By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
If there were any doubters about the Montana State University-Northern wrestling team deserving to be the top-ranking team in NAIA, there are significantly fewer following Saturday night's defeat of the Northwest Community College Trappers.
After surrendering a forfeit at 125 pounds, Northern reeled off five consecutive wins to set the tone early and basically end any chances of the No. 1 team in the NJCAA knocking off the No. 1 team in NAIA.
"I'm pleased," said head coach David Ray. "That's a solid team that we beat. We win seven out of nine matches and very easily could've won eight out of 10."
The Lights spotted Northwest a quick six points with the forfeit at 125 pounds. However, Northern cut into that lead as Caleb Schaeffer picked up a hardfought 14-9 win over Pat Sharp that trimmed the lead to 6-3.
Northern tied the team score at six as Chris Smith edged the No. 1-ranked wrestler in the NJCAA in Eric Sabot. Smith rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the third quarter by picking up an escape and nice single-leg takedown to tie the match at four. It looked as though Smith might get the win in regulation as he nearly took down Sabot again with another single leg, but he came up just short as time expired.
In the overtime, both wrestlers failed to score a point, forcing the match into sudden death. Smith was able to ride Sabot out in the first round and then pick up an escape point for the win.
"I knew he was done after regulation," Smith said. "I was tired too, but it was nothing compared to him. He was out of gas. I was just going to stay on him all the time."
Said Ray: "I was real pleased with Chris's match. He's taken a big step mentally. This is one of the mental barriers in his career that he needed to get over."
Before the match, Ray pointed to Smith's match as a possible turning point. Smith understood the challenge and relished it.
"I knew it was an important match for the team and for myself," he said. "He beat me by two points earlier in the season."
The other match that Ray pointed to as a difference-maker was at 149 and once again his wrestler responded.
Sophomore Anthony Haukenberry ground out a 4-1 victory over No. 1- ranked Luke Salazar to push the Northern lead to 9-6.
Haukenberry scored an early reversal and rode Salazar the remainder of the match, physically punishing him and scoring an extra point for riding time.
"Haukenberry controlled the guy the whole time," Ray said. He dominated the kid on top and bottom. The kid was basically stalling the whole time."
Suddenly a dual that was supposed to be close was anything but. Northern had dispatched with two of Northwest's best wrestlers with its big guns still waiting to wrestle.
"You could see their attitude change after those losses," Ray said. "We looked across the mat at the bench and everything had changed."
Northern continued to roll as Stryder Davis defeated Cort Peterson 4-2 in the 157-pound match. Davis scored an early takedown and added an escape and riding-time point to secure the match.
Up 12-6, Northern got another critical win from Aaron Jensen at 165 pounds. Jensen scored an 8-4 win over Kade Caturia, thanks to an aggressive style. Jensen attacked Caturia's legs, scoring three double-leg takedowns in the match.
"That's a big win for Jensen," Ray said. "He did a nice job on his doubles and finishing his shots."
Northwest finally registered a win at 174 pounds as Trevor Moss defeated Northern's David Waters 7-4. Waters had some opportunities, but Moss scored an escape and a pair of late takedowns in the third period to seal the match and trim Northern's lead to 15-9.
"Waters needs to develop a leg attack," Ray said. "You can't expect to win matches at this level with just an upper body attack."
But any thoughts of a Northwest comeback were quickly squelched as Kyle Fisher made quick work of Jess Holmgren, pinning him late in the first period. The six points from the win by fall gave Northern a 21-9 lead, which meant that Northwest would have needed two pins to tie the match.
"Kyle did what we expected him to do - went out and took it to him right away and got the pin," Ray said.
Northwest scored another win at 197 pounds as Robert Roszkiewicz avenged an earlier loss to Mazi Burke by beating him 7-3. Burke dislocated the middle finger on one of his hands twice in the match and it clearly bothered him throughout.
Even though Burke lost, Northern was assured of the dual win regardless of the outcome of the final match. But it was the final match that everyone wanted to see.
Northern's two-time defending national champ, Emmett Willson, defeated defending NCJAA national heavyweight Tyler Rhodes 10-4 in a match that featured a contrast of size and style.
Willson, who normally wrestles at 197 pounds, used his speed and athleticism to defeat the much bigger Rhodes, who tipped the scales at 283 pounds, two below the weight limit. Willson scored three takedowns on pretty single-leg sweeps, while making sure not to get caught in bad position where Rhodes could overpower him.
"He's the biggest guy I've wrestled," Willson said. "The guy from Missouri Valley was 282. You have to be careful because they've got more strength. You can't get caught underneath them or you're in trouble."
Normally, Willson is used to being the stronger, more physical wrestler on the mat, but wrestling some heavyweight opponents this year has forced him to modify his style.
"We've been working on those single-leg sweeps to use against heavyweights," he said.
"You have to be careful when you're wrestling someont that much heavier," Ray said. "Emmett did a good job of staying on the side of him and not getting caught underneath."
While he was excited about his win, Willson was quick to praise his teammates' success.
"Chris Smith and Haukenberry have huge hearts and it showed tonight," Willson said. "They wrestled some tough opponents and they did everything they could to win."