By George Ferguson
It is hard to believe that with all the great teams and all the great athletes in and around the Havre community, that this past weekend in Great Falls presented my first opportunity to cover a championship team from our coverage area.
Thanks to the Montana State University-Northern Lights wrestling team, and a couple of professors who take strict attendance at school, I finally had the opportunity to cover and write about a championship team and it turned out to be everything I hoped it would be.
The Lights' return to the top of the NAIA national wrestling scene was something that I, as a writer and a complete sports nut, enjoyed watching and reporting on very much.
Don't get me wrong, covering a wrestling tournament from start to finish is not easy. It almost requires eyes - if not in the back of your head - at least on each side of it. It also requires an extreme amount of patience as you have to jump through a myriad of hoops in order to obtain some of the vital information needed to keep an accurate account of the goings on over the course of two days.
But all the running around, all the standing up and sitting down are forgotten now. Instead, my memories of this past weekend in the Swarthout Fieldhouse in Great Falls will be of triumph and sportsmanship, of seeing pride in individual accomplishments being completely overshadowed by one word. Team.
Yes, not only was the MSU-Northern wrestling team the class of the 2004 NAIA wrestling tournament on the mat. They crowned five individual champions and had a total of eight All-Americans. But they were far and away the class of the tournament off the mat as well, and it starts with their head coach, David Ray.
One thing is certain, when you get to this level of wrestling, the referees come under a lot of scrutiny. It as the same as the Super Bowl or the Final Four. But in wrestling one single mistake by an official can seemingly decide a match without any repercussions. This weekend I saw a lot of referee bashing and none of it came from Ray.
That isn't to say that there weren't questionable moments in matches involving Lights' wrestlers. But one thing I have learned about David Ray in my brief stints covering the Lights is that he is a professional. He comes from a very strong lineage of wrestling coaches and all weekend he exemplified how any coach should conduct himself, even in the intense pressure cooker of trying to win a national championship.
Then there were the Northern wrestlers themselves. In an increasing world of showmanship and one-upsmanship, the Lights' wrestlers were as composed as any team or individual athlete I have seen after achieving such a lofty accomplishment.
While other competitors were taunting each other, being disqualified from the tournament, or arguing with officials all weekend, the Lights' wrestlers went about their business in a businesslike way.
And it all starts with their anchor, senior Emmett Willson.
What impresses me most about Willson is that he really could showboat a little, but doesn't. The majority of fans were there to watch him dismantle four opponents on his way to a perfect 50-0 record and a third straight title. And he did all of that.
But Willson actually deserves bringing a little attention to himself because he is that good. This past season he has widely been regarded as the best collegiate 197-pounder in America, not just NAIA, in the entire country. That statement alone would give Willson the right to strut a little.
But that just isn't Emmett and it never will be. He is plenty proud of his accomplishments, but this past weekend he ended his remarkable career by conducting himself in the same manner that he has since day one. It is very rare to be that good and that humble at the same time. For many people it would be difficult to keep your ego in check. But not for Emmett.
Don't forget about Kyle Fisher and Caleb Schaeffer. Two Northern standout wrestlers who have been close to the top since they first appeared on the national tournament stage four years ago.
Both of them have experienced some very tough disappointments in this tournament before they finally won the coveted individual titles they had worked so hard for. Still, all either of them could talk about afterwards was their team.
Schaeffer was in a very tough situation because he had to beat his freshman roommate, Chris Smith, for the 133-pound title. After his 7-5 win over Smith, talked about the respect he had for his young counterpart and how much the team title meant to him. I couldn't get him to talk about himself for even one minute of the interview.
Fisher also had a team-first mentality. It would be understandable for Fisher to brag a little. The hometown kid from Havre, who was close to a national title the past two years, finally got it done in front of family and friends. It's a pretty nice ending to his career, but in his moment of triumph, he spoke more of the team title and what it meant to help win it for the school and the town of Havre.
If there was a situation when I really expected some serious celebrating this weekend, it might have come from Stryder Davis or Anthony Haukenberry.
I don't say that in a negative way. It is just that neither of them had been to this level before and you expect some serious elation when your dreams are realized. Especially from Haukenberry, who had to come from behind late in the third period to capture the 149-pound title to cap off a brilliant sophomore season. It was also Davis' first national title after finishing third at the NJCAA national tournament last year.
But both wrestlers raised their arms, acknowledged their fans and hugged their coach after their victories. That's it. Hey, don't you guys know you just won a national title?
I saw a lot of things this past weekend in Great Falls that exemplified why sports columnists love to bash on athletes in newspapers across this country every morning.
And none of that came from the Lights' squad. MSU-Northern was a class act on and the off the mat from start to finish this weekend and I have to thank them for that.
Their triumphs at the national tournament made it one of those weekends where my job didn't really feel like a job at all.
NAIA championship banner ceremony slated for Thursday
The Montana State University-Northern wrestling team will be honored during a championship banner hanging ceremony Thursday at 4 p.m. at the Donaldson Commons, instead of the MSU-Northern gym as had been planned.
The ceremony is open to the public and refreshments will be served. A three-minute highlights video of the national championship will kick off the ceremony.
The banner will take its place among the five banners currently hanging in the gym to represent the six national championships that the wrestlers have won.
During the presentation, the campus will give special recognition to the coaches, wrestlers and key individuals who have helped make this year's team a success.
Photos of the championship matches and awards presentations are available upon request. Contact Jim Potter at 265-3727 or at firstname.lastname@example.org