BILLINGS — One of the great traditions of the state wrestling tournament is the standing ovation given to a four-time champion whenever he completes the feat.
It’s an applause Frenchtown’s Jake Bibler didn’t hear.
Bibler’s bid for a Class A four-peat was upended Saturday by Lewistown’s Cooper Birdwell in the 126-pound finals. Birdwell won by major decision, 15-2, but said the match was closer than the score indicated.
Halfway through the bout, Bibler appeared to aggravate a collarbone injury he suffered earlier in the season. But he finished the match.
“I don’t know if he’s disappointed. We knew going in that he was hurt and wasn’t 100%,” Frenchtown coach Jesse Long said of Bibler, who has yet to decide where to wrestle in college. “Obviously, we’re disappointed with the loss. But Jake’s going to continue his wrestling career and do just fine.”
Bibler could have avoided Birdwell by moving up a weight class, but instead chose to meet the challenge head on this season.
“I have a lot of respect for him for staying at this weight class and wanting to wrestle me,” said Birdwell, who will now chase his own four-peat next year. “He’s a true competitor. A lot of Montana kids would have just bumped up and took the next weight class. Lots of respect for him. He’s a tough guy.”
“He had an opportunity to wrestle other weights, but this is what he wanted to do. We knew the situation,” Long said. “That was never even an option with him. He wanted to wrestle the best competition.”
— Greg Rachac
When Bozeman’s Leif Schroeder earned his fourth consecutive state championship, he became just the 36th wrestler in the state of Montana to do so.
However, there was another wrestler that likely would have joined him had he been able to compete. That, of course, is Belgrade senior John Mears, who entered the season as a three-time state champ.
He was also the odds-on favorite to win a fourth at the 170-pound weight class in AA, yet a string of concussions forced him to cut short his career.
But even though Mears couldn’t compete, he was on hand for the tournament to support his teammates.
“The toughest part was the parade of athletes,” Mears said. “That was hard because my mind was still thinking that I was going to wrestle and that hit me pretty hard right after that was done. I like to be able to lead by example, that’s kind of my motto and I wasn’t able to do that.”
Mears said he had suffered three concussions this year and six or seven throughout his high school career in different sports. But even leading up to divisionals, he hoped he would be cleared.
“It was actually a couple of days before divisionals,” Mears said. “I kind of saw it coming before that, but it was still tough. I was still holding out hope.”
Even though Mears won’t compete on the mat again, his athletic career isn’t over yet as he is going to be a kicker/punter for Montana Western. He also got to take part in one final practice with the Belgrade wrestling team Saturday morning.
“I got to practice for the last time,” Mears said. “Just before the last weigh in, so that was nice. I just rolled around, because I had some headaches and stuff, but it was really fun just to roll around carefree.”
Mears said he is interested in coaching down the road and judging by this weekend, he will be a natural.
“He’s the hardest worker on our team and probably the hardest worker in the state and for him not to be able to wrestle, it’s just brutal,” Belgrade coach Sean Dellwo said. “But the nice thing about it is that he will get to learn a life lesson from it and he’s meant in this world for far greater things than wrestling.”
— Chris Peterson
The tournament was the place to be on Friday and Saturday, with 15,000 fans in attendance over two days of action at First Interstate Arena at MetraPark.
While the Metra was loud with spectators cheering on their favorite wrestlers and teams, the tournament was also widely popular online. It turns out, plenty of fans also enjoy rooting from a distance.
On Friday, there were 29,800 views of the tournament on the NFHS Network, said Bob Rittierodt of Reed Point, the coordinating producer for Montana and Wyoming NFHS content. There were cameras positioned on each mat and fans with a subscription to the NFHS network could stream the action.
“The thing of it is, if you check in and watch it and log out and come back in to log in, it counts as two views, but that’s still a lot,” Rittierodt said.
On Saturday, the early number of views was 6,136. Rittierodt said it is typical for views to fall on a Saturday. Typically, the most views of events come on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
“Today’s viewership, I don’t think that will be that high. A lot of times on Saturday people come to the event or do something else,” Rittierodt said. “People who can’t get away during the week go to the events on Saturday.”
Rittierodt said those with subscriptions to the NFHS Network can stream any event in the nation. Rittierodt said “there’s a revenue sharing and program setup with the schools, so some of that money comes back to the schools.”
The number of views of the state wrestling tournament continues to increase every year, Rittierodt said. He does not believe offering the tourney to internet viewers decreases the amount of fans who attend.
“Yesterday was one of the biggest crowds I’ve seen for five or six years on a Friday, so I don’t think it’s hurting our gates at the state tourney level,” Rittierodt said.
For the state wrestling meet, audio is not available. Other state events, like basketball, volleyball, soccer, softball and track do have play-by-play commentary. However, the scorers' table at a wrestling match is not isolated.
“Wrestling is tough. With all the people down by the mats, we can’t control the microphones,” Rittierodt said. “So, we shut it off.”
According to Rittierodt, some of those watching events on the NFHS Network are college coaches.
“The thing people don’t realize is most college coaches and recruiters watch these events from across the nation,” he said.
Comparing the state wrestling tournament to state championship football games is interesting. For this past season, there were 38,641 total views for football. There were 18,695 views for the Class AA title game.
Overall, Rittierodt said 45 states are part of the NFHS Network. Montana is in the top seven for views for all sports.
— John Letasky
Hamilton’s Bridger Williams cleared a hurdle by making it to the 160-pound finals. Williams had lost in the semis in each of the previous three years.
But Williams’ title bid was stopped by Havre’s Orion Thivierge, who won with a third-period cradle pin.
“Orion’s a good kid. We wrestled a couple times this year and I actually beat him every time we’ve wrestled so far,” Williams said. “But he came out firing. He had a plan and he executed it. He’s got a killer cradle. That’s the first time I’ve been pinned in a long time.”
For Williams, it marked the end of a tumultuous six months.
Williams injured his left knee in a salmon fishing boat accident off the Alaska coast in August. Williams fell overboard, his leg caught on a tow line as the boat led out to the Bering Sea. He almost lost his leg — and his life.
After Saturday’s final match, Williams kept the loss in perspective.
“The whole Alaska thing … I’m just glad I’m still alive,” he said. “That was definitely a lot worse than taking second at state. I’m lucky to have a leg, I’m lucky to be alive, and so I’m glad I got to wrestle this year. Now it’s on to the next level.”
Williams has signed to wrestle at Dickinson State in North Dakota.
— Greg Rachac
During finals night, everyone expected the 126-pound final between Bibler and Birdwell in Class A to be the most exciting match of the weekend. Instead, it was another 126-pound final, in Class AA, that ended up being a classic match.
Matthew DeWitt of Billing Senior squared off against Drake Rhodes of Billings West in another match of state champions, with each wrestler winning a title in 2019.
The two put on a show in the final match of the state tournament, and after a 0-0 score at the end of regulation DeWitt was able to win in sudden victory, giving him a second consecutive state title to close out his career.
“It feels great to be a two-time champ,” DeWitt said. “I wish that we could have gotten it as a team, but man it feels good.”
— Chris Peterson