By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
After a trip to scenic Cleveland in January, the Hi-Line seems like a tropical paradise for the Montana State University-Northern wrestling team.
The Lights gladly return to home to the friendly confines of the MSU-Northern gym for a special night of wrestling, following Sunday's NWCA Cliff Keen National Duals in Cleveland.
As has been the case several years, the Northern wrestling team will combine with the Havre High wrestling team for a night of singlets, single-leg takedowns and solid wrestling action. The Ponies will host CMR at 6:15 p.m., while Northern will cap off the night, hosting North Idaho College at 8 p.m.
"It should be a fun night," Ray said. "We're expecting a great crowd with the good weather we've been having."
While the night will be fun for local wrestling fans, it won't be easy for the local teams competing, particularly the Lights.
North Idaho comes into tonight's dual ranked No.1 in the NJCAA with a sparkling 15-1 dual record.
The Cardinals only loss of the season came on Jan. 15 in Missoula. NIC fell to Dickinson State 24-20.
While one of Northern's three dual losses on the season also came at the hands of the Bluehawks, Ray is still positive and believes his wrestlers are too.
"I think it gives us confidence," Ray said. "We know that we weren't even close to full strength when we lost to Dickinson, and now we are."
Indeed, Northern wasn't even full strength at Sunday's duals as second-ranked Jesse Juarez missed the trip with a bad back. While Juarez' back issues aren't completely resolved, he is healthy enough to suit up tonight, which Ray sees as a big positive.
"Getting Jesse back is big," Ray said. "He makes our lineup stronger in the later weights."
But that won't be the only return of the night. North Idaho's 125-pounder Jeff Hedges makes his return to Havre after a standout career with the Ponies.
"That's a tough match to start off with," Ray said. "A lot of people will be cheering for him."
Hedges, a two-time state champion for the Ponies, is ranked fifth in the NJCAA this season.
He will be facing freshman Zach Morgan, who is coming off an 0-3 showing at the national duals.
"We can't give up a major right away," Ray said. "The last thing we want to do is give them early momentum in the dual and let them get some confidence."
Ray's lineup will be basically the same as the national duals, but there could be a change midway through if he doesn't like the way things are going.
"We could change some things," Ray said. "If I think we need to, I may move Dale Seley into the lineup and move some people."
In that scenario, Seley, who wrestled in the 165-pound in the first semester, would move into 165 slot and wrestle freshman Mike Rogers. Seley has been largely inactive with the varsity, having dropped to 157 and behind No.1-ranked Stryder Davis. Normal 165-pounder Aaron Jensen will bump a weight to 174 and face Josh Erickson.
"It really just depends on everything is going," Ray said. "Seley is comfortable at 165 and Jensen would be fine at 174."
However, Ray really hopes to not have to make the switch, preferring to go with his normal lineup.
"I really think if we wrestled like we did at the national duals, we should be fine," he said.
It may seem strange, considering that the Lights finished with a 1-2 record. However, those two losses came against two of the best teams in the country and the lineup was missing Juarez.
"I'm looking for consistency, confidence and steady improvement from them," Ray said. "We have to find ways to win when we get down in matches, especially late. We need to take risks and score points and find ways to win, because that's what we'll have to do at the national tournament."
Ray wants that mentality to start with the NIC dual.
One thing his team can't do is look past to the Cardinals to Sunday's duals with Boise State and Cal State Fullerton.
"We're going to have to work for every win," Ray said. "We can't go in there and wrestle like we did against UGF and expect to win."
Still, he really doesn't expect his team to come out flat.
"They know there is going to be a big crowd and I think they are excited to wrestle in front of it," he said. "
125 - Morgan is 6-14 on the season and will face a very tough match from fellow freshman Hedges. Besides having the home fans on his side, Hedges will look to continue a solid freshman campaign. He had solid a showing at the prestigious Cliff Keen NWCA Las Vegas Invitational where he finished with a 2-2 record.
133 - No. 1-ranked Brian Luna will take on sophomore Cody Nicholson. Luna hasn't been beaten all season with a perfect 22-0 record. Nicholson hasn't been on varsity much this season as Justin Pearch spent most of the time this season there.
141 - Northern's Chris Smith will continue to wrestle up a weight while being ranked No. 2 at 133. He will also be facing a former 133-pounder in Pearch, who battled making weight all season. Despite the weight issue, Pearch was still ranked No. 2 in NJCAA at 133. He redshirted last season because of a broken ankle but finished fifth at the NJCAA national tournament in 2003.
149 - Pearch's move to 141 also forced normal 141-pounder Derek Klipperberg, who was ranked No. 1 at 141 and finished third at last year's NJCAA national tourney, to move up. Northern's Dustyn Azure was 1-2 at the national duals, but lost a very tough and controversial match. This should be one of the best matches of the dual.
157 - Northern's Stryder Davis is coming off a performance befitting his No.1 ranking. Davis dominated competition at the national duals and will try do the same against either freshman Mike Rogers or freshman Jack Carney. Rogers is ranked fifth in the NJCAA at 157.
165 - Jensen or Seley will get former two-time Montana state champion Josh Erickson of Libby. Erickson finished with a high school record of 128-18. Jensen was 2-1 at the national duals including a two wins over ranked opponents. Seley finished sixth at the Orange City Invitational in Iowa last weekend.
174 - Either normal 174-pounder Ryan Mattingly or Jensen will take on sophomore returning All-American Kyle Frawley, who finished fourth at last year's NJCAA national tournament. Frawley is ranked No. 1 at the weight.
184 - Second-ranked Juarez will make his return against against sophomore Josh Edmondson, who is ranked fifth in the NJCAA. Juarez last wrestled in a dual against the University of Mary on Jan. 12 when he injured an already aching back.
197 - Freshman Brian Fritchman will have his hands full with freshman Evan Mattingly, who is younger brother of Northern's Ryan Mattingly. Fritchman, normally either a 174 or 184-pounder, has been wrestling up and has had tough times against much stronger opponents. Evan Mattingly is two-time Washington state champ. He is replacing three-time Montana state champion Jake Kallestad of Belgrade, who was declared academically ineligible for the spring semester.
HWT - Northern's Chase Gormley will take on freshman Garrett Johnson, who ranked fifth in the NJCAA. Gormley, ranked fifth in NAIA, is coming off a 1-2 showing in Cleveland, including a heartbreaking overtime loss to second-ranked Gilbert Jones in which he wrestled a total of 11 minutes with numerous overtimes.
MSU-Northern vs. North Idaho College
125 - Zach Morgan, FR vs. Jeff Hedges, FR
133 - Brian Luna, SR vs. Cody Nicholson, SO
141 - Chris Smith, SO vs. Justin Pearch, SO
149 - Dustyn Azure, SR vs. Derek Kipperberg, SO
157 - Stryder Davis, SR vs. Mike Rogers, FR
165 - Aaron Jensen, JR vs. Josh Erickson, FR
174 - Ryan Mattingly, JR vs. Kyle Frawley, SP
184 - Jesse Juarez, JR vs. Josh Edmondson, FR
197 - Brian Fritchman, FR vs. Evan Mattingly, FR
HWT - Chase Gormley, JR vs. Garrett Johnson, FR