By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
The Montana State University-Northern wrestling team will begin defense of its 2003-04 NAIA national title on Friday night when it faces the University of Calgary in its first dual match of the season.
The defending champs will follow that up with a dual against, well, a bunch of former national champs, as Northern will hold its annual alumni dual on Saturday night.
For Lights' head coach David Ray, it has been business as usual with practice starting on Sept. 15.
"We have got 32 guys and we've been going hard since September and so far nobody has quit," Ray said. "I've been extremely impressed with the attitude and work ethic that they have shown."
To say Ray's preseason conditioning drills are tough, might be the understatement of the year. It would also be like saying Ray is sort of intense.
"I just don't see any soft people in the room," he said. "It's hard to say if we are ahead of where we were last year, because we had some good seniors that provided a lot of leadership."
Gone are senior national champions Emmett Willson, Kyle Fisher and Caleb Schaeffer. Willson and Fisher are still around, providing knowledge as assistant coaches, while Schaeffer is an assistant at the newly started University of Great Falls program
Unfortunately for Ray, none of the 32 wrestlers has really taken the step forward to be a leader. He is waiting for at least one person, if not more, to assume the duties.
"There is a lot of responsibility that comes with being a leader," Ray said. "It's not always a fun position, but we need to have some."
The likely candidates are defending national champs Stryder Davis and Anthony Haukenberry, along with returning All-Americans Chris Smith and David Waters and national tournament qualifiers Aaron Jensen, Jesse Juarez and Mazi Burke.
Besides the returnees, Ray has brought in several talented newcomers led by talented heavyweight Chase Gormley, who tips the scales at the maximum weight of 275 pounds.
"Chase is a monster," Ray said. "He actually has to cut weight to make sure he's under 275."
Besides Gormley, newcomers Mike McPeak, Steven Boger, Zach Morgan, Josh Robinson, J.R. Carter, Brian Luna and Bridger Sacher will be making their Northern debuts this weekend.
Also wrestling is senior Dustyn Azure, who returns from knee surgery, sophomore Jason Harrington, redshirts Dale Seley, Brian Fritchman, Emory Willson and Dan Shaw.
The Calgary dual will feature a modified scoring system. Each match will have two 3-minute periods and scoring will only come from takedowns. Each takedown is worth one point If a wrestler scores a takedown that brings their opponent from feet to back, then the wrestler can try for a near fall or a pin.
"It's a fun way to wrestle and it makes them more aggressive," Ray said.
Calgary's lineup features solid wrestlers at 152 pounds in Damon Booth, at 160 in Joe Bentley and at 200 in Beamer Comfort.
While there a few tough matches in the Calgary dual, the alumni dual will offer no free matches with eight national champions and six all-Americans returning to compete
Willson, Fisher, Schaeffer, Matt Campbell (1993), Mark Lane (2000), Tyson Thivierge (2002) and four-time champion Turk Lords will all be competing. Recent Northern hall of fame inductee Chris Faber will compete along with former all-Americans Bobby Mantle, Carl Valley, Lyle Cronk and Nate Laslovich.
"I wouldn't mind coaching that team," Ray joked. "I think we might be able to win a national title with that squad."
The Northern/Calgary dual will begin at 7:30 p.m. tonight. The alumni dual will also begin at 7:30 on Saturday.