By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
It doesn't seem like that long ago that head coach David Ray and his Montana State University-Northern wrestling team were lifting the 2004 NAIA national championship trophy above their heads in celebration at the Great Falls High Field House.
It certainly doesn't feel like a year.
My, how time flies when you are defending a national championship.
Ray and the Lights will try to make it two straight team titles starting today when they open the 2005 NAIA National Wrestling Championships at the Sioux City Events Center in Sioux City, Iowa.
"I can't believe it's here already," Ray said. "It seems like we were having this same conversation last week, not last year. The season has gone by super fast."
Of course, Ray wasn't always saying that during what has been at times a tumultuous and unprecedented regular season.
"It's been an interesting season," he said with more than a hint of sarcasm. "We've gone through a few different things this year."
In the beginning, it looked as if the only question concerning the Lights' title hopes wasn't would they win, but instead by how much.
With a wealth of returning talent, including two returning individual champs and some solid recruits, Ray thought a title would be a given.
"If you looked at our team at the beginning of the season based on talent and potential alone, I thought it was one of the strongest we've had since I've coached here," he said.
Unfortunately, talent and potential only went so far.
Shortly before Christmas, things really started to unravel. With four varsity-level wrestlers unable to compete in the fall semester, Northern had to scrap its way early on and even suffered an uncharacteristic home dual loss to Dickinson State on Dec. 17.
Things only got worse. Shortly thereafter, Ray kicked defending 141-pound national champion Anthony Haukenberry off the team, citing attitude and disciplinary problems. Shortly thereafter, he asked 197-pounder Mazi Burke to make similar changes before the spring semester. Burke, instead, decided to leave the team shortly after the Christmas break.
"I don't know many teams that would basically kick off a defending national champ, and another wrestler with more than enough talent to be a national champ," he said. "But those were decisions I felt were necessary and I don't regret them for a second."
The sudden changes took some adjusting and lineup changing for Ray. Consequently, there were some ups and downs in the spring. However, he feels that it still was for the best.
"The attitude of this team has been fantastic," he said. "We have guys that are focused on their individual goals as well as our team goals."
And the team goals haven't changed. It's always a national championship. Still, Ray, ever the realist, knows it will take some monumental performances.
"I really look at Lindenwood and Missouri Valley as the two teams to beat," he said. "They have us ranked No. 2 ahead of Missouri Valley, but I think they may have a better tournament team with a little better depth. We're really going to have people wrestle the best they have all season to have a chance to win the team title."
But the tourney is far from a three-team race, as Ray counts Dana College, William Penn and Cumberland College as teams that will score plenty of team points.
"There are a lot of good teams in this tournament," Ray said. "I think it's going to be a close race with any team capable of getting on a roll and winning it."
Northern's championship hopes took another hit when 133-pounder Chris Smith went down with a nasty knee injury late in the year, which ended his season
indefinitely. Smith finished second to teammate Caleb Schaeffer in last year's national tourney, and Ray was looking for a similar performance this season.
"Losing Smith really hurt us in terms of depth," Ray said. "We really felt like we could have him and Brian Luna in the finals at 133 pounds. That's a lot of points that the other wrestlers are going to have to pick up."
That idea is the key to the Lights' championship hopes. Northern must have each of its 12 wrestlers score team points in some way.
"It has to be a total team effort if we want to contend," Ray said. "We need points from every one of them, whether it's placement points or bonus points. Even if they don't place, we need some majors and pins to get those bonus points."
A year ago, Northern had five individual champions. While several wrestlers are capable, there are very few guarantees, perhaps just two - Luna at 133 and
Stryder Davis at 157.
"You look at those two as locks for the finals," Ray said. "But the rest of them have some tough matches to get there. I know each one of them has set individual goals and we need to wrestle to or above those expectations."
And should any of his wrestlers lose early, Ray wants them to remember that they still aren't out of the tourney.
"We need to score points in the wrestle-backs if we do lose," he said. "They have to remember to come back and wrestle hard not just for themselves, but for the team, if we are going to have any chance of winning."
If it seems like an uphill battle, it's a battle that Ray and his wrestlers relish.
