By George Ferguson
By Montana State University-Northern junior Kyle Fisher came to the NAIA national wrestling tournament with a lot of unanswered questions and a lot to prove. Not only was Fisher seeking a national championship at 174 pounds in Great Falls this past weekend, but he was seeking to put a long season to rest.
I am definitely not a wrestler, but I understand the hard work and dedication that collegiate wrestlers, or any wrestlers, go through during the course of a season. There is conditioning, dieting, practice, school and on top of all of that, a Lights schedule that borders on brutal.
However, this year was especially tough for Fisher. When you wrestle for one of the most storied wrestling programs in NAIA history, certain things are desired in terms of performance and even more things are expected. It was something that Fisher became all too familiar with.
Fisher was dogged all week and throughout the weekend by the same familiar set of words. The statement preceding Fisher's name in every newspaper article and television interview read something along the lines of, "MSU-Northern's Kyle Fisher has not had a season that is typical of him or the Lights wrestling program."
I read it in the Great Falls Tribune and the Billings Gazette on Friday and heard it on the Great Falls news on Friday night. Even my esteemed colleague and boss here at the Havre Daily News, preceded Fisher's name with a similar statement in his national tournament preview article on Thursday afternoon.
I was even guilty of writing the same thing after Fisher lost in the 174-pound championship match on Saturday night.
Criticism is part of the deal when you are an exceptional athlete. Fisher will be the first to admit it. You aren't always going to like what people say about you, but it's part of the gig. Still, it doesn't always help when all you're trying to do is focus on a national championship and trying to help your team.
The true mark of an athlete is how they can overcome all of this and perform at their highest level. Fisher did that and more this past weekend.
From the start of the tournament, it appeared that Fisher was on a mission. I watched a lot of wrestlers in the early rounds and while they all had that look of determination in their eyes. To me, it seemed Fisher had just a little more determination than most.
Call it a chip on the shoulder, or sense of urgency. Fisher looked like he had something to prove the second he stepped on the mat.
After winning a tough first-round decision, Fisher pumped his fist and was clearly fired up, while most ranked wrestlers seemed just glad to make it through the first-round without a loss.
In Friday night's quarterfinal, Fisher quickly dispatched his opponent with a fast pinfall, raised his arms in the air and walked out of the arena. But, he knew his work was not done.
"I felt like I did have something to prove this weekend," Fisher said after the tournament had concluded on Saturday night. "I was on a mission and I just tried to put everything that has happened to me this season in the past and focus on what was going on right now."
On Saturday morning, Fisher may have all but silenced his critics and definitely laid the past season to rest. Trailing by one point to second-ranked Thelton Detry of Cumberland College in the 174-pound semifinals, Fisher scored a dramatic two-point reversal with just under twenty seconds remaining in the match to advance to the championship round for the second straight season.
The victory over Detry earned the praise of Lights head coach David Ray, who at times has been what good coaches are, a wrestler's toughest critic.
"Kyle's semifinal match was an example of why you don't give up on Kyle Fisher," Ray said. "People don't realize how good of a wrestler Detry is and for Kyle to hang in there and beat him shows that there is no quit in him."
And while Fisher could not pull off another upset victory over top-ranked and undefeated Larry Johnson of Dickinson State in the championship match, he again exemplified just what Ray was talking about.
Johnson scored critical takedowns in every period and seemed to be strong enough to keep Fisher from taking an offensive approach. But somehow, someway Fisher kept the match within two points and Johnson had to score a late takedown to seal the victory.
Wrestlers aren't into moral victories, and Fisher was no different. But with all the disappointment of not winning a title, a part of him knows the people that questioned his regular season could know longer question his intensity and heart. And it will only make him more prepared for next season.
"I came here to to win a national title and I didn't do that so I am pretty disappointed," Fisher said. "But I can leave here knowing that I put the past behind me and I left it all on the mat in this tournament. I know I gave it everything I had.
"It is tough to get to the finals twice and not win it," Fisher added. "But I know that I am capable of doing it and that gives me a lot of confidence going into next year. It has been a tough season. I gave everything I had and I am definitely looking forward to next season."
The true mark of a competitor is how they deal with adversity. Kyle Fisher left an indelible mark on the 2003 NAIA national wrestling tournament. Fisher not only dealt with the adversity, he rose above it.
He wrestled well, he was one of the top scorers on his team, he became a repeat All-American and most importantly, he silenced his critics.
It was like he said, he left it all on the mat.