By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
Really, why should this weekend be any different for the Montana State University-Northern wrestling team? Yes, it is the NAIA national tournament, the one weekend that every member of the Lights squad circled on their calendars when the season started. Still, to head coach David Ray, the weekend shouldn't be different.
It shouldn't be any tougher or any more nerve-racking. It should be just like any other competition his team faced this year. Basically, that was what all those other duals and tournaments were for, preparing for the national tournament, which begins Friday morning at the Swarthout Fieldhouse on the Great Falls High campus.
"This is what we've been working for since the first day of conditioning at the beginning of the year," Ray said.
Don't think that Ray believes his team is peaking at just the right time. He doesn't buy into the idea of peaking. He expects his team to compete at its peak level all year. Obviously, there are going be some weeks that are better than others, but for the most part, Lights wrestlers are expected to compete at their highest level whenever they step on the wrestling mat.
"We need to go in with the same mentality that we do for duals, tournaments or any time we step on the mat - which is the desire to defeat each of our opponents at every weight class," Ray said. "I think that our schedule this year has more than prepared us."
Indeed, most teams' schedules in the NAIA pale in comparison with Northern's, which had several different stops featuring NCAA Division I competition.
"If you look at some of our individual records, they have more losses than other wrestlers' records, but a lot of our losses have come against Division I opponents," Ray said. "We've wrestled tougher competition than a lot of other people, and it should pay off in the end."
Even with some of the Lights having a few more blemishes on their records, Northern still comes into the tournament as the prohibitive favorite, and with good reason.
The Lights have spent the bulk of the season atop the NAIA team rankings. And during that time, Northern did nothing to descend from the top. The Lights defeated the No. 2 through No. 5 teams in dual action while finishing with a 16-1 dual record on the season.
Besides the season accomplishments, Northern comes into the tournament with nine wrestlers ranked in the top six, including five wrestlers sitting atop their respective weight classes.
"Obviously, the other coaches have to believe that we're pretty good," Ray said. "But really, those rankings don't mean a thing when the tournament starts."
What the rankings do show is that the Lights are more than just good; they are consistent, led by seniors Caleb Schaeffer, Kyle Fisher and Emmett Willson. The trio has never been a part of a national championship team and would like nothing better than to end their careers as one.
"Anything less than a championship would be a disappointment," Schaeffer said after the regional tournament. "From the very first day, this is what we've worked at. Now it's here and we just have to go out and do it."
Said Fisher: "Winning a championship is something that Emmett, Caleb and myself came here for. We have a great chance this weekend. But we've had great chances in the past. We still have to go out and wrestle to win."
No person better exemplifies the idea of consistency and wrestling to win better than the two-time defending champ Willson, who brings a 46-0 record to the tourney. He has had a phenomenal year, and a third straight NAIA title would be the perfect capper to his collegiate career.
"It all starts off with the guy that's had the most success," Ray said. "Nobody on our team can be cocky if the best guy on the team doesn't think he's better than anyone else. He doesn't look for any special treatment. All three of our seniors are going to be right there from the start making sure everyone is doing what they are supposed to to win."
While it sounds like this is basically Northern's championship to lose, Ray quickly admitted that his team's dominance in the regular season doesn't always mean success at nationals.
"Strange things can happen at national tournaments," Ray said. "We've been a part of different scenarios and surprises. We need to come out in the first round and set the tone early with some majors and pins and get rolling."
Northern will receive tough competition from perennial powers Missouri Valley, Lindenwood, Southern Oregon and William Penn. Still, none of those teams can even compare with the number of ranked wrestlers that Northern suits up.
Ray firmly believes eight of his 12 wrestlers could be in the finals come Saturday night, which would more than take care of the team title.
"There is no reason that we can't have eight guys in the finals," Ray said. "Those guys are horses and have wrestled against the top competition all season. If we take care of ourselves individually and wrestle to our capabilities, then the team title will take care of itself."
And the team title is what's most important to his team, according to Ray.
"You'll always remember the team title," Ray said. "This team is so focused on winning the team title, if one of them happens to lose in the semifinals, they will do anything it takes to come back and fight to get third because we know third gets just as many points as a second.
"Whatever happens, as long as we go out and wrestle as aggressive and as hard as we can, I won't be disappointed," Ray said. "How can you be disappointed if you leave everything on the mat?"
133 - Caleb Schaeffer and Chris Smith are not only roommates but are the top two in the weight class. Schaeffer edged Smith in Northern regional finals, and a rematch in the NAIA finals is possible. Schaeffer has been on a mission all season after a disappointing performance last season at nationals.
141 - Joc Muir certainly has the capabilities of being an All-American, Ray said. Muir has wrestled the fewest varsity matches of any wrestler on the roster, but has shown flashes of brilliance.
149 - Anthony Haukenberry is one of several wrestlers who can win the title in this balanced division. Haukenberry is very big for a 149-pounder and will have a tough second-round match with Southern Oregon's Colin Murphy.
157 - Another weight class where Northern could have two finalists. Stryder Davis and Ryan Hall met in the regional finals, with Davis winning by a point. Davis is technically proficient and can be dominant. Hall is more explosive and, although he's unknown to many people in the NAIA, Ray believes that people will remember Hall after this weekend.
165 - Aaron Jensen comes into this tournament wrestling well. According to Ray, the key for Jensen is maintaining his aggressiveness at all times and wrestle with the belief that he is good enough to be among the top of the weight class.
174 - Jesse Juarez and David Waters will both be solid competitors in this division. Juarez has the potential to be in the finals but must find some consistency. Waters is a dangerous wrestler who is a headlock away from pinning his opponent. His recent versatility will make him even tougher.
184 - Kyle Fisher is looking for the perfect ending to a brilliant wrestling career. The Havre native has placed second the last two years and is the favorite at 184. Ray wants Fisher to come out aggressively early and dominate his opponents with his variety of attacks.
197 - Willson really needs no explanation. He will be in the finals unless there's some freak occurrence or the building crumbles. He could very well face teammate Mazi Burke, who is as talented a wrestler as there is in the tourney.