By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
A warning to the Montana State University-Northern wrestlers: Head coach David Ray is going to be watching each one of you closely this weekend - yes, even more intently than normal. If that's possible.
The Lights begin a trying and difficult three-week stretch on Saturday at the Dickinson State Blue Hawk Invitational wrestling tournament in Dickinson, N.D. and Ray will be watching their every move.
"I'm going to be watching them very closely," Ray said. "I want to see how they react to the competition. This is a very important meet for us."
The importance of the meet comes at several different levels. Just two weeks after the Christmas break, Ray expects his wrestlers to be free of any rust they might have incurred. The Lights have to be, because this tournament will have repercussions down the road.
Besides featuring the top NCAA Division III team in Augsburg College and perennial NAIA powers Menlo College and William Penn, the tournament will feature every team from Northern's region. And when and if, Lights wrestlers do meet up with opponents from the region, they need to win and win convincingly.
Obviously from a psychological standpoint a dominant win is nice, but wins over opponents from the region mean higher seeding for Northern wrestlers at the Northern Regional tournament in Havre on Feb. 14.
"It's very important that we win those matches for seeding at the regional tournament," Ray said. "We want our wrestlers seeded as high as possible to make sure we aren't wrestling each other in the quarterfinals or semifinals. The better we do at regionals, the better our seeding is at the national tournament."
No wrestler is safe from the watchful eye of Ray - well, maybe one wrestler.
Senior Emmett Willson is in the midst of a brilliant season and is coming off a pair of tournament titles. His success this season has garnered him the high honor of competing in the 38th Annual National Wrestling Coaches Association All-Star Classic Dual on Feb. 2 in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Willson is only the second non-NCAA Division I student-athlete to compete in this event.
"This is probably one of the highest honors any collegiate wrestler or athlete can achieve," Ray said. "Winning the Las Vegas Invitational, Midlands and defeating the No. 2, No. 4, No. 5, No. 8, No. 9, No. 13 and No. 16 Division I ranked athletes and a 30-0 record help propel Emmett to this nomination."
"I don't have to worry too much about Emmett," Ray said. "But everyone else, I will be watching very close even Caleb (Schaeffer), Stryder (Davis) and Kyle (Fisher)."
All three of those wrestlers are ranked first in their respective weight classes in the NAIA. Still, all three will see good competition this weekend.
The Dickinson tournament boasts its strongest field ever with the addition of Menlo and William Penn. Both are among a small group of NAIA national contenders and Ray will be very interested to see what they have.
"Menlo is ranked fifth as a team," Ray said. "We are going to dual them in Cleveland at the NAIA national duals, so it will be good to get an early look at them. I am very interested to see if William Penn actually makes the trip; if they do that will make the tournament even tougher."
The strongest team at the tournament besides Northern would have to be Augsburg, which will bring a large group of wrestlers to compete in all weight classes.
"They are all just solid, strong fundamental wrestlers," Ray said. "There's a reason they're number one in Division III."
Also competing in the meet will be the host Bluehawks, University of Mary, Jamestown College along with Division II schools Chadron State, Northern State, some wresters from the University of Wyoming and North Dakota State and several other schools. A total of 19 teams will be there making it a very strong tournament for the area.
"It's obviously not as tough as Las Vegas or Midlands," Ray said. "But it's much better than last weekend's tourney in Dana; it's just a little bit below the Cowboy Open."
Northern will take 19 wrestlers to the tournament and Ray holds high expectations for each.
"I am hoping each of them rises to the occasion," Ray said. "This is what you crave is good competition. You want them to get up for challenges. I hope they're excited. These next three weeks are going to be a test. Hopefully, we're physically and mentally prepared for it, because if we're not it's my fault."