. It starts with building enthusiasm." His first day on the job, Davis brought a box of T-shirts with "Return to Glory" printed on the back. The student body responded. During the 2011-12 season, there were 18 wrestlers in the Flathead program. After Davis was hired, 44 had signed up to be on his team before he even held his first practice.
Davis' coaching style is predicated on the idea "that all kids are different and respond to different things," and it's a philosophy that translates to a subdued mat-side presence. At the Jug Beck tournament, coaches from Spokane's University High School glare at the referee who they have outed as favoring the other team. Coaches from Bozeman pace the edge of the mat with crossed arms and clenched jaws. Coaches from Sentinel draw all the blood into their faces and swing their hips as if the teenager in a pretzel on the mat was no more than their malfunctioning avatar. By contrast, Davis leans languidly into the back of his chair. He shouts only when his wrestler stands up too straight or doesn't arch his back to avoid a pin, and even then, it's clear Davis did his coaching before the whistle blew.
"If you yell at the kids all the time," he says, "they can't hear you."
At the start of the second day of Jug Beck, Flathead is ranked 13 out of 31 teams. The Braves' best hope for scoring points was in 160-pound senior Jacob Egley, who was seeded second coming into the tournament. But Egley lost unexpectedly in the third round, dropping him, along with all but one of his teammates, to the consolation bracket. Bladholm, the heavyweight, is the team's last hope for a champion.
Moments before his semifinal, Bladholm stands next to the mat shifting his weight from foot to foot. Nearby, Wilson bounces and stretches his shoulders. As the wrestlers are called onto the mat, Davis whispers something to Bladholm.
The match begins, and they circle. Wilson lunges and retreats. He is jarringly quick. Davis sits up in his chair. Though Bladholm is four inches taller than Wilson, he seems smaller and weaker and trapped. Wilson gets underneath him. Davis tells Bladholm to get lower. "Keep it in the ring!" he shouts. But Bladholm is overwhelmed. He topples and Wilson is on him, tying Bladholm's arms into a knot above his head. His face turns red and his eyes bulge.
When asked what he said to Bladholm before the match, Davis shrugs and frowns coyly. "That he should make it easy on himself and win," he says. "Because then he'll only have one more match."
One of these years, Davis will be the first high school coach to reach 1,000 victories. But not this year. At the end of Jug Beck, his team edges out Ronan to finish in 14th place.
"We have a ways to go," he says. "But we'll get there."