By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
In a four-day span, the best team in NAIA wrestling will meet the best of the rest. And it won't even be the toughest competition of the year.
The top-ranked Montana State University-Northern wrestling team will hook up tonight with the top team in the NJCAA in the Northwest College Trappers in Powell, Wyo. And before the sweat from the dual is dry and the van from the trip is refueled, the Lights will be on a plane to Cleveland for the NAIA national duals, where they will face the second, third and fourth-ranked teams in the NAIA.
All of that with a major home dual meet with NCAA Division I Boise State on Jan. 24 looming in the background.
While Lights head coach David Ray admits that the duals against the NAIA schools are maybe just a little more important, tonight's dual should be the most important thing on his wrestlers' minds.
Despite handily defeating Northwest 24-12 on Dec. 13, Ray knows that his team won't just waltz into Powell, pick up a win and dance right out. The Trappers are the No. 1 ranked team in their division for a reason. And after getting beaten in Havre, they would like nothing more than to return the favor.
"I've heard that everyone down there is talking about this dual," Ray said. "It will be a lot tougher dual this time. For them it will be the last time they see us. Since they're a junior college, being ranked number one doesn't happen every year, so they are really going to be coming after us."
Indeed, when you're ranked on top, the waiting list of people wanting to knock you off is long and distinguished. But Ray isn't concerned about rankings, he's worried about something a little more simple - winning.
Anyone who has met Ray even once soon sees that his competitive streak is about as wide as the state of Montana. So if he's going to take his team all the way to Wyoming for one dual, you can bet he wants to win.
"I'm not going to worry about us staying number one," Ray said. "I just want to win. Any time we step on the mat , we want to win. You have to want to get out there and battle. I want the dual to start right now."
One thing that adds to Ray's excitement is the opportunity to face Northwest with a full lineup. For the first time this season, Northern will not forfeit a weight class and basically hand the opposing team six free points.
Freshman Jason Harrington will suit up as a member of the Lights' varsity team for the first time this season at 125 pounds.
Harrington got eligible during the first semester, but according to the NAIA's rules, he wasn't allowed to participate until this semester. After forfeiting every match at 125 in duals thus far, Ray is pleased to not only have a wrestler to fill the spot, but a very capable wrestler.
"Just having a match at 125 will make a difference," Ray said. "They won't get six points automatically. At worst they would most likely get three points with a loss, but Harrington isn't the type of kid to just roll over. He's going to go out there and compete."
Harrington will face a solid wrestler in sixth-ranked Seth Wright. At 133, top-ranked Caleb Schaeffer will face Pat Sharp, whom he defeated 14-9 in the previous dual. It wasn't one of Schaeffer's better performances this season. However, he has been wrestling extremely well as of late and Ray expects it to continue.
"Caleb didn't have his greatest match last time, but I am pretty sure he's going to come out ready," Ray said.
In the previous dual, the 141-pound match was a turning point as Northern's Chris Smith defeated top-ranked Eric Sabot 5-4 in overtime. While many Northwest fans feel, Sabot will have his revenge tonight, Ray isn't quite as sure.
"I honestly think Chris can beat him again," Ray said. "He's wrestled a lot of guys tougher than (Sabot) since that match. Chris is just a goer out on the mat."
Ray may have to change some things up at 149. Anthony Haukenberry injured an elbow during the championship match of last weekend's Dickinson State Invitational. Haukenberry might not be able to go against Luke Salazar, whom he defeated 4-1. If Haukenberry can't go, Lance Nelson will wrestle in his place and is capable of beating Salazar.
"Lance has been up on him twice in the third period this season," Ray said. "He just got turned late."
Stryder Davis will return at 157 after taking a week off to rest a sore shoulder. Davis will meet Jake Wright, who he defeated 9-4 at the Cowboy Open earlier in the season.
The next two weights will feature lineup changes for Northern. At 165, Ryan Hall defeated Aaron Jensen in a double overtime wrestle off. Hall, who won the Dickinson tournament last weekend at 157, moved up to get more varsity matches to push for one of the remaining spots on Northern's national championship roster.
