BIG PINEY – Puncher wrestler Thomas Howard is already making waves in 2A wrestling as a sophomore.
Howard qualified for State his freshman year, but fell early in an opening round, what he called a “blood round.”
This year, Howard returned to the mat determined to improve and ended up breaking expectations.
Howard won the 195-pound weight class title at the 2A Regional Quads hosted by Big Piney on Feb. 20. The win guaranteed Howard a spot at the 2A State Wrestling Championships in Casper one week later.
Due to public health guidelines, the tournament was held over a single day, making for a long, grueling experience for the wrestlers. Officials at State used the bracket system, a step away from the duel format used during the regular season.
“I missed the buzz of tournaments,” Howard said. “There’s that adrenaline rush when you move through the bracket.”
Howard advanced through the first rounds.
“I pinned my opponents pretty fast,” he said. “I had a good draw for my lane to the semifinals.”
One by one, other wrestlers dropped off the bracket and only four remained in Howard’s weight class. The competition went into a whole new level.
Howard squared off against Zane Collins of Lovell in the semifinal match.
Collins entered the postseason the No. 4 wrestler in the 195-pound division and Howard knew a tough fight lay ahead. Howard started to mentally prepare himself for the match.
“I think of Beethoven music, actually,” he said. “It helps me clear my mind. I focus on my breathing right before I enter the ring.”
The referee raised his hand and blew the whistle and the battle began.
“In the first period, I shot and I locked my legs around his arms and did a reverse half,” Howard said. “I couldn’t turn enough to get his shoulders on the mat, but I got five points. In the second period, I ended up getting thrown and was on my back for 40 seconds, but didn’t get pinned. I don’t remember much of the last period, but I ended up on top and held (Collins) down for the last 10 seconds.”
Howard won the match by two points in a 15-13 decision. He advanced to the first-place round against Thermopolis senior Logan Cole. Cole was the defending State Champion in the 220-pound division, and sailed through the 195-pound bracket at State this year.
“I was just trying to catch (Cole) or throw him because I knew he was faster and stronger than me, so I needed to catch him in something,” Howard said. “He shot really fast, took me down and got me on my back, but I bridged out of the circle. After that, he pinned me.”
True to Puncher form, Howard graciously acknowledged Cole’s win.
“He’s really nice, but he wrecked everyone in that weight class. He deserved first place.”
Howard’s second-place finish earned him All-State recognition, the first time the sophomore received the honor.
“Honestly, for the first couple of days, it still felt like it was a dream (to get All-State). Then, when I went a few days and I didn’t wake up, I realized, ‘Oh, I actually did that!’ It was kind of cool.”
The path to State
Howard started wrestling in sixth grade. He struggled through a difficult year. Howard said that his friends helped him stick with the sport and a wrestling camp hosted by Olympic gold medalist Jordan Burroughs inspired him to improve.
Howard joined the Puncher wrestling team and immediately latched onto the philosophy instilled by coaches Cole Clifford and Will Farrington.
“I liked how Mr. Clifford and Mr. Farrington taught us to be a better person, a better student then a better athlete. There are some coaches that just push win, win, win, but (Clifford and Farrington) coach for improvement and want us to be better people.”
Wrestling not only involves strength, but knowledge of the ways to earn points in close matches.
“Angles have a lot do with it,” Howard said as an example. “If you attack from a sideways angle, they can’t back up or anything. It’s harder for them to get away. There are a lot of little details you just kind of pick up as you go.”
Howard played Puncher football and said the contact sport helped prepare him for wrestling.
“The team aspect of football helps me connect more with other athletes on the wrestling team,” he said. “The aggressiveness needed in football definitely helps, because that’s how I won some matches.”
Howard, like most members of a small football team, played both offense and defense, a testament to endurance.
“There’s stamina and focus involved in football, because you can’t let something that you did badly on offense affect how you play on defense. I was a center for the last part of the year. If I had a bad snap that turned over the ball, I couldn’t let that break my focus on defense and let them score.”
When not on the mats or sports field, Howard enjoys working on his 1982 diesel Mercedes.
“I got it running, and I just need to paint it now,” he said.
Howard has a few years left in high school, but is already thinking of pursuing a career in biotechnology.
Howard thanked his coaches, teammates and the community for support. Howard also gave a shoutout to the Wing family.
“Taytan Wing was a teammate of mine. That also gave me motivation.”