And just like that, the postseason is here. But this postseason is a little bit different for the Montana State University-Northern wrestling team.
On Saturday, the Lights will be in Prescott, Ariz., for the Western regional, the final qualifier for the NAIA national tournament, which will be in two weeks. And while the Lights might not be favored to bring home the top spot on Saturday, or a national championship, third-year head coach Tyson Thivierge’s team is in a much better spot than it was last season when the Lights hosted the regional tournament, and even much more solid then the year Thivierge took over the program.
In other words, the Lights are good and they are getting better. And it should show this weekend at the regional tournament where Northern took fourth behind Southern Oregon, UGF and Embry-Riddle last year. This year, the Lights are rated third in the region but were ranked second much of the year. UGF is rated the top team and is ranked sixth in the NAIA, while SOU is rated second and is ranked 10th in the NAIA. Behind the Lights in the group rating are Melon College, host Embry-Riddle, Simon Fraser and Minot State, which is new to the region this year.
And the Lights have individual firepower to heat things up this weekend as well. At 149 pounds, Anthony Weerheim has lost just once this season and is a heavy favorite to capture a regional title on Saturday. And at 184, former Havre High star Evan Hinebauch is ranked No. 2 and hasn’t lost to any opponent beside UGF’s top-ranked Michael French since December. Overall French has beaten Hinebauch four times this season and the two will almost certainly meet in the regional championship. Also ranked for the Lights is Max Payne at 174 pounds and Rudy Schaffroth at heavyweight. Both should do very well this weekend, as should freshman Cameron Neiss at 133 pounds, wrestling in his first regional tournament.
Things are also less tense for the Lights this year than they were last because Northern has already pre qualified an outstanding national tournament team, including Neiss, Brandon Leliefeld (141), Weerheim, Cody Miller (157) Tay Todd (157), Jared Miller (165), Payne, Hinebauch, Kody Reed (HWT) and Schaffroth.
"So far this season we tend to get our best results at tournaments, so I am looking for these guys to build some momentum heading into nationals in two weeks," Thivierge said. "We’ve preached to them all week that they can not look past this tournament because they are already qualified. We need to have a solid performance here to see what we need extra work on in the weeks leading up to the National tournament."
Northern will hope to get a few more wrestlers through to nationals this weekend, including former Harlem standout Chase Dirden, who’s missed much of the season at 125 pounds with an injury. Gary Anthony will also wrestle at 165 pounds hoping to earn a spot in the national tournament, which runs March 3-5 in Iowa.
"Each guy has a great chance this weekend and anything can happen," Thivierge said. "We look forward to stepping on the mat and putting together a great performance and building on what we have accomplished this season."
The 2011 Western regional will start Saturday morning and run just one day. The tournament is hosted by Embry-Riddle.
The top four in each weight class earn a berth in the NAIA national tournament next month.
Former Havre High star Myles Mazurkiewicz is also competing this weekend for UGF.