By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
A trip to Las Vegas is tough to turn down for any college student, but this trip for the Montana State University-Northern wrestling isn't all about blackjack and big bets, flashing lights and fun in the desert sun. Nope, this trip is about cross faces and competition, takedowns, tough NAIA competition and the top wrestling tournament in the West.
The Lights will be in Las Vegas for a pair of duals tonight and the prestigious Las Vegas Invitational on Friday and Saturday.
"The guys are really excited," said head coach David Ray. "They know that these duals can really build us some momentum . It will be a good test for us."
These aren't just any duals against any opponents. Northern will face a solid NCAA Division II team in Central Washington and follow that with a matchup against the defending NAIA national champion Missouri Valley College.
"We did very well against Central Washington last year," Ray said. "I expect us to do it again this year. But we can't overlook them, they have three or four outstanding wrestlers."
It would be easy to look past CWU with the dual against MVC looming.
Ray wants to win this dual for a number of reasons, not so much in terms of overall record, but instead send a message to Missouri Valley that the Lights will be right there fighting for the NAIA national tournament.
"In a fair scenario we should split the matches," Ray said. "That means we need to get some pins and major decisions and not give any of them up ourselves."
Northern will start the match down 6-0, having to forfeit the 125-pound match for the third straight dual. But there is a bright spot in all of this. Freshman Jason Harrington received a minimum required score on his ACT and will be eligible in the spring semester.
Being down six to start places a little extra burden to overcome that with major victories. Ray admitted that just winning the next two matches would only the tie the overall team scores.
Still, Ray doesn't want his wrestlers to try and make up the deficit all at once. He pointed toward senior Caleb Schaeffer, who wrestles the following match at 133 as someone who tries to do that.
"Caleb feels like he has to get those points back by himself by always going for the pin," Ray said. "I know he wants to help the team, but sometimes it gets him into trouble. He's wrestling a real tough kid in Tarl Vickers, but its a match he should win."
All of the MVC wrestlers are pretty tough - actually solid would be a better word to describe them.
"They are all fundamentally sound and come from a solid tradition," Ray said.
At 141 pounds, Chris Smith will take on defending national champion Tyson Biddle in a match Ray believes he can win.
"Caleb beat Biddle three times before Biddle moved up a weight; he's definitely beatable," Ray said.
Anthony Haukenberry will face a stern test at 149 pounds in NAIA runner-up Josh Pulsipher, who pinned Haukenberry last season.
"Hauk is looking much better than last year," Ray said. "He's much stronger, but he needs to go out with more of the attitude that he's not going to get beat."
Stryder Davis will face another returning All-American at 157 pounds in Darion Terry, but Davis should prevail.
At 165, Aaron Jensen will take on a familiar opponent in Drew Dickerson, who beat Jensen by a major decision last year. But Ray said Jensen has been wrestling particularly well as of late.
Freshman David Waters will also be tested by Kiel Giese at 174 pounds, while there will be a great match at 184 featuring Northern's Kyle Fisher and MVC's Mario Thomas. The two wrestlers finished second and third at nationals last year and are currently ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the NAIA.
Mazi Burke will get the nod at 197 against Shane Hall with Emmett Willson moving up a weight to wrestle Adam Nuru, a returning All-American.
In the grand scheme of things, the dual won't decide the season, but it should have some implications at the end.
"Missouri Valley isn't just another team. It's a contender that we'll be butting heads with at nationals," Ray said. "We need to set the tone that we're a team that they'll have to get through for the national title."
If the wrestling competition tonight is tough, the wrestling on the weekend will be unrelenting. The Las Vegas Invitational is one of the best tournaments at any college level. It attracts 54 teams including 35 Division I schools and the top Division II powerhouses.
"It's going to be a battle, but I think our three seniors, Caleb, Kyle and Emmett, along with Stryder, can do well," Ray said.
Willson did extremely well last season, finishing fourth at 197. Ray and Willson both expect even more.
"Emmett was the least bit intimidated last season," Ray said. "Last year he set the goal of finishing in the top three, this year he's expecting to win it."
As for the other three wrestlers, a top-eight finish would be ideal, which means winning at least four matches.
"Winning four matches doesn't seem like that much, but every one of the matches will be tough," Ray said. "This is some of the best competition in the country at any level."
The Northern redshirts and junior varsity will also be in action this weekend at the Si-Tanka Huron Invitational in Huron, S.D.