Butte wrestlers gather steam for end of season

Butte High wrestling coach Jim Bob Humphrey is in his first year leading the Bulldog wrestling program, but he’s been around the block a few times and knows what’s going on.

Still, the relative shortness of the Montana prep wrestling season caught him a bit off guard.

“You look at the season, and it kind of seems like you have four months from November to February,” Humphrey said, noting that the season hasn’t gone on that long, and it’s very near the end.

Butte High competes in the Class AA Duals this weekend in Great Falls, hosts Billings West and Senior the following weekend, then travels to Bozeman for the Eastern AA Seeding tourney before the State All-Class Wrestling tourney in Billings Feb 8-9.

That’s it.

“It really has gone by fast,” Humphrey said. “We’ve tried to maximize our time, especially considering how young we are. There’s a lot to do and not much time to get it in. I tell the kids that if they’re waiting for wrestling season, we’re already sunk.”

That being said, Humphrey is also excited for the final push of the season for his team.

“This will be the first time all year we’re all healthy and at weight,” Humphrey said, then checked himself. “I hate to get ahead of myself – we’re not there yet.”

Still, the Bulldogs have much of their lineup returning from injuries, and they’re ready to get back on the mat. Nowhere is that more evident than at 135 pounds, where three experienced hands – Jarret Rowling, Levi Renz and Gage Weston – will be vying for the varsity position for this weekend’s duals. Challenge matches will be held during Wednesday’s practice.

“I wish we had six competing for the spot,” Humphrey said. “One of them is going to have to move around and make some more competition somewhere else. It’s all about the competition. We’ve got 12 varsity spots open and 20 guys fighting for them, but we’ll solve that Wednesday.”

Butte’s sizable – and talented – freshman class populates much of the roster, but the bunch from 105 pounds to 125 should see plenty of action in Wednesday’s challenges. Ax Henningsen and Kelly Merrick are a couple of Butte’s outstanding ninth graders.

“Kelly’s a kid who can beat anyone in the state when he thinks he can,” Humphrey said. “Experience is the biggest thing there.”

The 160-pound class should also see a rush of wrestlers, as Nick Challeen will try to defend his varsity spot against Wyatt Merkel, Quinn Cunneen, Justin Best and Mason Ruppel. A heated battle is also expected to decide Bryce Armstrong’s backup, as Andy Anderson and Cian Randall have shown competitive fire.

Humphrey also pointed to Taran Bennett, Guy St. John and Kaleb Ferriter as wrestlers who have stepped in and done well with little high school experience.

“A lot of the top-two guys in the weight classes are freshmen,” Humphrey said, “But we’ve talked about it and the kids know that the grade level doesn’t matter. We weigh in at the same level as our opposition.”

The Bulldogs also saw second-place finishes at last week’s Rocky Mountain Jug Beck Invitational in Missoula, as Armstrong and Tommy Challeen advanced to the finals in their weight classes.

Butte is a bit light at the heavier weights, but that’s just in numbers. Billy Robinson has made the 285-pound class his home, while Johnny Walker has settled in at 215.

“Billy has done extremely well at heavyweight and Johnny’s come a long way too,” Humphrey said. “They have both improved so much; I just wish we had another month in the season because they get better each week.”

At the other end of the scale, Blake Bowen has been the lone man filling the 98-pound category. The sophomore had a tough go last season, as he only managed to score a few points, but he has begun to find his form. Bowen earned the first win of his career at the Bozeman Invitational, then fought his way to a 14-5 win against Bozeman’s 98 pounder in a dual.

“Blake got all over that kid from Bozeman,” Humphrey said with a smile. “He’s just so coachable, and he didn’t give the kid room to breathe. It was very exciting for us because everyone on the team sees how hard he works and we’re all behind him. That was definitely a high point for us.”

The Class AA Duals are slated to begin at 10 a.m. in Great Falls on Saturday. Humphrey said he expected to possibly be matched up with Helena High or Missoula Big Sky in the first round.