Havre Daily News sports editor
The Montana State University-Northern wrestling team is part of one of the most storied program's in NAIA wrestling history.
The Lights have the third most national team championships in NAIA history with six. Northern also has the third most individual national champions with 27.
But when MSU-N begins wrestling today at the 2006 NAIA national championships in Sioux City, IA, things will be much different than they have ever been before.
Northern has had an up-and-down season under first-year head coach Dan Troupe. The Lights lost their stranglehold on the Northern Region, where they finished third two weeks ago in Jamestown, ND. And, MSU-N is sending its smallest contingent of wrestlers to the national tournament in some time.
With just 10 wrestlers making the trip to Iowa, the unranked Lights are no longer a serious contender for a team championship, at least in the minds of the experts. Northern doesn't have a single competitor ranked at any weight class this week. The Lights are also sending just one regional champion to the tournament.
Still, playing the roll of underdog isn't necessarily a bad thing. MSU-N won its last national title in 2004, but the season before that, the Lights were favored to win it all in Great Falls, and instead they were upstaged and wound up finishing third. So, making noise at this year's tournament isn't out of the question.
Another problem for the Lights is their lack of national tournament experience. Only junior Chris Smith and senior Aaron Jensen have substantial national tourney mat time.
Smith was a national runner-up in 2004, finishing second to teammate Caleb Schaeffer at 133 pounds. Jensen is making his third straight national tournament appearance. He finished one match away from being an all-american last year.
Other than Jensen and Smith, Northern is a very young and inexperienced team at the national level. But they are not devoid of talent.
Jensen has been ranked in the 165-pound weight class for much of the season and he is expected to contend for a national championship this weekend. Jensen has a bye in the first round of the tournament.
Smith is also a national championship contender, especially given his past performance at the national tournament, and the fact that he is healthy for the first time in almost two years. Smith also has a bye in the first round of the 141-pound weight class, but he will likely face sixth-ranked Gordo Villeascusa of Embry-Riddle University in the second round.
The Lights have the benefit of starting two wrestlers at 133 , 174 and 184 pounds which means if all of their wrestlers wrestle well, they could make up a lot of ground in the team standings in just three weight classes.
At 133 pounds, the Lights send out Colt Heger and Mike McPeak. Heger placed second at the Northern Regional and is one of the Lights' hottest wrestlers coming into today's tournament. Heger will face Robbie Gross of McKendree College in the opening round.
McPeak has also come on strong as of late. He finished third at regionals and will face Xavier Gomez of Cumberland University in the first round.
Northern has two very capable, but young, wrestlers at 174 pounds. Emory Willson and Colter Dimas finished third and fourth, respectively at regionals. Willson, who is the younger brother of three-time NAIA national champion Emmett Willson, will square off against Brandon Wyms of McKendree in the the first round. Dimas has a first-round bye, and he will match up with fifth-ranked Jake Stevenson of Morningside College in round two.
At 184 pounds, Northern will send out freshman Chad Seely and senior Ryan Mattingly. Seely, a former Havre High standout, finished fourth at regionals and has a first-round bye. Mattingly has a difficult first-round assignment against second-ranked and defending national champion Joffre Lander of Embry-Riddle.
Rounding out the Lights' roster is junior Kole Tolliver at 157 pounds and sophomore Brian Fritchman at 197 pounds.
Despite being unranked, Tolliver captured the 157-pound Northern Regional championship, and he should be looked at as an all-american candidate this weekend. Tolliver will face Josh Boggs of Cumberlands, Ky in the first round.
Fritchman, who has wrestled at heavyweight for a good portion of the season, could be a dark horse at 197 pounds. He will face Ben Laux of McKendree in the first round.
While the Lights aren't being looked at as a national championship contender outside of Havre, this year's NAIA tournament is fairly wide open.
With very few individual national champions returning, and a host of teams with the depth and talent to win it all, the team title is certainly up for grabs.
Serious contenders for the team championship include top-ranked Dana College as well as Northern Regional champion Dickinson State University. Perrenial NAIA powerhouse Menlo College is also in the hunt yet again, as is second-year program The University of Great Falls.
The 49th annual NAIA national wrestling tournament gets under way today at the Tyson Events Center/Gateway Arena in Sioux City, IA. The tournament will conclude with the championship round on Saturday night.