MISSOULA — Polson wrestlers Hunter Fritsch and Bridger Wenzel have come close to winning a state title on five occasions, combining for two second-place finishes and three third-place finishes.
The seniors earned No. 1 seeds out of the Western A and will look to end their careers with their first state titles this weekend. They are two of 135 state qualifiers from the Missoula area, 20 of whom earned a No. 1 seed for state, which begins Friday in Billings.
"You can see their hunger and how much they want it," Polson head coach Matt Owen said. "To be so close and fall short like they have, it cuts at a guy. They're using those experiences as a positive and not dwelling on it, which is what you want to see."
Fritsch heads to state with a 21-1 record against Class A competition. He's coming off a first-place finish at the Western A Divisional, where he went 3-0 with three pins in a combined 62 seconds.
Navigating his path to the 170-pound state championship, he may have to get by Sidney’s Trevor Dean, who beat him 13-1 at the Class A Duals, in the semifinals. Then it could be a title match meeting with the Eastern A No. 1 seed, Glendive’s Nelson Crisafulli, who Fritsch beat at the Class A Duals.
“I’m confident with my shape and technique. I’ve been working technique all year,” Fritsch said. “I’m confident in my wrestling ability. At this point, it’s controlling my nerves. It’s my last week of wrestling, so this is it, and that’s a lot of pressure.”
The son and grandson of wrestlers, Fritsch was born in Oklahoma, moved to Polson at a young age, returned to Oklahoma and came back to Polson after his freshman year of high school. He took second place at state in the 160-pound weight class as a sophomore and followed up that showing with a third-place finish last year at 170 pounds.
This year, he placed second at the multi-class Tom LeProwse in Bozeman and the Jug Beck Rocky Mountain Classic in Missoula. In Class A-only competition, he won the Owen Invitational in Polson.
“Now’s when the countdown is on. I have a week left to do this,” Fritsch said.
He added: “If I don’t win state, I wouldn’t like to leave it on that note. I think my last match ever, to win a state title, I’d be complete to end it like that.”
Fellow teammate Wenzel is also looking to cap his career with that elusive state title. He’s 24-4 against Class A wrestlers and heads to the tournament fresh off a 3-0 showing at the Western A Divisional in which he had three pins in a total of two minutes, 17 seconds.
“I feel my body’s peaking,” Wenzel said. “In practice, I’m feeling really good. I’m just focused on cleaning a few technical things up and then I’m ready to go. My conditioning, I got a big gas tank. My endurance, I feel, is at its max. I can go the whole six minutes going hard. Just my technique feels good, my flow of wrestling feels good. Everything feels like it’s coming together.”
Wenzel’s biggest competition in the 152-pound weight class could come from Havre’s Connor Harris (42-4) or Sidney’s Jace Winter (48-3) in the semifinals and Belgrade’s John Mears (31-4) in the finals. He’s never wrestled Winter, went 1-2 against Harris this season and is 0-4 all-time against Mears, who beat him in last year’s 132-pound state championship.
Wenzel was third at 120 pounds as a freshman and third at 126 pounds as a sophomore.
“What keeps me going is I’ve taken third and second, so it’s just that I want to take that next step up and just the redemption behind it, too, of not getting it, losing to Mears,” Wenzel said. “To beat him this coming weekend would almost be a bigger victory than winning state. Just beating him would be a huge victory personally and for my mental game. It would be a big victory for me. That’s what keeps me motivated is there’s a kid in my weight bracket I haven’t beaten yet.”
Frenchtown’s high-flying duo
Among the other top-seeded qualifiers out of the Western A, Frenchtown junior Walker Dyer and Jake Bibler head into state with a combined record of 95-1.
Dyer (113) is 47-0 on his revenge tour from a sixth-place finish at state last year at 113 pounds in which he made the semifinals but lost his final three matches. He took third place at 103 pounds as a freshman.
Bibler (120), a two-time state champion, is 48-1. He won the 120-pound state title last year and the 113-pound state title as a freshman.
Hamilton senior Michael Golden (132) is looking to have his breakthrough as he heads in at 34-2 and undefeated against Class A competition. He took third at 126 pounds last year, third at 113 pounds as a sophomore and fourth at 113 pounds as a freshman.
Corvallis senior Dante Venema (126) will look to capture his first title, entering state with a 40-4 record. His best finish is fourth place as a sophomore at 120 pounds. He went 2-2 at state last year but didn’t place at 120 pounds, and finished 0-2 as a freshman at 113 pounds.
Ronan senior Justin Mays (205) finished fifth last year at 182 pounds, losing to the eventual champion in the semifinals of his lone state appearance.
In all, there will be 15 wrestlers from Polson at state, 12 from Frenchtown, 11 from Corvallis, eight from Hamilton/Darby, seven from Ronan and five from Stevensville/Victor.
Big Sky’s big four
Big Sky was the lone Class AA school from Missoula to earn a top seed, and the Eagles had four.
Sophomore Hunter Meinzen (145) is back at state after finishing as last year’s runner-up at 138 pounds, losing 6-5 to Great Falls High junior Kai Stewart in the title match. He wrestled only half that season after he broke his leg during the football season.
Junior Dougie Swanson (152) finished third at state as a freshman in the 126-pound weight class and went 1-2 last year at 138 pounds. If Swanson makes the final, he’d likely face Bozeman senior Chance McLane, a three-time state champ who signed with Oklahoma State.
Senior Wyatt Shinn (182) is making his second state appearance after going 1-2 last year at 160 pounds.
Freshman Zane Martin (103) is making his first state appearance after wrestling for close to 10 years. He didn’t earn the starting job for the Eagles until midway through the season.
Junior Jett Rebish, a No. 2 seed, lost a tight 4-3 decision to Helena High’s Devin Crawford in the Western AA Divisional and could meet him again in the state finals. He took fourth as a freshman at 152 pounds but missed last season after he tore his ACL in the first practice of the year.
In total, Big Sky is sending 18 wrestlers to state, Sentinel has 17 and Hellgate has four.
Class B/C well represented
Nine Missoula-area wrestlers from Class B/C earned a top seed, with three coming from Florence.
Falcons senior Spencer Jones (205), undefeated this season, was the state runner-up at 182 pounds last year and went 1-2 at 170 pounds as a freshman. Junior Avery Meinzen (160), who fractured two vertebrae as a freshman and dealt with a concussion in January, took fourth at 138 pounds last year in his first state berth. Sophomore Oliver Post (103) went 1-2 with a win via bye last year at 103 pounds.
Plains/Hot Springs senior Josiah Vanderwall (138) enters with a 34-3 mark. He took sixth last year 132 pounds and went 1-2 as a sophomore at 126 pounds.
St. Ignatius/Charlo junior Isaiah Alik (170) is 37-3. Junior Isaac DuMontier (152), who had each of his first two seasons cut short, is making his first state appearance and is 31-7. Alik went 1-2 at 160 pounds last year in his first showing.
Clark Fork is sending two top seeds in junior Trey Green (182) with a 31-6 mark and junior Jacob Lapinski (285) at 21-4. Green went 2-2 at 170 last year but didn’t place in his lone state berth. Lapinski is making his first state appearance.
Thompson Falls freshman Trae Thilmony (113) has made a splash in his first year and brings a 27-2 record to state.
St. Ignatius/Charlo leads area Class B/C schools with nine state qualifiers, Florence had eight, Clark Fork qualified six, Arlee and Plains/Hot Springs have five each, Thompson Falls got four through and Bigfork has one.