"I really like the attitude of the 12 guys we have going," Ray said. "They are very focused and mentally ready to go. This is the entire season right here. All of that other stuff doesn't mean a thing because this is what you work all season for - this weekend."
Here's a look at the individual weights:
125 - Freshman Mike McPeak has an extremely tough draw. He will face Michael Copeland in the first
round. If he wins, he will get the luxury of facing the No. 1-ranked wrestler in the country in Lindenwood's Andrew Bradbury.
"We just need McPeak to worry about getting through
that first one match. Then we'll worry about facing Bradbury," Ray said.
133 - Senior transfer and No. 1-ranked Brian Luna is the odds-on favorite to win the title at 133. He has been dominant since becoming elgible this spring, losing just one match to an NCAA Division I opponent. His first real test will come in the quarterfinals with a possible matchup with Brad Cooper of Cumberland.
"Luna's on a mission," Ray said. "He's very focused and determined."
141 - Freshman Dan Shaw got one of the toughest draws in the tournament with a possible second-round matchup with Dana College's Jason Lozier, who finished second last season. Lozier dislocated his elbow a few weeks ago and struggled at regionals, but is still a solid wrestler.
"Shaw's got a tough match with Josh Sorum in first round," Ray said. "Sorum is no pushover. He's a solid kid. Shaw's first two matches could be very tough."
149 - Senior Dustyn Azure finds himself in one of the toughest weight classes in the tournament. He will open with Lewis Settle in the first round, which should be a win. Still, Azure has the No. 3, 6, 7 and 8 wrestlers on his side of the bracket.
"It's the toughest weight division in the tournament," Ray said. "There are so many solid individuals. Dustyn is going to have to wrestle exceptionally well."
157 - Northern places two wrestlers in this division. Senior and defending champ Stryder Davis is the overwhelming favorite, having spent the entire season at No. 1. Teammate sophomore Dale Seley will have his work cut out for him with a very tough draw.
Davis has a bye into the second round where he will most likely face Brian Seibel of Southern Oregon. He could face fifth-ranked Billy James in the semifinals.
Seley will face John Wilcox in the first round and most likely see a good wrestler in Rich Vigorito in the second round.
"I'm not really worried about Stryder," Ray said. "He knows what he has to do to win. Seley has a tough match with Vigorito. I'm pretty worried about that match."
165 - Junior Aaron Jensen has definite All-American aspirations after a solid regular season. He will get a bye in the first round and face Antonio Duarte of Dakota Wesleyan. Jensen's first test could be against No. 1-ranked Leister Bowling in the semifinals.
"Jensen's sitting good," Ray said. "He should be seeing Bowling in the semifinals. And there is no reason he can't beat him. I believe he can; he just has to believe it. He needs to be confident in his abilities."
174 - Northern will also double up in this weight as sophomore David Waters and junior Ryan Mattingly will go for the Lights. Waters was an All-American last year at 184 and he will face the guy he beat to earn that honor, James Bunch of Lindenwood, in the second round. Mattingly will most likely face Todd Allen of Cumberland in the second round.
"They are both capable of scoring points for us," Ray said.
184 - The Lights have two wrestlers at this weight as senior Jesse Juarez and freshman Brian Fritchman will compete. Juarez is a definite favorite to win the title in this division. He will face Webster Farris of Dana College in the second round. Fritchman will face fifth-ranked Blair Alderman of Dana College.
"There is no question Jesse has the talent to win the title," Ray said. "He has to learn to fight and scrap. He's going to probably see David O'Brien, which will be a tough match.
"Fritchman has a tough match to start with, but I think he will be much more comfortable at this weight."
HWT - Junior Chase Gormley finds himself in a very tough heavyweight division. Gormley has a bye in the first round and should face No. 1-ranked Roger Miller in the semifinals. Gormley lost to Miller 5-3 earlier in the season. For Gormley, it will take a solid weekend to win a national title.
"The heavyweight division always has some tough individuals," Ray said. "But this year there are at least 10 or 12 good wrestlers. Chase is going to have to wrestle well."