FRENCHTOWN — Frenchtown senior Jake Bibler doesn’t look like the most dominating wrestler at first glance as he runs around the Broncs' practice room in his gray shirt and blue sweats Wednesday in the final practice before the team heads to Billings for the state tournament.
Bibler is wrestling at 126 pounds this year, so he’s not the most physically imposing presence, although it’s the biggest he’s been. He’s still recovering from a collarbone injury, so he’s taking precautions and not pulling out all the moves during practice. And he’s a quiet kid, so he’s not too keen to talk glowingly about the success he’s had when he does offer up a few words.
“He doesn’t look like a phenomenal athlete just walking around,” Frenchtown coach Jesse Long said during warmups while watching Bibler, one of seven Broncs to earn a top seed for the State A tournament. “But he’s a special one.”
Bibler has indeed been one of the most decorated wrestlers in the state the past few years. He’s now gearing up for a shot at his fourth consecutive title, trying to become just the 36th four-time champ in the history of the state of Montana.
“That was my dream, to be a four timer, when I came in freshman year,” Bibler admitted. “I won state that year, and it made me more confident. It just made me want it more.”
Bibler has made life difficult on his opponents the past four years, going 173-7 overall and 34-1 this season. It’s been the type of experience he imagined, learning lessons along the way since he started wrestling in first grade, following in the steps of his dad, who wrestled at Superior, and loving the challenge of trying to impose his will on the mat.
Long has been impressed by Bibler’s ability as a tough, scrappy wrestler since he began coaching him in sixth grade, when Bibler moved back to Frenchtown after living in Billings for two years. He saw Bibler start to gain confidence midway through his sophomore year, when Bibler upset a returning Washington state champ at the Rocky Mountain Classic.
Having been around Bibler for six years, Long finally found the best way to describe him as a wrestler who’s actions with his increasing skill set, double-leg takedowns and pins speak louder than his words, although Bibler has had more of a leadership role as he’s matured but can still be goofy with his friends.
“Jake’s a toothache,” Long said with a laugh. “It’s always there, and you can’t get rid of it. It’s just in your face the whole time. That’s the only way you can describe him: Jake 'The Toothache.' He’s probably the most fierce competitor I’ve ever coached.”
Bibler, who laughs off the toothache comment, takes his competitive spirit to Billings as he tries to join an elite club. There have been just 35 four-time state champions in Montana. The first one came in 1963, but the phenomenon has been more recent as 19 of those came in the 2010s.
Bibler could become the first western Montanan to win four titles since 1979-82, when Arlee’s Tim Mayer did so. The other four-time champs from western Montana are Ronan’s Jim Darlington (1973-76) and Missoula County’s Gene Davis (1960-63), who was the first in state history to win four times. Matt Campbell (1979-82) won titles at Havre and Missoula Hellgate, and TJ Campbell (1984-87) won titles at Havre, Great Falls High and Kalispell Flathead.
Bibler could also become the first Frenchtown wrestler to win four state titles. The Broncs have come close, having a trio of wrestlers win three titles: Josh Stedman (2005-07), Brandon Stedman (2004-06) and Shayne Mecham (1993-95).
Bibler is trying to remain calm, driven and focused even with the historic opportunity on the line. Most things don’t faze him, and he doesn’t show much emotion on the mat, but he has a mix of feelings heading into state for his final time after winning title at 120 pounds in 2019 and 2018, and at 113 in 2017.
“It’s been kind of stressful but exciting,” he offered about state, after which he’ll begin to make his decision between wrestling at Montana State-Northern or North Idaho.
Bibler’s quest to win a state title this year has been his most difficult so far. He’s already overcome a dirt bike injury in the summer when he broke his left hand, and he’s still recovering from a wrestling-related injury.
In December, Bibler was thrown and landed on his shoulder at Tri-State. He dislocated his collarbone from his sternum, leading to a medical default and his lone loss of the season. He didn’t need surgery but sat out most of January while missing about 20 matches to let the injury heal before returning to make his push for state.
“I don’t have full range of motion,” Bibler said, “but I’m sure I can make it happen this week.”
To win his fourth title, Bibler will likely have to go through Lewistown junior Cooper Birdwell in what’s anticipated to be the championship match. Birdwell has been believed to be a potential four-time state champ, too, and is undefeated in his high school career, although Bibler has beaten him once in an out-of-season freestyle match.
“I think he’s got more to lose than Jake does,” Long said, “because stuff like this doesn’t bother Jake. He just wants to go wrestle. He loves the competition.”
The meeting between them could potentially go the full six minutes, a not-too-common occurrence for Bibler. He’s been known for his ability to win by a multitude of pin combinations, especially in the first period.
Bibler is looking forward to wrestling Birdwell in his last high school match should both guys make it through to finals. He’ll have his teammates and parents in attendance yet again as he tries to cap his career with a fourth title, writing in stone his dominance as an elite wrestler.
“If you see him walking around town or even in the wrestling room, I bet you couldn’t tell he’s someone who’d be going for four state titles,” Frenchtown senior Tate Jones said. “He just goes out there and get the job done. He’s got the aggression and speed and strength. He’s a stud.”
