By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
This isn't just any wrestling tournament - this is the elite For seven Montana State University-Northern wrestlers, the opportunity to compete against the elite will come this weekend when they travel to Midlands Wrestling Championships in Evanston, Ill.
"This is simply the best tournament these guys will ever wrestle in," said Lights head coach David Ray. "You only get so many opportunities to compete against the elite."
How elite? This isn't a college wrestling tournament, it's a championship tournament. So besides the best NCAA Division I wrestlers, there will also be several wrestlers who have graduated from school and are now trying to prepare to qualify for the 2004 Olympics.
When asked to compare Midlands to the Cliff Keen Invitational tournament in Las Vegas that the Lights competed in a month ago, Ray was blunt, calling the Vegas trip a "good warmup."
"This tournament is much tougher than Vegas," Ray said. "You have all the good Division I programs including all the Big-10 schools, Oregon State, Iowa State and Arizona State, but it's the unattached guys, who compete internationally, that make it really tough."
One of those unattached wrestler will be perhaps the single greatest wrestler in NCAA history. Cael Sanderson, formerly of Iowa State, who finished his college career undefeated and a four-time NCAA national title champ, will be there along with several other outstanding amateur wrestler with Olympic aspirations.
Despite the high level of talent, Ray still has high expectations for his wrestlers, one in particular.
"I want to win matches plain and simple," Ray said. "We can win matches in this tournament, does that mean I think they'll place? That would be tough, but I don't think anyone should go 0-2."
One person who will win matches is senior Emmett Willson, who will go into the 197-pound division seeded No. 2 overall.
Willson finished fourth last year in the tournament, losing to former Iowa star Lee Fullhart in the semifinals and Chris Stretkowicz of Hofstra. Stretkowicz will be the top seed at 197, which leaves Ray very optimistic at Willson's chances to get to the final matches.
"Emmett has his sights set on winning," Ray said. "If he wrestles like he's capable of I don't see why it couldn't happen."
Along with Willson, Ray will take Caleb Schaeffer (133), Chris Smith (141), Stryder Davis (157), Jesse Juarez (174) and true freshman Emory Wilson (174).
"Emory was going to be there with his parents, so I figured I might as well let him get out there and experience it," Ray said. "It will be good for him in the long run."
Schaeffer competed at Midlands last year and is familiar with the competition. Ray hopes that the experience at the Cliff Keen Invitational will help his first-time wrestlers.
"It was good to see the high intensity level in Vegas, but the intensity at this meet will be even higher," Ray said. "Guys that take first in Vegas usually finish fifth or sixth in this tournament."
What it really boils down to for the Northern wrestlers is attitude. Ray said his team has to go in there with a mixture confidence and fearlessness
"They need to just go out and compete hard because they have nothing to lose," Ray said. "We're the only NAIA school to ever wrestle there in my 11 years going to it and people don't expect much. But I do.
"This is a mental tournament," Ray added. "It's going to test them more mentally than anything. We need to believe we can compete. We need to compete mentally because physically we're right there."
The Midlands Championships start on Saturday at the Welsh-Ryan Arena. People looking for up-to-date results can go to wrestlingmall.com