"Hall can't weigh in over 161 so he can stay certified at 157," Ray said. "He really wants to get some varsity matches. We have nine duals, which is basically like three tournaments."
Jesse Juarez will also be seeing his varsity dual action at 174 pounds. He will face Trevor Moss, whom defeated Northern's David Waters 7-4 in the earlier dual.
At 184 pounds, Kyle Fisher should make quick work of Northwest's Jess Holmgren. Fisher pinned Holmgren in the first period of their previous match.
"Kyle pinned that guy pretty early last time, and I expect him to pin him again," Ray said.
Mazi Burke will be looking for a little revenge at 197 pounds. Burke suffered a 7-3 loss to Robert Roszkiewicz, after having beaten him earlier in the season. Burke was bothered by a badly dislocated finger in the loss, but he has been wrestling particularly well as of late and expects it to continue.
"Mazi has been looking good lately," Ray said. "He is a much better wrestler than that kid and we've reminded him of that loss this week."
Emmett Willson will make the jump to heavyweight for tonight's dual and the duals in Cleveland. It's nothing new for Willson, who has wrestled the majority of Northern's duals at heavyweight, including the previous dual against Northwest.
Willson will face the top-ranked and defending NJCAA champion Tyler Rhodes for the second time. In the previous dual, Willson used his speed and athleticism to pick up a 10-4 win over Rhodes, who tips the scales at roughly 280 pounds.
"Emmett will be fine," Ray said. "He knows how he has to wrestle against those big guys. I know he likes the challenge of it."
On paper, Northern stacks up pretty well. But wrestling matches aren't decided on paper. And Ray knows that anything can happen, especially in a hostile environment.
"They beat us at their place in 1997," Ray said. "It's going to be packed. I know they're trying to get a lot of people there. They don't have many home duals and school's back in session. But our guys are pretty fired up for this dual. The way I look at it, even if we have a bad night, we still win six matches and the dual."
There is no time for a bad night this weekend. The NAIA national duals in Cleveland will be a meeting of the very best in NAIA - at least in terms of national rankings.
On Saturday, Northern will take on No. 3 Lindenwood College at 11 a.m., follow that up with a dual against No. 4 Menlo College at 1 p.m. and No. 2 Missouri Valley College at 3 p.m.
"It's going to be a battle," Ray said. "There will be some furious competition. Right now we feel like we can win all of them."
It seems like a tall order, considering that all three schools have several wrestlers in the NAIA rankings, particularly Lindenwood, which has six wrestlers ranked in the top eight, including the top-ranked wrestler, Roger Miller, at heavyweight.
And unless there is a forfeit, Willson will stay at heavyweight in every one of the duals.
"Emmett doesn't care," Ray said. "I think he wants to wrestle (Miller). If anything, just to beat him, so when (Miller) wins nationals, Emmett will know he beat him, too."
Every one of the matches where Lindenwood has ranked wrestlers, Ray considers pivotal matches. As for the duals against Menlo and Missouri Valley, Ray is also concerned. Northern saw Menlo at the Dickinson tourney last weekend and Ray believes a solid performance will lead to a win. The Lights defeated Missouri Valley, 24-19 on Dec. 4, and Ray said his team can improve on that.
"I think our lineup is stronger than it was for that dual," Ray said. "We aren't giving up a forfeit and our guys have had plenty of tough match experience since then."
Besides getting wins, Ray also wants the psychological advantage that comes with those wins, especially against teams it will directly compete against for the NAIA national title.
"If we're not ready to go mentally and physically, we can get beat," Ray said. "But our guys know how big this is. We want to go out and make a statement against those teams and prove what kind of team Northern has before nationals. Getting wins puts just a little doubt in the back of their minds. It also gives us confidence. Confidence for the wrestlers, for the team and for the program. It helps out everyone."
People wishing to keep up with NAIA national duals can go to www.nwcaonline.com/ for updated results.