With Bibler leading the way, Frenchtown could potentially convert its Western A divisional title into a state title or a podium finish while picking up individuals titles along the way.
The Broncs qualified 13 wrestlers for state, seven of whom earned a top seed during divisionals. In addition to Bibler, the others are senior Walker Dyer (113), junior Landen Stewart (103), junior Eli Warner (120), senior Tate Jones (205), junior John Warner (138) and freshman Zane Schroeder (132).
“We wrestled as well as we have all season last weekend,” Long said. “I don’t know if a state title’s in the cards. We’re not even worrying about it or talking about it. You just try not to think about it and focus on the matches.”
Dyer is aiming for his second title in a row at 113 pounds and has gone 22-1, returning in the past few weeks after missing about one month when he tore his left biceps tendon. He had placed sixth at 113 pounds in 2018 and third at 103 in 2017.
Stewart is 46-0 and trying to win his first title after placing third at 103 in 2019 and sixth at 103 in 2018. He’s been aided by no longer being undersized for the smallest weight class, better matching up with his competition.
Jones, who’s 36-3, placed at state last year for the first time, finishing fifth at 182 pounds. He’s bounced back from an early season injury in which he hurt a bursa sac and sprained the MCL in his left knee. He also battled through a nasal infection to win the top seed at divisionals to put him in the best position to end his career with a state title.
“I know I’m going to have to wrestle real hard and maybe pull a couple upsets,” Jones said. “I’m just excited to see all my hard work show off.”
Eli Warner, who’s 44-6, has placed fourth each of the past two seasons, at 113 pounds in 2019 and 103 in 2018.
John Warner, who’s 35-15, is trying to place for the first time after last qualifying in 2018. Long called him Frenchtown’s “most improved wrestler this year.”
Schroeder is making his first visit to state and has a 34-12 record.
In the rest of Class A, Hamilton/Darby senior Bridger Williams heads into the state tournament after a treacherous offseason in which he nearly died during a salmon fishing boat accident in the Bering Sea off the Alaskan coast over the summer, resulting in him almost having to have a leg amputated.
Williams will try to end his career with his first state title after losing in the semifinals the past three seasons. He placed third at 145 pounds in 2019, third at 138 in 2018 and fourth at 126 in 2017. He’s one of 11 state qualifiers for the Broncs and the lone one to earn a top seed.
Corvallis senior Triston Davis (145) has gone 37-1 this season as he looks to cap his final year with a title after having a top finish of sixth at 138 pounds in 2019. He’s the lone Corvallis wrestler out of the 10 qualifiers to win his weight class at divisionals.
Libby/Troy senior Trey Thompson (152) is looking to end his career by improving upon his best finish at state, when he placed fifth at 145 pounds in 2019. Thompson, who’s 41-6, is one of eight Libby/Troy wrestlers on the team to qualify, but he’s the only one to earn a top seed.
Among other Class A area teams, Polson has 15 state qualifiers, Columbia Falls got 10, Whitefish has eight, Ronan got four and Stevensville/Victor has three. None of them had a wrestler take first place at divisionals.
St. Ignatius/Charlo will try to convert its Western B-C divisional team title into a state championship when it brings 10 wrestlers to the tournament.
Senior Isaiah Alik (170) comes in with a 38-0 record as he attempts to cap an undefeated season to improve upon his best finish of fourth in 2019. Senior Isaac DuMontier (145) and Miles Anderson (205) were the team’s other wrestlers to earn a top seed at state. DuMontier’s best finish is sixth in 2019, while Anderson is trying to place for the first time.
Eureka junior Gunnar Smith (126) is gunning for his third consecutive state title after winning at 120 pounds in 2019 and 113 pounds in 2018. He’s one of seven Lions to qualify for state and one of four to earn a top seed along with junior Kyle Durden (132), senior Nathan Schmidt (138) and senior Hank Dunn (152). Dunn, who’s 32-1, placed third at 145 in 2019, second at 132 in 2018 and fourth at 126 in 2017. Schmidt, who’s 36-2, took second at 132 in 2019, second at 120 in 2018 and fifth at 113 in 2017. Durden, who’s 32-3, was third at 126 in 2019.
Clark Fork senior Jacob Lapinski (285) is looking to cap his career with a state title after giving up wrestling in middle school when he a broke a foot and ankle. He returned in 2019 for his junior season, which he finished one round short of placing. He was one of nine Clark Fork state qualifiers, while freshmen Ryder Hansen (103) and Decker Milender (113) were the only other to earn a top seed during divisionals.
Florence seniors Avery Meinzen (160) and Kyler Alm (182) are hoping to end their careers with their first state title. Meinzen took third in 2019 and fourth in 2018, while Alm finished one round short of placing in both 2018 and 2017. They’re the lone Falcons out of the eight state qualifiers who earned a top seed out of the Western B-C.
Thompson Falls sophomore Trae Thilmony is trying to improve upon his third-place finish at 113 pounds last year. He’s now at 120 pounds, has battled in his return from a back injury and is the lone wrestler among the Blue Hawks’ state qualifiers to earn the top seed during divisionals.
Among other Class B-C area teams, Arlee has five state qualifiers, Plains/Hot Springs got four and Bigfork has one. None of them had a wrestler earn the top seed at divisionals.