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When Zach Crace first stepped onto the wrestling mats at Libby as a 119-pound freshman, Loggers' coach Kelly Morford had an idea that something special was about to unfold.

Now, four years and 33 pounds later, Morford is poised to watch his prized pupil attempt to add a state title to what has become an impressive resume.

With a pin of Frenchtown's Preston Downard on Saturday at the Northwestern A Divisonal tournament in Polson, Crace captured his fourth divisional title and became the Loggers' all-time leader in wins with 145, 111 of which came by pinfall.

"Growing up he always put a lot of time into the sport and he always had a lot of ability," Morford said of Crace, ranked No. 2 in the Class A 152-pound division heading into the state tournament that begins Friday at Billings' Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark. 

"I think this year we've really seen a change in his mental approach as far as his confidence against those top-notch opponents."

The first sign that Crace's confidence was beginning to catch up with his ability came Dec. 20 at the Tri-State Invitational at Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, Morford said. Crace took third at the meet that invited more than 65 teams from four states.

"That was a big match for him, he really wanted that win," Libby's coach said. "He wrestled really solid that weekend and that's when we knew he had turned the corner."

Since that weekend in Idaho, Crace has been nearly unbeatable posting a 36-5 record in his final season with Libby.

Three times in three different weight classes Crace has reached the semifinals of the state tournament. Last year, he was on the short side of a 3-2 decision to eventual runner-up Jordan Stevens of Sidney.

Morford believes a more focused mental approach and his fourth appearance at the chaotic event in Billings will yield a different result.

"I think last year in the semifinals it's a match that he could have won, he just didn't pull the trigger because he was lacking that confidence," Morford said. "He's in a way better spot mentally this year and I think that's going to put him over the top."


Coaching carousel

Down the road from Libby, a trio of schools are making changes to their boys' soccer coaching staffs.

O'Brien Byrd is leaving Whitefish to take over the program at Columbia Falls, while Kalispell Flathead is replacing Dan Ferguson – who stepped down in December – with Nate Evans, a former Braves assistant.

Whitefish is in the process of finding a replacement for Byrd.

Byrd called the opportunity to take over his hometown program "a dream come true," but readily admits there is work to do to elevate the Wildcats' to the level he just left.

Byrd coached the the Bulldogs to four state titles, nine Northwestern A conference titles and 121 wins during his 12-year tenure. Columbia Falls is coming off a 2-10-0 season and has won just 10 games since 2010.

"It's going to be a real grassroots upheaval and revitalization and kind of shake things up," said Byrd, who added that he plans to start rebuilding the youth programs in the area to foster the talent necessary to marshal the turnaround of the once successful program; Columbia Falls won titles in 2001, 2003 and 2005.

"Effective immediately, these boys are going to work harder than they've ever worked for something before and their coach is going to be doing the exact same thing."

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At Flathead, Evans faces what appears to be a daunting task in turning around a program that has posted a 4-59-3 record since 2010. But according to Flathead Activities Director Bryce Wilson, the 26-year-old Evans has a plan in place to get the Braves out of the Western AA cellar. 

"His commitment to a year-round program just stood out," Wilson said. 

Though he won't work at the school outside of his coaching duties, Wilson said Evans plans to make himself available to his future players as often as possible. Evans has been in the school every day since he was hired on Feb. 4.

"He understands the relationship piece is important," Flathead's AD said. 

Evans was an assistant at Flathead in 2013 and has worked with club soccer programs in the area. He was tabbed by a five-person selection committee.


More for Morley

Before Makena Morley begins what University of Montana cross-country coaches Vicki Pounds and Collin Fehr hope is a successful collegiate career, the state's top female distance runner has a little more business to take care of in the prep ranks.

Morely, a Bigfork senior and Montana's four-time Gatorade Girls Cross-Country Runner of the Year, captured the 2-mile title at the Boise Indoor High School Track and Field meet Feb. 6 in Boise.

Morley's time of 10 minutes, 44.66 seconds set a new meet record and was nearly 20 seconds faster than second-place finisher Aubrey Argyle. The time is also the second-fastest time clocked by a high school girl this year.

Earlier this year, Morley, who signed to run at Montana in fall of 2015, won the junior women's 4-kilometer race at the Great Edinburgh XCountry International Challenge in Scotland on Jan. 10. She also finished third in the national Foot Locker Cross Country Championships the month before.