Havre Daily News Sports Editor
While the wrestling legacy at Montana State University-Northern will go on well into the future, a major part of its foundation is saying goodbye.
After 12 extremely successful seasons of guiding the Lights wrestling program, head coach David Ray submitted his letter of resignation to Northern Chancellor Alex Capdeville this week. Ray, along with his wife, Kim Ray, who is the head cross country coach at Havre High School, have taken positions at a school in Alaska.
Although it may be a surprise to some in Havre, those close to wrestling have heard rumors of his possible departure as early as spring, following the Lights' fourth-place finish at the NAIA national wrestling tournament in Sioux City, Iowa.
''I've been thinking about this for three years,'' Ray said.
"We kind of knew it was a possibility," said Lights senior Aaron Jensen. "It's still kind of sad to see him go. He's really built this program into something great."
During Ray's tenure at Northern, he helped return the Lights to the forefront of NAIA wrestling with his intense and demanding style. The discipline he demands isn't for everyone, but those who embrace it know it leaves a lasting impact on them.
"It can be hard at times," Jensen said. "But you learn a lot about work ethic, and it doesn't just carry over to the mat, but also in your life outside of wrestling."
The intensity, the discipline and the enthusiasm within the program have propelled the Lights to unsurpassed success in NAIA wrestling in the past 10 years.
Ray's teams captured the coveted and prestigious NAIA national team title four times, most recently in 2004 in Great Falls. The Lights also went on a run of three straight, winning championships from 1998 to 2000.
Northern finished second in 2002 and third in 2003 and 1997.
At the regional level, Northern has simply dominated, winning the last eight straight Northern Regional Tournament titles.
In dual matches, Ray's teams were equally as dominant, racking up an impressive 137-39-4 record, including a 15-4 record this past season.
Besides team success, Ray's wrestlers have also enjoyed individual success, winning 21 national titles. Lights wrestlers have dominated throughout each and every weight class,with 85 athletes earning All-American honors.
"He gets you to go out and compete as hard as you can for the program," Jensen said. "He really motivates you to wrestle as hard as possible for the entire match. I've been with him four years and he's made me so much better as a wrestler."
The Lights' wrestling success has been a source of pride for the campus and the community And Ray has been a big part of that.
"He's meant a great deal to Northern," Capdeville said. "He'll be difficult to replace. He's a great motivator and gets the maximum out of his athletes."
The task of replacing Ray will begin immediately. Capdeville said the job has been advertised and a search committee, most likely headed by athletics director Byron Ophus, will be formed.
"The main thing is that we find someone that will be successful," Capdeville said. "Having such a strong program should produce some good candidates that want to coach here."
Always faithful to his team, Ray went out and brought in a solid recruiting class of more than 15 wrestlers despite having thoughts of leaving.
"It's a credit to David," Capdeville said. "He wants the program to succeed. He went out and still recruited very hard even though he was contemplating leaving."
While wrestling is a main focus on the Northern campus and in the area, Ray has seen programs such as the University of Montana-Western lose funding and fold up. Ray has faced budget cuts nearly every year and watched as his team bounced around from practice room to practice room on campus.
"I don't know that we always put adequate resources into the program and he still got by," Capdeville said. "He put as much personal effort and time into the program under not always the best circumstances."
Still, Capdeville wasn't surprised to see Ray step down.
"It's inevitable when you've been in one place for so long to look for a change," Capdeville said. "He wanted to be around his kids. You can only travel and be away like that for so long."
Ray's family includes son Taylor, 6, and daughters Alexiss, 4, and Michelle, 3.
''I'm tired of raising other people's kids. I want to raise my own ... I want my weekends back," he said. "And I want to spend more time with my three little ones.''
Ray didn't just give his time to the wrestling program, but to the school and athletics department. He was a tireless worker for both.
"He was out in the community working hard," Capdeville said. "If there was any type of fund-raiser, he was there."
Before coming to Northern, Ray was a graduate assistant coach at the University of Iowa for three years, assistant at Division III Simpson College for two years and served as a high school assistant coach for two seasons. During his prep and collegiate wrestling careers, he compiled a 198-21 record prior to coming to Northern.
Northern isn't the only school losing a solid coach. Ray's wife, Kim, will also be sorely missed in the Havre High athletics department. She helped build the Blue Pony cross country team into a perennial power in Class A.
"Kim will be very difficult to replace," said HHS athletics director Dennis Murphy. "Not only does she have the knowledge, but she has physical ability. She was able to lead by example."
This past season, she helped lead the Ponies to the Class A state title in Helena. It was her second state title in her time with the Ponies. In 2000, she led Havre to its first state cross country title in 10 years.
Under her direction, the Ponies have won the last five Central A divisional titles, while placing second at state in 2003 and fourth in 2001 and 2002.
"The kids under her tutelage really bought into what she taught, which made them very successful," Murphy said. "She had the ability to get an average or mediocre runner to a higher level. She also got the girls to understand a team concept of cross country. I don't know that we've had any really outstanding individual runners, but we've had some outstanding teams."
Information from The Associated Press was used in this story.