It’s not exactly a secret, but most of his classmates and former teammates don’t know that Ryan Montang is the new head wrestling coach at University High School.
Montang, who placed fifth at state as a 125-pound U-Hi senior in 2002, returned to his alma mater five years ago to take both a teaching job and to be an assistant wrestling coach to longtime coach and mentor Don Owen. When Owen retired at the end of the high school season, he endorsed his former wrestler for the job.
“He’s a former head coach at Timberlake, and he wrestled for Don,” athletic director Ken VanSickle said. “He’s going to do a great job.”
Montang had a successful run as the head wrestling coach at Timberlake, calling on his former coach and mentor for advice.
Even though most years it was just him and one assistant coach running the program, Montang said he modeled it all on the U-Hi program.
And when he faced challenges, he called on his former coach for advice.
“There was one year where we were having a great year, probably the best year in school history,” he recalled. “And then at the end of the year we lost a couple of dual meets that, frankly, we shouldn’t have lost. I wasn’t sure how I should handle that – should I push them harder, should I lay off a little bit – so I called Don and asked him.
“He told me that I should just remind the kids of just how good they are. He told me he always liked to ramp up at the end of the season. So, from then on, that’s what I did.”
Montang got a late start in the sport.
“I didn’t grow up as some people do wrestling,” he said. “I first came out as an eighth-grader. At first I wasn’t going to turn out in high school, and some friends kind of talked me into it. Basically, I just got addicted.
“The thing that stuck with me the most was how much hard work paid off. If you’re willing to go a little bit more and do some things that the other guy isn’t willing to do, it pays off.”
As a senior, Montang was part of the Titans squad that became the first non-Montana team to win the annual Jug Beck Tournament in Missoula – a treasured victory for Owen, a former Missoula Sentinal standout wrestler.
“That was a big win for Don, that’s for sure,” Montang said. “That was big for us.”
As a senior at state, Montang lost to eventual state champion Burke Barnes of Lake Stevens 16-4 in the quarterfinals.
Barnes, the son of longtime coach Brent Barnes who was looking to become just the third Washington wrestler to win four state championships during their prep career, stormed off the mat after his hand was raised.
Barnes’ other three wins in that tournament came via pin in a minute or less – making Montang’s loss by major decision an accomplishment.
“Let me tell you something about that match,” Don Owen said. “You don’t always remember every match, but that one I can still see like it just happened. Burke is one of the best wrestlers this state has ever produced, and he was probably less than a sportsman after that match.
“Ryan went toe-to-toe with him and let him know he was in the fight of his life. He never gave an inch. I was so proud of him.”
Montang stuck around the program after graduating in 2002 to help while his brother, Jeremy, came through the program, helping the Titans win the school’s first state championship.
“I really believed in the lesson Don was teaching,” he said. “Hard work and persevering and continuing to grind away – that helped me a ton. In the rest of my life, in teaching and definitely in coaching.”
At last count, Owen said, he’s had several dozen former wrestlers go on to coach the sport at some level.
“I think that’s the part I’m most proud of in my career,” he said. “To have that many former wrestlers want to give back to the sport and carry it forward, that means a lot.”
When an opening on the U-Hi staff opened up, Owen called Montang to gauge his interest. Montang jumped at the chance to return to his alma mater to teach and coach.
“Matt Smith was one of my assistant coaches and he left to go to Freeman,” Owen said. “I needed someone who could do all the things that Matt had done in the program. Ryan has done all that and more.”
Montang said he plans to carry on the program exactly the way Owen built it. To that end, he said, the entire coaching staff from last year will be back.
“Don and I talked about it and he said that he just doesn’t feel like he can just walk away from it after all these years. He wanted to know if there was a spot on my coaching staff for him. Of course, there is.
“It’s huge. Having those guys help coach is going to make that transition so nice. The way that Don has structured the coaching staff and given responsibilities to his coaching staff is so smart and so efficient.
“What I’ve learned these last five years working with Don is how to manage a program this size – how to make sure every kid is getting the chance to wrestle and getting the instruction he needs to improve.”
The new coach said he will hold open workouts that a number of wrestlers are taking advantage of. There will be a summer mini camp for the team prior to going to a team camp.