By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
The phrase "low-key" and David Ray don't often appear together in many sentences. But the Montana State University-Northern wrestling coach even used it himself. And the words "can't be" weren't even in front of it.
Actually, Ray used "low-key" to describe his mentality and the mentality of his wrestlers about their upcoming dual matches, beginning with Western Wyoming College tonight at 7 at the MSU-Northern gymnasium.
After three weeks of competition that featured the toughest wrestling teams in NCAA Division I, NCAA Division II, NCAA Division III and the NAIA, any wrestling has to be low-key.
"We've had a very intense three weeks that were pretty pressure-packed," Ray said. "I'm looking at these next duals as very low-key for us."
Low-key doesn't mean Ray has stopped caring about winning or losing. He expects his team to win any time it steps on the mat. Realistically, the Lights should have no trouble winning, if they wrestle up to their capabilities.
"I'm not going to be on them as much," Ray said. "I'm just going to let them go out there and take care of business. If everybody takes care of themselves against their own individual opponents, we should win the duals."
While Ray is confident in his wrestlers' abilities, he admitted that Western Wyoming is no pushover. The Lights defeated the Spartans, 30-12, earlier in the season. In that dual, Northern lost just two matches (165, 174) while surrendering a forfeit at 125 pounds.
This time around, Western Wyoming will be surrendering a forfeit at 157 pounds. But the Spartans will have several formidable wrestlers at the other weight classes.
WWC has solid wrestlers at 141, 165, 174 and heavyweight. Northern's Chris Smith will face Marc Fisher at 141 pounds. Smith defeated Fisher 10-4 earlier in the year, but Ray said the match should be a good one.
At 165, WWC's Nick Larsen, ranked fifth in the NJCAA, defeated Aaron Jensen 3-0 in the previous dual. Ray may give Jensen the opportunity to avenge the loss, or bump Stryder Davis up a weight class to wrestle Larsen.
At 174, Western Wyoming's Mike Casperson defeated David Waters 5-4 in overtime in the previous dual. This time, transfer Jesse Juarez will take on Casperson. Juarez has been outstanding since becoming eligible at semester.
"Jesse's been solid," Ray said. "He should be fine."
As has been the case for most of the season, Emmett Willson will make the move up to heavyweight to face John Fager, who is ranked third in the NJCAA.
On Friday night, Northern will welcome defending NJCAA national champion North Idaho College. Last season, the Lights went into Coeur d'Alene and suffered a tough 24-21 loss to the Cardinals. However, much has changed in the NIC program since then. Gone are six sophomores from last year's squad, while returning All-American 133-pounder Justin Pearch is out with an injury.
But the Cardinals' cupboard is far from bare. NIC, ranked fourth in the NJCAA, returns a pair of All-Americans at 184 and heavyweight, and several other quality wrestlers at the other weight classes.
At 184, sophomore Blair Alderman will face Northern's Kyle Fisher. Alderman is ranked third in the NJCAA and finished fifth at last year's national tournament.
NIC's other returning All-American will have his hands full at heavyweight. Israel Silva finished third at last year's national tournament and is ranked second in the NJCAA. Silva will get the pleasure of wrestling Willson, who will move up from 197.
The Cardinals have another good wrestler at 125 pounds in Burke Barnes, who is ranked fourth in the country. The remainder of NIC's wrestlers aren't nationally ranked, but they are still quite capable of winning matches.
"They're a very well-coached team with solid, fundamentally sound wrestlers," Ray said. "We have to go out and compete hard with intensity and intelligence. If we go out there unfocused and do something stupid, they are good enough to capitalize and beat us."
As good as North Idaho is, the Cardinals are still down from last year, as evidenced by a 40-3 loss to Northwest College, the top-ranked NJCAA team in the country, earlier in the season. Northern has beaten Northwest twice this season in convincing fashion. According to basic logic, it means the Lights should win the dual.
Ray doesn't dispute the logic, but isn't making any predictions.
"It's not that North Idaho is weak. It's just that Northwest is that much better," Ray said. "They know we've beat Northwest twice, which helps."
Northern will go with its usual lineup of Jason Harrington at 125, Caleb Schaeffer at 133, Smith at 141, Anthony Haukenberry at 149 and Davis at 157. Jensen will replace Ryan Hall at 165, while Juarez will go at 174, Kyle Fisher at 184, Mazi Burke at 197 and Wilson at heavyweight.
This past week, Ray has had his wrestlers focusing on individual improvement in certain areas, including being better at getting out of the bottom position.
"We need to be better at getting out from bottom," Ray said. "We saw that we're not very good against Boise State. We've been working on it and I'll be watching closely to see that we're improving on that."
With the low-key approach that Ray and his team are taking this week, he believes that it will only lead to increased scoring on the mat.
"I think you'll see more pins because they'll be more relaxed and not worried about giving up points," Ray said. "With the competition we've wrestled in the past three weeks, you had to worry about giving up one or two points because you could get beaten. We know this weekend, if we wrestle like we're capable of, we will be fine."
Both of Northern's duals will start at 7 p.m.